As I work toward becoming more productive (tomorrow will be a review of Charles Duhigg‘s new book), I find myself doing something rather puzzling: I’m all set to get on with a task or goal, heading straight for it, and then I think, ‘Oh, before I get started I’ll just . . . ‘ and before you know it the momentum has stalled. 45 minutes have passed since I was supposedly going to get started.
“I have discovered that there is one main reason why we procrastinate: it rewards us with temporary relief from stress.” Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit and other books. I quote from him fairly extensively in my own book. (See sidebar for ordering information.) Last week I posted about the mistaken idea that you have to get motivated before you get to work; that you have to feel a certain way first. So did the runner in the picture ask herself if she really felt like running through the snow? If she had, she probably would have stayed by the fire drinking hot chocolate. She would have avoided the stress of the cold . . .
Sometimes life imitates art to a great extent. So I had been dipping into a book titled Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling wth D. H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer, which not so much about D. H. Lawrence as it is about depression, despair and procrastination. And it’s absolutely screamingly funny in places. (In other places just kind of weird, or vulgar, or boring, so I’m not recommending it as a book of the week.) Doesn’t sound possible, does it? But comics are usually very unhappy people. Dyer’s description of the time he was flown all the way to Denmark to give a talk about Lawrence, and he came down with the flu, and he hadn’t prepared his speech at all, and his nose started bleeding in the middle of the lecture, had me snorting with laughter. But the passage that struck me most was this:
I have waited three years to get my knees repaired . . . and I am not doing the exercises, the simple, strength-building exercises which are necessary to prevent my knee causing me untold and probably intolerable pain in the future . . . In a fraction of the time spent sitting here thinking about my knee and how much it hurts I could get on with the exercises which would eliminate the pain in my knee, . . . but instead of doing the exercises I sit here thinking about how I should be doing them . . . My knee is not the problem, that’s for sure: it’s a symptom of this larger disease, this inability to carry on with anything, this rheumatism of the will, this chronic inability to see anything through.
(p. 196, 1997 hardback edition).
Now, depending on what type of person you are, you may read the above and say to yourself, ‘Hey, Buddy, get a grip!’ But I have to say that I completely understand what he’s saying. To sit and look at something that needs to be done and to feel totally paralyzed–that’s the way I can be, like, totally. But I would also say that with the greater self-knowledge that has come over the past several years as I’ve dove (dived?) into this whole subject of happiness, I now know that I can overcome that paralysis. It’s a surprisingly small step to just go ahead and get started. Just go ahead and lie on the floor, for instance, if that’s the position for the exercises. You’re not going to lie there and then just get back up again without doing anything, are you? Probably not.
In the knee-themed spirit of this post, I will mention that my husband Jim had knee surgery yesterday. It was interesting–he’d been told by one guy that he didn’t really need the surgery all that much, and maybe it wasn’t worth the recovery time. I thought myself that maybe he shouldn’t bother with it. But he forged ahead, got a second opinion, and, it turned out, made the right decision. The second-opinion surgeon (SOS) said that the ACL, which was what needed repair, was “incompetent.” (Kind of sounds like an insult, doesn’t it?) The knee was loose. It really needed to be fixed. So now Jim’s hobbling around on crutches, and the Christmas lights are only half up, and this wasn’t a great week for him to have this done, but hey! He went ahead and did it. He still has physical therapy ahead of him, and followup doctor’s visits, and pain meds. But he took the initiative and did the right thing. Maybe he and good ol’ Geoff Dyer could have coffee sometime.
You’ll remember, of course, that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had a pair of ruby slippers that made her very happy because they took her back home. Here in the picture you can see a pair of extremely bright-orange slippers, along with a pattern, two types of fabric, and a black beaded top. So what’s their significance in my life? They’re all items that have to do with what we’re supposed to wear for the Cherry Creek Chorale concert coming up on Oct. 23 & 24. Can we just wear our regular chorale outfits? Oh no. That would be too easy. It’s a Halloween concert, so we have to wear Halloween costumes.
