Most parents understand the problem with children stuffing their school backpacks with too many books, papers, calculators, pens, rulers, and other items. It is painful to watch young children struggling with heavy backpacks—and it’s not good for their posture or health either. My daughter did that and wound up with chronic back problems that still flare up.
The fact is, we can only carry so much around comfortably and effectively. What’s more, I have noticed a much more insidious problem of carrying things around—not physical things, but mental things.
A Fable of the Man and the Rocks
Once upon a time there was a man: a normal person, like you or I, going through life, attending to work chores and life chores. But this man had a very bad habit. Instead of dealing with each issue at once and getting it over with, he would decide to do it later. As a result, his list of to-do items grew and grew and he became more and more worried about all the things he had to accomplish. And the more he worried, the more depressed he became.
By not acting on each item quickly, he forgot some of his to-dos, resulting in a growing number of problems at work and home. This made him more depressed.
Over time, he started to believe he was an ineffective person and his self-esteem began to plummet, at which point he began to see himself as just good enough instead of great. His dreams of greatness and fulfillment began to fade. More and more he settled for being mediocre. In his own mind, the burden of striving to be great was just too heavy and unrealistic.
Then, one weekend, he was walking in the woods, trying to overcome his depression and feelings of mediocrity, when he came across a man collecting rocks and putting them on his back. He watched for a while and noticed that the more rocks the man piled up, the more he struggled to walk forward. At one point the pile of rocks was so heavy the man fell down, and it took excessive effort to stand up again.
Incredulous at this seemingly ridiculous behavior, he approached the man, scolding him for being stupid for carrying around such a large number of rocks. "Why don't you just get rid of all those heavy rocks and make your journey lighter?" he asked.
"Why don't you?" the man replied, and vanished in a puff of smoke.
Good Habits Build Character and Self-Esteem
Over the course of my life, I have tried to learn many lessons about how to lead a rich and fulfilled life and accomplish bigger and bigger goals. One of my biggest lessons concerns time management and its relation to personal self-esteem. The simple fact is, given the same IQ and same opportunities, the person with high self-esteem enjoys more success than the person with low self-esteem. High self-esteem makes people keep trying. Low self-esteem causes people to not even try. After all, they aren't good enough.
And self-esteem is not genetic. It's mental. It's a product of thought. Thoughts are self-generated, and one of the mental habits that fosters low self-esteem (and therefore poor results) is not attending to your to-do list right away, but instead, piling items into your mental backpack. The more we decide to do later, the heavier the mental burden and sense of inadequacy.
To be honest, for many years I was a world-class procrastinator. I had a huge mental backpack of things I should have done quickly, but instead put them off until later. It was a heavy burden on my self-esteem. Them, around age 40, my older brother challenged me to complete a marathon.
I had been an occasional runner, but not a committed one. I accepted the challenge and read everything I could about training for the grueling 26.2-mile race. Then I bought a daily training log; made a four-month training plan; carried my training plan, log book, and running shoes on all my business trips; and doggedly followed my weekly plan. It would have been easy to put off my training runs during the week, especially when traveling. But long-distance training, like any other physical and mental activity, can't be properly accomplished by saving up all the daily runs for the weekend. The body adapts slowly, not in large, irregular spurts. To make a long story short, I not only completed my first marathon, The Big Sur Marathon near Carmel, California, but went on to run another 15 over the next several years.
But most important, I developed a habit of do it now that has been a great advantage for the rest of my business and personal life.
Embracing this can-do attitude, which starts with tackling important tasks as soon as you get them, is one way to conquer the low self-esteem that procrastination brews. For some people, this strategy may work best in tandem with mental health support that can help address underlying issues—such as depression and anxiety—that can also contribute to feelings of inadequacy and incapability.
Want to reverse the do it later, store-it-in-the-backpack trend? Want to grow your self-esteem, your confidence, and your performance? Don't carry around a mental backpack full of do it later items. Build the habit of do it now. It's very simple.
How much time does it take to write a thank you note after an interview? An email takes about 45 seconds. A handwritten note not much longer. Done! Gone! It’s out of the backpack, and surprisingly, you feel better about yourself! Do it now and watch your self-esteem and success soar!