Catching Up Won’t Get You There

Catching up isn’t what you think it is.

When it comes to time and our calendars, there is this idea of “catching up” that comes up frequently among people who never quite feel complete in their day – and I’m a long-time member of this group. Over time, I’ve started to truly understand the reality of what is. One truth is, we’ll never completely catch up, at least not by the default standards we set for ourselves.

On the surface this sounds like a bad thing. What does that mean, that we’ll never catch up? Are we doomed to suboptimal productivity, to letting others down, never being able to accomplish what we want or reaching our highest potential?

Of course not. But continually trying to catch up doesn’t help.

Strategy matters, but it’s limited.

In life, we develop strategies for how we spend our time. We develop strategies to succeed in other areas of our lives too. The thing is, we make some incorrect assumptions when we engrain these strategies: we think that these processes are going to work no matter what, and that they’ll work in any situation indefinitely. This just isn’t true.

Even if we get what we want, or some of what we want, as Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t [always] get you there.” Interestingly, we aren’t conscious of the fact that we are blindly and universally implementing these time management strategies.

And, the successes that we see – even if they relate not to tangible results, but rather familiar and predictable outcomes – often keep us stuck in doing what we do. Why would we try anything new that wasn’t certain?

 
What leads us to want to catch up.

In the process then, for a multitude of reasons some of us will learn to commit ourselves to more than we have time for. Or, we lack skill in prioritizing the things that need to get done first. These two scenarios lead to a perception of unfinished tasks that set us up for wanting to “catch up.”

 
“Should” doesn’t have a place here.

Catching up means to “do work or tasks that one should have done earlier.” What an interesting definition that avoids the facts of what actually happened – that desired tasks weren’t completed, and that was all.

Even if it was theoretically possible to do the tasks sooner, who determined that it was actually realistic, or that we possessed the capability to do so? There was obviously still some learning with regard to timing, planning, committing, and executing. Therefore, in some way we didn’t have the capability. Let’s accept this without judgment, learn about what we can do better, and look forward.

Having a moral judgment that we should have done tasks earlier creates a fixed, unquestioned belief that those tasks must be finished, even now. We feel urgency to get things done. Things feel incomplete. The feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment or humiliation may come up and lead us to play “catch up.”

 
An important distinction

The thing is, we may actually have good reasons for why we want to complete those tasks. I’m not diminishing our ability to decide this. The distinction then really revolves around whether we’re rescheduling those tasks into the present due to feeling a sense of urgency or incompleteness, or whether we are feeling grounded in integrity and wholeness. The energetic outcome is completely different depending on the starting mindset.

In trying to “catch up”, the deeper emotional need is for calm and completeness. Recognizing this, we see that we can create calm and completeness whether or not we complete the original tasks on the “catch up list.” How do you think you would do that?

 
The present moment has the answers, once again.

One solution is to be grounded in the present moment as we consider our tasks. By ensuring that we look at the optional “catch up list” in this way, we’ll be more likely to decide what is still important to us and listen to our bodies when we sense we’re depleted. Not only this, but we will be more likely to identify when “catching up” is not an intentional pursuit, but rather a distraction from what we really need. In my experience, when I’ve wanted to catch up, there has almost always been a feeling of overwhelm, guilt, or incompleteness. For true healing, these emotions (and those unique to you) need to be acknowledged, accepted, and heard.   

Ultimately, the idea of “catching up” is inherently grounded in the past. This past focus causes us to miss attending to what we really need right now. Not only that but continuing to play “catch up” keeps us from fully opening up to the future possibilities that are available to us.

If you’re someone who regularly tries to “catch up,” what would need to change to no longer approach life from this mindset? What more could you create by exercising constraint and focus in your moment-to-moment commitments?

 

(updated 9/28/20)

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