What does all the foregoing have to do with happiness? Two things:
We’re always told to plan ahead, look to the future, and keep our eyes on the goal. For me, though, that’s pretty terrible advice. I tend to be like the guy in the picture. There I am, up on the ladder, gazing into the future, and my feet aren’t on the ground of the present. I can imagine myself having lots of speaking engagements, or selling lots of books, or whatever. I have what I would call goals, but I’m not very good at being sure that TODAY, right now, I’m doing what needs to be done that will move me along the way to the desired result. As I say in the chapter on “Motivations, Goals and Desires” in my book (see sidebar for ordering information), “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
So, in an effort to work directly on the goal of getting speaking gigs, yesterday I made two phone calls. (Regular readers will remember how much I hate making phone calls.) One was to my in-laws’ church. They have a great women’s ministries program, and while they run Bible-study classes all the time they also have more general-interest classes in the fall. One year, for instance, they had a cake-decorating class. So, I thought, maybe they’d be interested in having me come in and do some sessions on my penetrating insights about food, body types, avoiding sugar, why Daniel wasn’t a vegetarian . . . I can go on and on about these subjects. Guess what? I ended up having a cordial conversation with one of the women on the ministries committee, and she was extremely interested. I also called and got the information from the Arapahoe County Libraries about how to submit a proposal for a program through them. Again, I got hold of a very interested, cordial woman who told me exactly what to do. So now I need to post a few videos. Jim’s camera is perfectly capable of making them, but the sound quality isn’t great. So he got busy and ordered me a reasonably-priced lavalier microphone which should come tomorrow. I need to put together two or three five-minute presentations, and then I’ll be able to say, “If you’d like to get an idea of my speaking style, go to my website.”
Jim just left for most of the evening, so I have a nice block of time that I can use to work on the video material. That is, I can use that time if I don’t allow myself to get totally absorbed in yet another Jesse Falkenstein mystery, an indulgence I’ve spent w-a-y too much time on in the past couple of weeks. Once I start one, I can’t seem to stop until I’ve finished. Good thing I’m a fast reader, I guess. (Jesse Falkenstein is the creation of a writer named Elizabeth Linington, who wrote this particular series under the pen name of Lesley Egan. Jesse is a lawyer who ends up turning private detective in each book. There’s a bit too much talk about psychic communications for my taste–any amount would be too much, actually–but the plots are well crafted and the characters are really adorable. Good old Sergeant Clock, with his “prognathous” jaw, who ends up marrying Jesse’s sister, and Nell, Jesse’s wife, with her long hair in a “fat chignon,” and the Gordon twins who run his office, and old Mr. Walters who shows up periodically to tell Jesse that he’s not using his brain, and of course the two dogs, Athelstane the mastiff and Sally the Pekinese who scares off a burglar and therefore wins the heart of Sgt. Clock. I had remembered Sally as a Chihuahua, but perhaps I’m prejudiced. And the whole 1950’s vibe, where women automatically quit work when they get married if they possibly can do so. It’s all great fun, but probably for me a bit too much like potato chips. If I were smart, I’d cancel all the ones I have on hold at the library and put a firm embargo on buying any more of them for my Kindle, but I’m not quite that strong-minded. Thankfully, there aren’t more than about a dozen titles in the series.)
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Yesterday I wrote about my failure to enjoy the process of preparing for an event in the future. Today I want to look at another mistake that I often make: failing to prepare adequately for that future because of procrastination. I don’t think there’s ever been a meal or reception I’ve prepared that included everything I’d planned. At some point of the procedures I realize that there’s no way I can get everything done and so something gets cut. Usually it’s not a problem, but I have to say that it probably would have been good to include the breadsticks in Tuesday’s dinner. (The link is to a much earlier post where I gave the recipe for them.) I tend to vastly underestimate how long it will take to prepare the menu. I think I have plenty of time when I don’t. The future has arrived, and I’m not ready.
I recently read (most of) a very funny, perceptive book titled Homer Economicus: Using the Simpsons to Teach Economics, a collection of essays edited by Joshua Hall, an economics professor. (I’ve never actually seen more than brief clips of the TV show but enjoyed the book just the same.) Hall discovered in his classroom that examples from the show’s stories were good teaching tools because there were many situations, especially involving Homer, that involved basic economics. I was particularly struck with the fact that Homer has a hard time realizing that the future will become the present. So he takes out a loan in one episode and then is outraged when he realizes that he has to pay it back. How can that possibly be? The loan was for the future.
It’s easy to laugh at poor old Homer, I guess, but the problem is that most of us make that same mistake. (I could have included an image of him for my illustration as there’s a website that offers free Simpsons pictures, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. He’s so . . . unattractive.) I say that I’ll do something, or make something, even if I’m just saying it to myself, without fully taking in that at some point I’ll actually have to go ahead and fulfill that promise. You might say that I’m better in the daydreaming stage than in the execution stage. Boy, am I good at coming up with menus! I lie in bed thinking about what to serve at an upcoming meal. But then I have to actually do it. And suddenly that complicated casserole or pastry doesn’t look quite as attractive as it did when it was just a picture in my head.
