10. Solving v. Dithering

Solving a problem means taking specific actions, such as observing its symptoms or manifestations; precisely defining it; researching it and its possible solutions; developing a strategy for solving it; testing the strategy; implementing the strategy if it tests well; and evaluating success or failure.

Dithering includes all the other things you do about your problems, including worrying; feeling guilty; beating yourself up; complaining to family and friends; and feeling sorry for yourself.

Dithering is pernicious. It gives you the illusion that you are solving your problem, so that you don’t have to feel guilty for ignoring it. It also gives you the illusion that you are making progress, so that you don’t have to feel like you’ve given up hope. But dithering doesn’t really solve your problem. The hallmark of dithering is that, no matter how long or seriously you do it, the problem never gets solved. Sadly, this is true even in cases where a person dithers for decades, or his or her whole life.

How do you know when you’re dithering versus solving? Easy: if you’ve been working to solve your problem, but making no progress, you’re probably dithering. Even the toughest problem is solvable, at least to some degree—and, as I’ll discuss later, it often takes only a small amount of actual solving to make noticeable progress. If, therefore, you are making no progress, then you are almost certainly dithering.

Another difference between dithering and solving is that dithering tends to focus on the problem, while solving focuses on the solution. That isn’t an absolute rule, because part of what you do to solve a problem is characterize and analyze it. But if all you are doing is thinking about the problem and how miserable it’s making you, and you’re not devoting any time to designing and implementing a solution, then you are dithering.

Another difference is that dithering tends to occur in isolation. You do it yourself, in the privacy of your own room, or at least in the privacy of your own thoughts. Even when you confide in friends and others, you use those conversations more to vent, or to see your own ideas and emotions echoed back at you, than to observe, define, etc. Maybe you don’t even listen very closely to what the people you are talking to are saying, or you ignore their advice.

Solving, on the other hand, usually involves other people—not just your friends, but professionals such as a doctor, therapist, spiritual advisor, twelve-step sponsor, teacher or mentor—often, more than one of those. And instead of using these people as an echo-chamber to reflect your own thoughts and feelings back at you, you listen closely to what they are saying and do your best to follow their advice.

Because many procrastinators tend to be ashamed and insecure, they have a natural inclination toward isolation. But most of life’s toughest problems, including procrastination, can only be solved with the help of a community.

Why would anyone waste time dithering when they could be solving their problem? In some cases, it may be because they don’t know that what they are doing is, in fact, dithering—they think they are solving. (Now that YOU know the difference between the two behaviors, try going back and implementing the Three Productivity Behaviors.) But it could also be that they don’t really want to solve their procrastination problem: that, despite their feverish desire for self-improvement, they nevertheless feel a stronger desire to maintain the status quo. The next chapter explains why someone might feel that way.