Advice for a people-pleaser

“How do I have more *control* over how I spend my time?”

Welcome to the 32nd issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Last week: Joseph Conrad on a truly awful case of writer’s block. This week: the latest installment of my monthly advice column.

Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

My question is how do I have more *control* over how I spend my time?

Getting things done isn’t a problem for me. I am highly productive in terms of words produced, pieces published, tasks achieved, deadlines met—but it’s a bit like I am a highly efficient machine, where I prioritise well and tick them off one by one. My “wants”—including eating, sometimes! But more broadly: writing a book—don’t factor in this triage process. It’s like I just can’t convince my brain that stopping to eat, or carving out an hour a day to work on a novel, or exercise, is as CRUCIAL and important as doing work (for other people/for money—I can’t tell which is more important).

Relatedly: I am not so great at getting things done within a specific window. I might say “I’m just going to spend a few hours on this project I’m not that interested in, and no more” but then I get sucked in and tend to spend as much as I think it needs. I think this is the flipide of the former problem—that I am easily led by what seems to be the most “objectively” pressing thing to be done and then stick at it until it’s finished. (Then start, immediately, on the next one.)

Things like the Pomodoro method don’t work because I just don’t respect the timer. When I say I am going to write on my novel for just 30 minutes every day it doesn’t seem urgent enough for me to actually do it, not against the things I “need” to do. It might be a lack of self-discipline, or it might be that I just work in sprints. (Also writing a book is really hard when you have been conditioned by digital media to expect DOPAMINE REWARDS every 2–3 days.) Or is it *most* likely that I put others’ needs (employer-imposed obligations) above my own as a people-pleaser?

In any case, I recognise that this is bad—not putting myself first, not prioritising joy or long-term projects or exploration. I just can’t attach the same weight to “me stuff” as I do for external stuff. It’s a bit like I have this idea that I will “clear my plate” before I get to all that. And that’s no way to live, right? —Elle in London

Dear Elle,

What a great and difficult question! First of all, I want to say that your self-diagnosis—that as a people-pleaser you chronically put others’ needs ahead of your own—seems pretty accurate. As a fellow people-pleaser, I can relate! Fortunately, there is hope for us both. Last week I happened to listen to an episode of the NPR podcast Life Kit all about people-pleasing that I found quite insightful, and that I think could provide a useful lens for viewing your dilemma.

The episode’s core insight is that people-pleasing is not a personality type but a habit. And habits can be changed. Better yet, this is an area where even a small change can make a big difference. “If you can even cut back on people-pleasing, you will find that life is very different for you very, very quickly,” the podcast’s guest, Natalie Lue, says. “For me, I’m in my forties, and I feel like I’ve entered a phase in my life where I care less and less about what people think or what people expect of me. . . . It feels so good.”

Lue goes on to say that people-pleasing is very often a coping mechanism that individuals learn in childhood and then just carry on doing as adults. And, she says:

The thing about survival and coping mechanisms that we’ve learned in childhood is that they become maladaptive—we’re not supposed to continue on with it in adulthood. So here we are, like, “Oh, well, I’ve got all the way through childhood into adulthood with this. This is how I get my brownie points, this is how I avoid this and that.” And then it becomes this habit of diminishing returns.

That may be a good way to think of your trouble putting yourself first: a habit of diminishing returns. So how do you change this habit? A good start is simply being aware of it as such, and resolving to change. The next time you find yourself on the verge of skipping lunch in order to do work for someone else, think of it as an opportunity. Instead of saying to yourself, I’m a people-pleaser, what can I do? you could say something like this: Because I have a bad habit of putting others’ needs ahead of my own, I’m going to stop work right now and eat lunch.

You can use that same language when you arrive at the hour you set aside for working on your novel: Because I have a bad habit of putting others’ needs ahead of my own, I’m going to be sure to take this hour for myself.

Succeeding at this may require you to learn some other habits, like not taking on more work than you can complete in a reasonable number of work hours, or doing a slightly-less-than-perfect job on certain assignments in order to free up time for your personal priorities. If this feels really hard, that’s OK. Adjusting even one long-standing habit is guaranteed to be uncomfortable, let alone a few at once. You should expect discomfort as well as some backsliding. That’s all fine. Try to think of it as building new muscles. (In fact, researchers have argued that willpower is a muscle.) It’s like if you were trying to go from being able to do zero push-ups to being able to do ten. Developing the muscles to do that is going to feel frustrating and uncomfortable for a while—but if you keep at it, you are guaranteed to be able to do more push-ups over time. Moreover, this process is not a referendum on your personality, your worthiness as a human, or even how much self-discipline you possess. It’s simply a matter of putting in the work.

This is true of a lot of things. If you’re trying and failing to set aside 30 minutes a day to write your novel—maybe the problem is that you “just work better in sprints.” Or maybe it’s that setting aside 30 minutes a day to write a novel is not all that easy—it’s actually kind of awful!—and you just have to keep forcing yourself to do it until it becomes a habit.

In fact, I think the way forward for you may be to think of your entire situation not as an intractable dilemma but a series of maladaptive habits. Of course, these habits aren’t totally bad—they’ve gotten you this far in life! But some of them aren’t working for you any longer, and those habits can be weeded out and replaced with better ones. Doing this will lead to what you said is your ultimate goal: to have more control over how you spend your time. But it’s not going to happen all at once, it’s going to feel uncomfortable at times, and you’ll have to keep practicing as you go.

I’ll end with a quote from Virginia Woolf (which I used as the epigraph for my second Daily Rituals book):

Habits gradually change the face of one’s life as time changes one’s physical face; & one does not know it.

I think she’s right: Most of the time we’re not aware, or only faintly aware, of the habits of thought and behavior that profoundly shape the course of our lives. The good news is that you are aware of this particular pattern in your life, and it’s something you want to remedy. I know you wrote that you “just can’t attach the same weight to ‘me stuff’ as … external stuff.” But I actually think you just can do that. Really. Rather than falling back on the premise that you “just can’t” do something, keep reminding yourself that, in fact, you’re just not in the habit of doing that thing, but you would like to be.

I realize that’s a bit vague as far as advice goes, but I honestly think that shift of mindset will be more important than any specific directives I can give you. But please do let me know either way! Genuinely, I’m curious to hear if any of the above proves useful when it comes to disrupting the people-pleasing habit and taking better control of how you spend your time.

And for those readers who have made it this far, I’d also genuinely love to hear what you think about Elle’s dilemma, especially if you are yourself a people-pleaser trying to pursue self-directed creative work. Is it all just a matter of habits that can be strategically added and subtracted one by one, or am I being hopelessly reductive in my thinking? I’ve opened a discussion thread for this question where you can leave your own thoughts and advice. Please do chime in and I’ll be reading and responding throughout the week.

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Struggling with your own creative dilemma? Email it to (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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With coronavirus upending long-established routines, should you seek out the stability of a regular schedule—or seize the opportunity to live your wildest bohemian fantasy? That’s the question I asked myself in an essay for Japan’s Anglobal Community Mart, which is now available online (in English), with delightful illustrations by Setsuko Hori.

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