The Idea: Perhaps the reason the world is in such terrible shape is that those who have the ideas and answers on how to change it are paralyzed by a self-inflicted and very human condition that is hugely difficult to recognize, let alone cure. Perhaps this condition, and not the stresses of everyday modern life, underlie much of the psychological illness and endemic unhappiness of those that have so much, and so much to offer, but who are doing pathetically little with their enormous talents and skills. And they know they should and could do more, but this condition prevents them.
I am slowly dying of a strange and insidious disease. I learned about it last night as a result of two serendipitous messages I received from two wonderful readers. You should not feel sorry for me, or console me, or reassure me. I have all the medicine needed to cure the disease quickly and completely. I am not taking it. So it might be more accurate to say I am slowly killing myself. I suspect my company of victims and sufferers of this disease is legion.
This disease goes by a number of names. My favourite, the one that sounds most harmless, is procrastination. I wrote about this disease once before in my article on Courage — and another name for the disease is cowardice, defeatism, “low self-esteem”,or just plain debilitating fear. Fear of failure, certainly, but also to some extent fear of success, fear of knowing how much of your life you have squandered. It also masquerades as depression. Or is depression perhaps the root cause of the disease, or the result of the disease? For what can be more depressing, more ego- and soul-destroying, than knowing you know what you need to do but not being able to do it, not having what it takes. Covey calls this disease the urgent/important paradox: That we choose, consistently, even inevitably, to do urgent unimportant things before non-urgent important things, often to the point that the important things never get done. Whatever name you choose to use for the disease is a fair one. It lives up to all these names, in spades.
Let me tell you what I did yesterday, and about the two messages I received last evening. This story will convey the horrors of this disease much more effectively than a clinical diagnosis. You might even discover that you have some of the symptoms yourself. If you do I don’t feel sorry for you, but I don’t blame you for your inaction either. I know better.
The night before last, Tuesday night, I worked very late (3 am) completing two urgent work-related tasks and also clearing up some of my backlog of long e-mails worthy of a considered response. I went through my Getting Things Done list, as I do at the end of each day, and checked off what I had done and rescheduled four non-urgent but important activities that I had not got around to, to later in the week. I ‘rewarded myself’ for my long day by sleeping in (until 10 am). I got up and did a bunch of errands around the house (my wife works in an office half an hour away, so I try to do at least a bit of the ‘house’ work; I have lots of poor excuses for not doing more). At 11 am I had a work-related conference call. When it ended I made myself a quick lunch, fed Chelsea the dog, and at 12:15 pm sat down and wrote yesterday’s blog entry. With the background reading, a check of some of my favourite blogs as I was doing so, you know, the whole blogging process, it took me until 5 pm to complete, proofread and post the article. Not unusual. Then I walked Chelsea, stopped to chat with some of the neighbours. At 6 pm I reviewed the day’s e-mails, news digests and the digests of the discussion forums I belong to, waiting for my wife to get home. I got totally entranced by the new, free satellite photo functionality of Google Maps, and started zooming in on the aerial photos of family and friends’ houses, and e-mailing the photos to them (Warning: highly addictive: please finish reading this article before you click that link). At 8 pm we had dinner, watched a bit of TV and then I returned to my e-mail backlog. Two of the e-mails took most of my attention:
The first, from innovation consultant Carolyn Allen, asked some pointed questions about my proposal to set up a Solution Centre/Think Tank that would engage some of the brightest minds on the planet from diverse backgrounds to grapple with business problems, for a fee, during the week, and larger social and environmental problems, on a volunteer basis, on weekends. This is one of the four Second Career options that I have been pursuing, the others being (1) a full time writing career, including co-writing an entire section in the Sunday paper, co-editing a magazine on personal work effectiveness, and writing a book per year; (2) providing organizations with the training, tools and process they need to become much more innovative, and to redefine, differentiate and even reinvent themselves in their industries; and (3) establishing and co-operating an ‘educational’ organization (in quotes because it would be most unlike established educational institutions) that would meet the acute need for entrepreneurial skills. Carolyn, much like my best friends Rob, Cyndy and Jon have done, prodded me to select some first steps, something that could be done to get the Solution Centre/Think Tank off the ground. I responded (as I have to similar advice from Rob, Cyndy and Jon) with a whole series of excuses for inaction — reasons why the various approaches she suggested either wouldn’t work, or weren’t what I really wanted to do. They’re very clever excuses, but they’re excuses nonetheless. She wrote back to me this morning with an understandably impatient “I just have one response: ready, fire, aim. You’re definitely ready. It’s time to find ONE thing you can implement. Then based on results, aim better. It’s time to take action. Get off the pot.” She needn’t have told me that — I knew it even as I was writing up my clever excuses.
The second was a link from Avi Solomon, pointing me to a new book called The War of Art by fiction writer Steven Pressfield, about procrastination. Pressfield calls it Resistance, the insidious disease or character ‘flaw’, that causes us to hold ourselves back, to not “get off the pot”. He writes:
Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever resolved on a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever felt a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.
Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we awake to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, overnight every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage and dandruff.
Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you.
