After thirty four orbits around the sun, I should know something of how the universe works.

You can watch the sun pirouetting around the sky each day. And you can track shadows walking across walls; perceptively so, if you pay attention.

But the days, the months, the years, are so much harder to get a grasp of.

I’m still constantly surprised by how easy it is to underestimate time, and by extension of that, how easy it is to underestimate how long it will take to do things.

Maybe it’s because time appears to pass faster with age that we are always playing catch up with our interpretation of its speed. Remember those summer holidays which seemed to last an eternity as a child? (And the horrible sinking feeling in your stomach on the last day before school started again?).

When you’re only a few years old, a day feels longer, as it’s comparatively a larger chunk of your life. But once you reach your later years, a day is just a drop of time in what is now the ocean of your life.

Where does the time go?

I haven’t worn a watch for years now, as there’s almost always a phone or a computer nearby to get the time from. Since moving house I have put batteries into both of my analogue clocks though. Which means there are now reassuring, mechanically produced ticking noises coming from both my living room mantelpiece, and the alarm clock beside my bed.

I even had an idea to put a large counter in the hallway above my front door, so that every time I leave my house I would be reminded of how many (or rather, how few) days I had left on the planet.

But I don’t think it’s lack of time-keeping devices that makes it hard to judge how long things will take.

A professor of cognitive science called Douglas Hofstadter has summed the problem up rather cleverly in an adage which is called “Hofstadter's Law” in his honour:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

The next time something takes you longer than you thought it would, blame Hofstadter's Law.

I used all of this as a long-winded way of apologising for my newsletter being later than usual last week.

My excuse was that writing the lessons for my “7 Things You Should Do Before Going Freelance” course was taking much more time that I expected.

Part of the problem has been (I think) a serious case of what psychologists call “imposter syndrome”. Even though I’ve freelanced successfully for several years now, I’ve been feeling like a fraud. All kinds of questions have been running through my head, like…

As a result, I’ve made frustratingly slow progress with writing in the past week. Even after deleting my LinkedIn and freezing my Facebook account, I’ve found a million other ways to procrastinate in other nooks and crannies of the internet. (It’s annoying like that huh…)

How to beat imposter syndrome

If you’ve ever been held back by the feeling that you’re not good enough to do something, here are some ideas on ways to break free of imposter syndrome.

  1. Give yourself permission not to have all the answers. No-one can ever know everything (or be truly sure of anything either).
  2. Whilst you’re giving yourself leeway, give yourself permission to change your mind too. As Mother Teresa once said “I changed my mind. I did not know then what I know now.”
  3. Remember that saying “I don’t know” usually gives you more credibility, not less. There’s something innately trustworthy about someone who admits to not having all of the answers.
  4. Keep a journal, both of your successes and your failures. (I’ve recently added a ‘Fanmail’ label to my Gmail account where I save any nice emails that people send me. If I’m feeling in need of a motivational boost, this is where I go to remind myself that people find my writing useful).
  5. Watch your language carefully. Words like “only”, “just” and “lucky” might be a clue that you are underestimating your abilities.
  6. Remember that it’s ok to seek help from other people.

Have you felt like a fraud recently? How do you fight back against the feeling that you’re not good enough?

Posted to Life in 2015.

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