Keep Those Plates Spinning

April 18, 2013 — 7 Comments

The conversation started the same as it always does: me complaining about my lack of self-discipline.

I’m still not eating well.  I haven’t yet started running again.  My writing isn’t where I want it to be.  I’m still not focusing completely on the kids when I’m with them.  On and on and on…the same things, over and over.  There’s no question that my desires are good. Becoming a better person is a noble pursuit, right?  Anybody who’s tried, though, knows it’s not easy.  Steven Pressfield talks about how we experience Resistance when we try to better ourselves in his book The War of Art (must read).  I think he’s right.

My friend and I had spoken about focus in previous conversations.  Instead of trying to improve everything incrementally and spreading myself thin, why not try focusing on one or two areas for a specified amount of time?  This time, as he spoke about focusing on just one area and “maintaining” the others, I started to sweat.  And I sighed a lot.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“You can hear me sighing,” I said.  ”I just…I can’t do it!”

“Do you feel like you’d be neglecting everything else?” he asked.

“Yes!  And I feel like it wouldn’t work.  The whole time I’d be trying to focus on that one area, but I’d be distracted by the thought that everything else is going to crap.  I’d just be anticipating everything I’ll have to clean-up once that month or whatever is over.”

I didn’t expect to get so emotional about it.  A couple things came to a head, though, that pushed me over the edge.  First of all, I’m a perfectionist.  So much so that I often don’t start things that I’m excited and passionate about because I don’t feel prepared; even if I’ve prepared for months or even years.  Also, I’m afraid of failure.  Not a great combination.  So, this conversation hit on both of them.  ”Why can’t I do this?  Why is it so difficult for me, but everybody else seems to be able to do it?  I suck.  I’m a failure.”  And so it goes.

The truth is, though, nobody has these expectations of me…except for me.  Nobody expects me to be perfect.  Nobody’s going to hate me if I fail at something.  And yet, so often I let it paralyze me.  Perhaps you feel the same way.

The analogy of spinning plates was used during most of our conversation.  I told my friend that if I only spun one plate, I felt like the rest would all come crashing down.  That’s the mess I’d have to clean-up.  Like this guy:

Ok, not exactly like that guy.

My friend pointed out the flaws in my thinking, though.  First of all, focusing on one doesn’t mean neglecting the rest.  Focus on one and maintain the rest.  Give them a spin to keep them going and then come back to the one.  And while that doesn’t seem ideal (I want them all to spin perfectly!), the fact of the matter is that if I can simply keep my plates spinning during this busy time in my life…that’s success!

He told me to test it.  Focus one plate (for a time) and see what happens.  See if my fears become reality.  Because the truth is, the rest of them probably won’t come crashing down.  In fact, the very opposite is likely to happen.  As I gain traction in one area, I will be able to focus on another and maintain the former more easily and so on and so forth.  And even though I see this possible positive reality, breaking through the perfectionism and fear is still incredibly difficult.

I feel like a lot of people are experiencing something like this right now. This need to focus.  This call to know what you care about, who you are and to push forward.

So, what are your plates?  Do you need to focus on one and get it spinning fast and strong while maintaining the others?  Are you afraid to try it?  Or are you excited?


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I'm a husband, a father, an author, a speaker, a friend...all kinds of things, actually.

7 responses to Keep Those Plates Spinning

  1. So as it turns out, you and I are a LOT alike! 😉 You may or may not want to hear this, but since I’m old enough to be your mother – although I’d have been young – I must say that your kids and wife are #1. Right now with 3 little ones, all of their schedules, etc. it’s going to be very hard to focus solely on you. So for things like exercise, work them into that aspect of life. Take them to parks, go for bike rides and walks, etc. You’ll feel like that’s being met. As for the eating (hello pot, calling kettle black right now – rolls eyes) just try to make decent choices. You’re sitting down to eat, just try to make the choices better. More fruits and vegetables, less cookies (that’s hard to even WRITE much less DO)… Anyway, time spent with these 4 amazing people in your life will never be regretted. Believe me. Time flies and before you know it they’re in college. So enjoy every minute and try to work the rest around them. You’ll feel good about it – I promise.

    As for not wanting to start something because I won’t be able to do it perfectly? I definitely do that. But once I announced to my family that I was writing my book, they wouldn’t LET me not do it. “How’s the book going, Mom?” excuse excuse excuse And then solutions flowing from them like a river. They weren’t going to let me off that hook. (Thank God) Sometimes you just have to plow thru – even if it takes a while. They say it’s the journey that matters. Make yours an exciting one. Whatever you’re thinking about doing, start it. You’ll be glad you did – even if it does take a while.

    God’s Blessings.

  2. So, I know this isn’t the point, but I would love to see a “spinning plates one-handed” video. 🙂 I’ve found that sometimes I delay doing the things I’m most passionate about for the simple reason that they are so important to me. These things deserve to be done well…and they take a lot of time…and are often outside my comfort zone… and even with tons of effort, success isn’t guaranteed. Definitely scary stuff. I’m going to try the “focus on one plate” idea and see if doing SOMETHING everyday can move things in the right direction. Thanks and good luck!

  3. Great Post Ryan! – I totally related to your thinking and the issues at hand!. I recently trialed focusing on one plate and maintaining others – with success (sort of!). 12 months ago I had 4 health issues I needed to address, I marched into the Doctor and got myself 4 referrals to specialists… 12 months later I hadn’t booked any of those specialist appointments! (The thought of juggling all those appointments and the time out of my busy schedule had me so paralysed with fear, I did nothing!)
    So I went back to the Doctor and got a referral for the number 1 health priority only. After completing number 1, I’m now onto number 2! – For a busy mum who’s not so great at looking after herself, this is success, sort of…!
    Give one plate a big spin! You might like it!

  4. LOL. I was reading and thinking “sounds like a perfectionist issue” and then you wrote, “I’m a perfectionist.” And the fear of failure thing is totally connected. I struggle with this stuff, too. I also recognize that it is people like you are are already quite awesome are beating them/ourselves up about not being even awesomer. It is a daily struggle, but I agree, one thing at a time. Maybe one habit per month since they say it takes 21 days to implement a new habit. I also am working on my eating, writing, exercising, time with family, etc. I decided to recently focus on eating first, and did as a kick start. It was really helpful to have a program to follow rather than just going on my own. Next, I want to work on incorporating exercise. Anyway. just wanted to say that I can relate and good luck! Perfectionism sucks! 🙂

  5. Thanks for this post! I need to hear this. My husband and I are in the process of adopting two children right now … talk about lots of spinning plates! There are so many aspects of the adoption process that are incredibly daunting to me, and your reminder to focus on one thing at a time was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you, and good luck with your “plates”!

    – Jennifer @

    (PS the video clip had me in stitches — it was also exactly what I needed. Thanks!)

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