So, as Memorial Day weekend looms, I have two food-related events to prepared for: a lunch for the youth group on Sunday and a cookout on Monday. At this point I don’t even know for sure what I’m going to make for either one. Maybe I’d better quit writing and get busy on figuring it out. And then figuring out a schedule for getting everything done. And then actually following the schedule. Wishful thinking won’t get me anywhere.
Do you have a tendency to forget that the future is always becoming the present? That tomorrow always becomes today? How astoundingly obvious–and astoundingly overlooked.
If I plan ahead for an event and am able to relax and enjoy it, then I’m sorry when it’s all over. If I procrastinate and have lots of last-minute anxiety, then it’s a tremendous relief to have the event behind me. These strange feelings have become especially obvious to me as I’ve looked back on the retreat breakfasts I’ve overseen this year for my wonderful community chorale. (But we still have one more concert, and therefore one more Friday-night reception for me to agonize over.)
So I’ve been pondering this state of affairs. I keep saying that I want to become a planner and not a dreader, proactive and not reactive, caught up and not catching up. What if by making these changes I’m becoming less happy? So instead of coming home and flopping on the couch, just so glad that whatever-it-was got done and I don’t have to worry about it any more, I’m coming home and saying to myself, That was so much fun! I wish we could do it again! Relief vs. regret. Which is better?
One way to answer that question is to compute how much time is spent agonizing beforehand vs. regretting afterwards: a simple ratio. Another, more nuanced, comparison has to do with the quality of the emotions involved. Maybe that relief I feel isn’t all that positive: it’s simply the cessation of dread. Maybe the regret isn’t all that negative: I’m sorry it’s over because I enjoyed it so much. Surely it’s better to take pleasure in something as it happens than to rejoice only when it ends. Does all this sound crashingly obvious? Well, it is. But only recently has it become obvious to me.
I’m still working out my analysis on this subject. But it seems to me that the concept of the “finish line” plays a part here, too. The tendency is to flop and stop when you get to the end of a big effort. (My statements here are further refinements on some Gretchen Rubin ideas.) So . . . there I am, on the couch with my feet up, totally spent, after an anxiety-ridden event. I’m not very likely to get going on what now needs to be done because, after all, I’ve reached a goal. And getting there was very unpleasant. I just want to revel in my freedom from worrying about it. But–stick with me here, because I think I’m on to something–even if I’m sorry that the finish line is past, but I enjoyed getting to that line, then (after a suitable period on the couch, preferably watching America’s Test Kitchen) I’ll be much more willing to get started on the Next Big Thing. And there’s always a NBT. Or at least there had better be. We think that it would be great to have no responsibilities and no deadlines, but in reality that’s just another way of saying that we have nothing to look forward to. Relaxation for a time is great, but there needs to be something on the calendar to get us going again.
I saw this need for new challenges in my mother back before my wedding. She’d had some episodes of true clinical depression in the year or two before that, but now, suddenly, she had to get things done. Teal plastic forks and napkins. A suitable dress for her to wear. (She brought home four.) Punch ingredients. The very best roasted nuts from Jerry’s Nut House. On and on. I don’t know how long she could have kept up the pace, and I do know that clinical depression is very unpredictable. But the day after the wedding she crashed. It was all over, and I was going off to a new life in Chicago. I can still picture her huddled on the couch when Jim and I came by to see her before we got on the plane. She had nothing lined up to turn her attention to. That was the very worst thing that could have happened to her, and that’s true of the rest of us, too.
I explore the issue of procrastination and its adrenaline junkie aspects in my book. If you’ve read it and liked it, please take a couple of minutes to review it. Just scroll to the bottom of the Amazon page and click on the “write a customer review” button. Couldn’t be easier! (Ordering yourself a copy is easy too.) Watch for the notification on the sidebar of this blog that it’s available on iTunes if you’d rather read it on your iPad. Coming soon, I hope. My IT guy (otherwise known as my husband) is working on it.
I should have remembered the slogan given above. Just because I did it right once doesn’t mean I’m going to do it right again. So I found myself strangely reluctant to get going this time. I wasn’t making anything too demanding, not like the previous sweet-roll extravaganza. Just homemade granola with yogurt and my signature green-chili-cheese-corn casserole. It was as if I thought that the lack of procrastination from last time would magically carry over to this time. But of course that wasn’t true.
