Advice on impostor syndrome, procrastination, and getting to your real work
“Every time I sit down to do work, my feelings of inadequacy take over.”
Welcome to the latest installment of my monthly advice column. This time I’m tackling two questions that seemed . . . sort of related? At least, they both reminded me that sometimes it takes so much work just to get to the work.
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
Do you have any advice for getting past deep impostor syndrome and the procrastination that it fuels?
I’m a professor in the humanities and I need to finish a book for tenure, but I find that despite all my attempts to sleep well, exercise, prioritize my schedule for writing, and reduce internet access, I can’t break out of the cycle of procrastination. Every time I sit down to do work, my feelings of inadequacy take over. I keep pushing my deadlines forward because I can’t seem to commit to what’s on the page. I worry it will never be good enough and so I just delay and delay, which deepens the sense of impossibility, since it’s hard to produce good work in a shorter time frame.
How can I stay focused and commit to putting words on the page consistently? Is there a way to look at my objective achievements thus far and reassure myself that what I produce will be good enough? —Ursula in NYC
Thanks so much for writing in with this dilemma, which I think a lot of people can relate to (I know I can). Impostor syndrome, in particular, seems to be rampant these days. Out of curiosity, I did a quick Instagram poll last week and 80 percent of the people who replied said that they suffer from it. This was a very small and highly unscientific survey, but even so I found the results comforting. Like, we can’t all be impostors!
I read somewhere that the people who tend to suffer from impostor syndrome are precisely the ones who are the most competent at what they do—i.e., it’s the Lisa Simpsons of the world, not the Barts, who secretly feel like frauds in their professions. That makes sense to me. It takes someone sensitive to the nuances of a job to understand just how difficult it is to get it right, or how far their performance is from the impossible ideal they hold in their heads.
But it’s infuriating too. The people who rise to the top of their professions are, very often, people who are supremely confident in their abilities—and a lot of that confidence is misplaced! Also, a lot of that confidence tends to accrue to people in positions of privilege, especially white men. A friend of mine texted that she can lessen her feelings of imposter syndrome by “thinking about all the mediocre dudes out there thinking they are capable of so much without reflecting on their lack of experience and talent, mansplaining left and right.” Might be worth a try?