There is no catching up. Only focusing forward.
I find this hard to believe. Why would the phrase even exist, if it’s not a thing?
Well, perhaps it was a thing once upon a time.
This lesson keeps coming knocking at my little cottage of a life’s door.
Over the last couple weeks, it’s been showing up again and again and I definitely haven’t been “opening the door”:
- Unsent birthday cards
- A week’s worth of dirty dishes piled up
- Two weeks worth of unread emails
And then, it really I started banging at the door when I got behind on writing:
- Weekly newsletter—that I didn’t write or send—and is supposed to go out on Mondays
Alright, alright. That’s enough. I’m opening the door wide open so this lesson can come right on in.
Teachable Moment: Do I try to catch up by sending out the newsletter later in the week? Or just skip it?
The Myth of Catching Up
The idea of catching up immediately connotes winning and losing for me, just like in a race.
Those who are behind are losing. Those who are ahead, who cross the finish line first are winning.
This win-lose mindset is a form of competition and comparison. And, many will tell you that comparison is the cousin of perfectionism. I agree.
Comparing this to that elevates one, creating it as an ideal. And idealizing is also a form of perfectionism: Seeing things the way we want them to be (often flawless) and not the way they actually are.
For instance, our ideal that life is only good when everything is done, everything is caught up.
Is it possible to catch up?
Sure in the racing analogy, it is, but it likely requires a big push of energy. Energy that might not really be available, hence the slower pace.
Likewise, to take the analogy off the race track and over to real life, not only does catching up expend a lot of energy, but it often neglects other current tasks or prep for upcoming tasks, thus creating even more of a pile up.
This creates a continuous and vicious cycle of catching up.
And, generates a survival mode that is often equated with treading water.
But one can only tread water for so long before drowning, right?
Not the desired outcome.
So, let’s consider this for a second:
Effort requires energy, so energy will be used regardless. But, catching up from behind often takes even more energy. So then, why aren’t we putting our energy into focusing forward, instead of catching up?
How to Get Caught Up
Let’s go back to the example at hand: Monday came and went and because of a series of choices and distractions, I didn’t write or send my weekly newsletter.
And, for context, I will be traveling Thursday and Friday, so it is a short week of work.
What are the possible next steps?
- Hustle to write it and send it out today.
- Let the guilt hang over me all week and attempt to get it out another day.
- Let go of it. Accept the lose and move forward for next week.
This last option is the only way to actually get caught up: Focusing forward.
Makes sense, right?
Like in dancing — miss a beat, catch the next one. Don’t start the whole song over every time.
Then, why is it so hard to do?
In this newsletter instance, because I made a promise, a commitment to dependability with a Monday delivery. Breaking that promise means I’m going back on my word.
Note: I can’t quickly locate any of the communications research I studied in graduate school, but there is plenty that correlates trust in communication with consistent time and day of distribution, thus dependability. So, it’s not simply my work ethic.
Wanting to relieve that discomfort, my guilt leads me to bargaining. Trying to find a compromise, for instance, sending later in the week with an apologetic disclaimer.
But any compromise is just that. I’m not just bargaining with my past then, but also with my future.
Catching up inevitably leads to a trade-off of some future accomplishment.
After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Staying Caught Up
By focusing forward, we can actually stay “caught up.”
Let’s use an example I hear all the time: “Let’s grab coffee and catch up.”
Imagine you haven’t someone in six months and a lot has happened since then so, of course, you want to be filled in.
But, by the time both of you get caught up with sharing stories from the last six months, your coffee’s are cold, the available time has elapsed and you haven’t necessarily shared what’s going on right now.
That’s okay. You can hear about what’s happening right now in another six months when you get the re-runs at your next coffee!
Or…you could each share what’s happening, interesting and important in your lives right now.
What’s happened has happened. That doesn’t make it unimportant. Simply not current.
If it was important, like a death in the family, then it’s likely still part of the present and so will probably come up in reference to a story related to today.
Thus, when coffee is done you’ll be moving forward in your lives together.
This is something I’ve been practicing for awhile, including reframing the encounter to cut out the catching up: “Let’s get coffee and connect” (about right now).
Lives of Catching Up
By focusing on staying current—doing what gets done, learning about right now, rescheduling what’s critical and discarding the rest—life starts to actually feel doable.
Instead of that oppressive feeling of not getting anywhere.
In the last couple weeks I’ve noticed how pervasive this idea of catching up is throughout my whole life. I’m always catching up. Not just with work projects and tasks or with friends, but with everything.
There is no room for falling behind, none the less for the present, because the future is already spoken for.
Just in January alone, three books were recommended to me that related to what I’m currently curious about or studying. I wanted to read them so I checked them out of the library.
Each night, I pass my bookshelf to get into bed and the other day, I glanced over at the top shelf as I carried one of the new library books up to bed with me.
As I paused, I realized:
- All the books on that shelf were ones I wanted to read when I moved them from my last apartment nine months ago,
- I had read exactly one book from that shelf in the last nine months,
- I carried guilt about not following through on my good intentions, and perhaps most poignantly,
- There was no room for new books!
Even though I had downsized and gotten rid of half my belongings in the move, apparently I had still moved many, many good intentions. Tiny plans for the future.
Not a bad future, but one based on an imagined reality, not an informed one. Not what’s showing up right now.
Beyond the bookshelf, I noticed tiny, good intentions everywhere—surplus bubble wrap, tissue paper, boxes, lotion, soap.
It’s true, most of those practical items will be needed someday in my life. But right now, they add to the pile up of things that my life needs to catch up to!
Catching Up On Life
Like reframing coffee date encounters, releasing good intentions is a relatively minor mindset shift and easily implementable once noticed.
But, what about lost time?
A couple weeks ago, I was talking to my Dad about my life right now—we stay pretty current and active in each others’ lives—and about starting over this year with a new business at 35 years old.
He asked an informed and relatively innocent question:
“But how are you going to get financially secure by 40? It’s very hard to catch up after that.”
What he meant was, given how little I’d been able to earn and save to date in my entrepreneurial pursuits, how would this new business earn me the income over the next five years to buy a home and create a nest egg for retirement that will mature over 20-30 years so that I can actually retire.
It’s a valid question. Especially for a caring parent to ask. Albeit one who settled down financially in a different, booming economic era.
My answer: It’ll will be tough. And possibly unlikely.
Definitely unlikely if I’m focused on catching up, instead of on focusing forward.
Begin Again, In Love
What does focusing forward look like?
Lots of grace. Accepting what is, both what didn’t happen as expected or planned, and any resulting guilt. As quickly as possible.
The vast majority of what doesn’t happen wasn’t a must, but a should as Elle Luna so elegantly expounds in her Medium post.
Putting faith in the musts—what must get done always does—there is once again plenty of time.
From this blank slate, we can “begin again in love” as the Reverend at the church I attend likes to quote.
And from love is born all of the grace and most (if not all) of the musts that our life actually needs.
But, will love help me find financial security by 40, I can imagine my Dad wondering?
Love for all my fellow soul searchers also figuring out how to be whole in the here and now? My guess is yes.
The immediate lesson for this week’s teachable moment is clear: skip the newsletter and move on, wholeheartedly, to write this post for another week’s newsletter.