Let’s talk about facing That One Thing.

You know, that one thing you’ve been avoiding opening, that makes you feel kind of sick to think about? It’s probably a document on your computer. Or maybe an email. Or a folder including several of either.

For some people, “that one thing” is basically the gateway to their whole scholarly project: you need to start your book and you haven’t started your book. Or you started writing chapter 2 a year and a half ago and then life started happening.

For others, it can be the only thing they’ve been avoiding: maybe you can be super productive about all kinds of other scholarship, but not that one thing, and you might even realize that you’re using the other scholarship as a way to procrastinate about the one thing.

Here are some things I’ve noticed about that one thing:

  • The One Things are often not things that have to be started, but things that you have started on some level, and so avoiding the thing becomes a weird combination—maybe a perfectly bad combination, or a paradox—of facing an abyss of not having done anything and simultaneously confronting feeling crappy about what you have done: “I haven’t done anything at all, and besides, what I’ve done sucks.”
  • The longer you have avoided the one thing, the more distorted your sense of it will have become. I have seen people open documents they’ve been avoiding and find that what they have is basically a completed chapter that they’d forgotten they’d written.
  • The avoidance of the one thing can become its own separate beast and phobia. If I ask, “what are you worried is going to happen when you open this document?” the answer is often something like “I will feel shitty”—but when you push yourself, you realize that there’s not actually anything you’re worried you’ll feel shitty about. It basically becomes self-referential baggage, only about itself as baggage, a simulacrum.
    • And then there is another variation in which what you are actually feeling terrible about is not opening the document. You are actually feeling terrible about not opening the document, and it’s tangling up and manifesting as feeling terrible about opening the document. You will solve this problem by opening the document.
  • On the other hand, you might be avoiding the one thing because of some legit trauma. I’ve heard people tell truly awful stories and then blame themselves for their avoidance as if the whole thing was their fault. But even if you don’t have a truly awful story related to the one thing, the everyday, business-as-usual operations of academia can be traumatic. Let yourself recognize that things aren’t necessarily your fault.
  • Seeking support about the one thing is almost never a bad idea
    • Get a friend to sit with you in person, or on the phone or a video chat, while you open the document related to the thing.
    • Get confessional with the person you owe the thing to. In my experience, for academics who deal in books, One Things are often related to edited volumes, particularly co-editors owing things to each other or authors owing things to editors. People are usually very kind about these things, and there’s a really good chance that if you talk to someone, you’ll find that they’re behind, too, and they’re mostly just glad it’s not all their fault.
    • It’s incredibly helpful to have a “transparency buddy” or a “shame prevention buddy” to be the one person you can count on for reality checking. It’s surprisingly easy to get secretive—and often not even realize it—when you’re feeling some version of guilt/shame, and your thinking can get twisted in really insidious and self-defeating ways.
  • If you’re terrified of opening the one thing, stage it as a casual, off-the-cuff encounter. Do it when you only have a 5- or 10-minute window; just open it and say Hi. If you grab a short window of free time, you won’t even have a chance to start doing all the things you’re probably pressuring yourself to do when you look at it.

Perhaps most importantly: when people finally confront the one thing, it is virtually never as distressing as they thought it would be, and well over half the time the overall experience is somewhere between “much better than expected” and “really actually quite amazing.” The odds that you will feel much, much better after opening this document than you do now are pretty overwhelming. Just take the five minutes. Or wrangle a friend to make you do it over a glass of wine or some ice cream. You’ll be fine, promise.