So, finally, I dashed to the grocery store Friday afternoon to get the ingredients I didn’t already have, dashed home, and threw together the granola. People were coming for our college group that evening and I felt completely under the gun. (Elsa, if you’re reading this, I am indeed glad you came. We had a lovely evening!) Jim and Gideon brought in the groceries. At some point there was a thump. There on the floor was one of the 32-ounce containers of yogurt that I’d bought. It had been put TOO CLOSE TO THE EDGE OF THE COUNTER, fallen off and cracked open. I was irate! Why on earth had whoever-it-was, Jim or Gideon, put it so close to the edge? Why hadn’t he put it in the fridge right away? I said to Jim, “I am infuriated!” (At least I didn’t say I was infuriated with him. And at least I didn’t launch into the “why didn’t you?” speech. But I think it was pretty clear that my comment was indeed aimed his way.) Of course, you will say that it was pretty nice of the guys to bring in the stuff for me. And that losing a few ounces of yogurt wasn’t that big of a deal. Of course, of course. The only reason for my overreaction was my procrastination. (Funnily enough, I had knocked a container of yogurt onto the floor myself at the grocery store, but it hadn’t broken.) The event itself went great. I felt very nervous the next morning as I raced to pick up the bagels and then get to the event in time to set up. We were ready, though, thanks to the great helpers I have. The casseroles, two huge chafing-dishes’ worth, were eaten down to the last crumb. And the granola garnered much praise, with very little left over.
So, this coming weekend I have yet another food event: a women’s tea at our church. I’m making little lemon tarts, and chicken salad, and goat cheese/red pepper dip, and fruit salad, and cranberry scones. Plans are currently in hand to have everything but the scones done the day before. I need to plan out the logistics of getting the hot water into the teapots and baking the scones at the last minute. I need to make sure that we have enough seating for everyone who has RSVP’d. It has turned out to be a pretty small event–only 24 or so–but that’s fine. Oh, and I need to be sure I have my talk ready, as I’m doing a short devotional. There’s plenty for me to procrastinate about. Maybe this post will act as an accountability spur to get me going, as I plan to report back here on how things went.
Why am I in this situation? Because I didn’t make a simple phone call. I’ve had “call Aetna” or “Call Aetna!” or even “**Call Aetna**!”on my to-do list over the last couple of weeks, but I didn’t actually do it until Thursday. We are changing insurance companies at the end of the month and I needed to know what would happen to the refills on my brand-new prescriptions after the switch. Would Aetna send me back my original prescription forms so I could re-submit them to the new carrier? Or would I just lose those refills and have to go back in to the doctor to have them written out again? I didn’t want to mail in my forms until I knew the answer. I have to say that Aetna’s customer service is usually pretty good–it doesn’t take long to get a live human on the line. My general perception, though, is that phone calls do take a long time, much longer than e-mails, but it seemed to me that this was a matter complicated enough to require an actual conversation. The call took less than five minutes. (The answer to my question is that switching the prescriptions is up to the new insurance company; I’ll have to make yet another call, to them, after April 1.)
So the curse of procrastination strikes again. I doubt that there will be any real consequences for my lapse in medications, but it’s ridiculous that I’ve let this happen. I kept looking at the number of pills left and thinking that I had plenty of time. Then, suddenly, I didn’t. Instead of just making the call, I kept thinking about making the call. Now I’m paying the (admittedly pretty small) price. Putting something off never makes things easier; it always complicates them.
Today I told myself that I could not start writing until I made another phone call, this time to our auto insurance company, Liberty Mutual. (I’m not advertising for our insurance companies, but I guess in all fairness I should mention both of them.) Gideon, our 20-year-old son, has been removed from our policy since last May when he was diagnosed with cancer on his spine. (Actually, L.M. let us remove him retroactively when I finally got around to calling them last fall. They were very, very nice about it. And I guess you could say that I had a pretty good excuse for my delay on that particular call, considering what was going on in our lives with Gideon at the time.) Only recently, after getting used to being out of his braces, has he felt comfortable about turning his head to look over his shoulder. He needs to get used to driving again, especially before he heads to Seattle for the summer. Again, the call took less than five minutes; the guy on the other end was courteous and knowledgeable, and the policy change was effective immediately. This time there was no last-minute angst.
How very simple, and yet how very hard, it is to just go ahead and do it.