Getting Things Done: Fear of Failure


You say “too late to start”

You’ve got your heart in a headlock
I don’t believe any of it;
You are afraid to start
You’ve got your heart in a headlock
You know you’re better than this.
   — Imogen Heap, Headlock

So you’ve instituted Getting Things Done, David Allen’s personal productivity methodology. You diligently read all the productivity hints in 43 Folders. You’ve even tried The Procrastinator’s Version, and GTD In Meetings. But for some reason, some of those critical Next Actions keep getting rescheduled and shuffled down the priority list. Important but not urgent, perhaps. Or is the real reason darker: Fear of Failure?

As the delightful Imogen Heap song suggests, maybe you’ve got your heart in a headlock. Fear of failure is not the same as procrastination: Procrastination is usually the result of a project or Next Action just being too large or overwhelming — breaking it down into manageable pieces, identifying what’s blocking it, and drawing on inspirations and the assistance of others can usually resolve this. But if you’re afraid of failure, if that’s what’s holding you back, breaking it down may just deprive you of plausible deniability of your reasons for putting it off.

Likewise, fear of failure has nothing to do with lack of courage. The people who have written to me about my earlier post on courage, people who are seen by others as incredibly courageous, tell me they don’t see themselves that way: Their actions, they say, were the only choice they had left. They agree with Jack Gilbert that real courage is enduring adversity and struggle, through no fault of your own, without fanfare or recognition, day after day, even for a lifetime. By that measure living one’s whole life with the fear of failure may be more an act of courage than facing it down and dealing with it.

Kelly & Connor’s famous Emotional Cycle of Change has four stages:

  • Uninformed optimism: when you’re too naive to know how difficult the change will be
  • Informed pessimism: when it dawns on you how difficult it will be
  • Hopeful realism: when you see what is possible despite the obstacles: workarounds, creative resolutions etc.
  • Informed optimism: when you gain confidence as some success is actually achieved

It seems to me that those caught in the headlock of Fear of Failure are stuck in the first or second stage of this cycle, unable to move past it and ‘get real’. There are all sorts of perfectly reasonable reasons for this: A lack of self-confidence, our natural risk aversion, ignorance (sometimes wilful) of all the factors at play that will determine success or failure, and the lack of an alternative plan if the project runs into insuperable obstacles. If there is no ‘Plan B’, it is extremely tempting to defer moving ahead, and instead just keep the ideal alive, and delude yourself that you just ‘don’t have the time’ to move ahead and face the risk that the project may flounder.

This is a trap for both dreamers and pessimists. Dreamers use the project as a perpetual carrot, a daily consolation for doing things they don’t really want to do: “As soon as I get this drudgery done, I’ll be able to start on this wonderful project“. It becomes a lifeline, an addiction, a promised path from a dreary present to a possibly unrealizable future. If they actually moved ahead and found that the wonderful project was impossible, they would be devastated. What’s the point of going on when the dream is gone?

Pessimists use the project as a justification for not confronting and overcoming their pessimism. They suspect that the ‘wonderful project’ is an impossible dream, but it’s the only dream they have.

While the dreamers fear (what they think is) unlikely but possible failure, the pessimists fear (what they think is) probable but not certain failure. They both fear learning the truth, and so they defer and deny that that’s why they aren’t moving forward. These ‘wonderful projects’ are important, but not only are they not urgent, it is to some extent urgent that they not move forward. The ideal can live forever, like the dream of winning the lottery or finding Prince(ss) Charming. Not so the reality.

For those lacking self-confidence (and that’s most of us), for those averse to risk, for those frightened to discover whether the dream idea has wings, for those whose reason for going on is tied to an uncertain or even dubious dream, it is only natural to hesitate to learn the truth. The mathematics are simple: [probability of failure] times [consequence of failure] is a greater negative than [probability of success] times [consequence of success] is a positive. And if those probabilities are unknown, we err on the ‘safe’ side. So we don’t ask for the date, or the job, or the contract, or the promotion; we don’t take the dream trip, move to the new land, start the new business or intentional community. Perhaps this fear of failure even accounts for the falling birth rate and the fact so many unhappy couples stay together.

Things happen the way they do for a reason, and I have no prescription for this fear. Knowledge is usually the best cure for uncertainty, but that’s no help when certainty is not what we necessarily want.

Best to treat the underlying cause than the symptoms, in any case. If it’s lack of self-confidence, one cure is to surround yourself with people who like you, and who you like, and who are expressive of their feelings. Another cure for this is to collaborate in your quest with others who have skills and knowledge that complement yours, increasing your confidence in the project’s success (and also increasing the probability of its success).

If it’s risk aversion, or lack of knowledge, the cure is to learn a little bit. Learning is like potato chips: Once you start you find you really like the taste, and you can’t quit. Even if you think you don’t really want to know, you’ll discover you do. And then those probabilities start getting very close to either 1 or 0.

In any case, it always makes sense to have a Plan B. Like insurance, a viable Plan B is annoyingly expensive (in energy and emotion to produce it) and more often than not a bad investment. But it can make you bold.

Fear of failure is an addiction, and in the long run its comfort is cold. Headlocks are very uncomfortable, not good for you, and an impedimentto Getting Things Done.

The truth will set you free.

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2 Responses to Getting Things Done: Fear of Failure

  1. Ruben Sun says:

    Hm… but how to make ammends with a firm conclusion about an undesirable outcome?thoughts?

  2. Michelle P. says:

    Hi Mr PollardThis paper has incredible wisdom and truth in it. Congratulations. You’ve helped by adding one more arrow to my quiver for the GTD process. I’m the perennial dreamer and identify with that whole carrot concept very much! :)Mitch

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