I listened to a 30-minute interview with Pressfield. (If you listen to this recording, ignore the new-age preachiness of the interviewer and fast-forward through the 3-minute commercial blocks). He describes it more as an addiction than a disease. And like breaking a deadly and life-sapping addiction, procrastination/ resistance manifests itself in the clever excuses we make for ourselves, and in our craving for more, for the ‘high’ we get from doing things just when we have to, just in time, and only doing things when we have to. And also like addiction, it takes, he says, enormous inner strength and will to break it. One step at a time, knowing for the rest of your life you will be vulnerable to relapses, and will have to start the agonizing process to kick the habit all over again. No excuses, no sympathy, no yielding to the temptation even once — the fight of your life, for the rest of your life.
I looked back at my list of Getting Things Done “to do’s”. The important ones, most of which relate to my four Second Career options, have been sliding consistently down the priority list for weeks, months, since I started keeping the list in December. The Getting Things Done list has been perfect for getting urgent things done. They no longer get done last-minute, and I have not missed a deadline or found myself in a panic since I started the list. Furthermore, I have broken up the important jobs — those that I hope to be remembered for when I’m gone, and which I hope to devote most of the rest of my life to doing — into manageable, short steps, so the ‘next action’ on each of these is not imposing. I’ve winnowed the Second Career options down from an unmanageable fourteen to the four described above, and I have a concrete action plan for doing each of the four. But still, the urgent tasks creep up and steal each day away, and with it my resolve to move the important projects forward. Just one more hit, the addict says, tomorrow I’ll quit, I promise. The monthly cheque-writing and banking has to be done or I’ll have to pay late fees and interest charges. My blog Table of Contents, which many people rely on, is now more than a month out of date. My blogroll urgently needs updating for some blogs that have now become essential reading for me, and several of the blogroll links have changed and need updating as well. There are a whole bunch of things that need to be done around the house that I’ve been putting off. There are at least a dozen things that are urgent but not important that I haven’t even had the heart to put on the Getting Things Done list because I don’t want the important things to slip any further. My blog itself is, perhaps, the ultimate excuse — it’s important (almost as important as my Second Career), and it’s urgent. It’s also good writing practice, a good way to “think out loud” and clarify and organize my own thoughts and ideas. My wife describes my blogging as an addiction. Perhaps for me it is. Or perhaps it’s the procrastinator’s methadone — much less harmful than the ‘real’ drug, but still addictive and debilitating, preventing you from getting on with your ‘real’ life.
So the important things to do are staring me in the face — I know they’re the most important things, the only things that, at the moment of my death, I will regret not having done if I haven’t done them. For each of the important projects on the list I have done the easy part — the business plan, the design, the big-picture thinking, the breaking them down into manageable tasks. I know precisely what the Next Action is for each. But these Next Actions are not getting done. Even when they do get done, any sign of adversity causes me to retreat — the sponsor or agent or publisher I was looking for didn’t return my call or e-mail, or expressed reservations about my proposal. Whew! Good thing I have four Second Career options — now the one with the minor roadblock can be relegated to #4 and I can go back to the distraction of the urgent, easy tasks before I need to screw up my courage and start another important Next Action. With the number of urgent tasks on the list that could be weeks away. But I got seven urgent tasks done today, so I’m going to reward myself tomorrow by not doing anything urgent — I’m going to take a day off (except for the blog) and dig into my huge reading backlog. Another methadone?
What does it take to cure oneself of this disease, this addiction? I crisis would do it — learning you only have six months to live, for example, would propel you to drop all the ‘urgent’ tasks and do only, relentlessly, the important ones. But that’s not really a cure either: Such a crisis merely makes all the things you need to do urgent, so it is then simply logical that you’d do the urgent important things and forget about the urgent unimportant ones. Same thing if the crisis is social or financial rather than medical — if your spouse walks out on you (no doubt fed up with your procrastination), or you get fired, or you lose your life savings or your house and you’re uninsured. That either throws new urgent tasks at you, or (if you decide this crisis was as much a blessing as a curse) could even remove some of the urgent tasks that preoccupied you — but there is no guarantee that this will in any way increase the likelihood of you doing what’s important (it’s more likely to do the opposite).
A colleague of mine is reading a book that describes how to ‘push past’ the urgent and make time, and room, for the important. I’m going to read it (and I’ll report back here) but somehow I don’t think that’s the cure. You can’t think your way out of an addiction, you have to fight your way out. It’s an emotional process, not an intellectual one. The tendency to procrastinate is natural, human nature. Our psychological addiction to it is almost certainly reinforced, as with all addictions, by a physical, chemical addiction, that euphoria we get from crossing urgent things off the “to do” list. We do not yet understand the chemistry behind addiction, but it must be exploiting something that, for millions of years, was a positive reinforcement — allowed our species to survive and thrive better. It might help if we find out what this chemistry is and how it has been perverted into our modern addictions, including our addiction to procrastination, to the urgent over the important, to Resistance.
There is also a discipline called Cognitive Therapy that ‘teaches’ you how to alter your thinking so that your decisions on what to ‘do next’ are not biased in favour of the urgent over the important. Colour me dubious. Anything is possible, of course, including being able to ‘think yourself well’, but the addiction metaphor, and the resultant treatment, make more sense to me.
In the meantime those of us afflicted need to acknowledge the disease, the addiction, for what it is, and start to work on healing ourselves. They say acknowledging the addiction is half the battle, though I doubt that. For other addictions, the ‘buddy system’ seems to work, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that the buddy system is one of the most effective methods of getting exercise and diet procrastinators back ‘on the wagon’. I’m going to start by committing to complete one of the Next Actions on my important not-urgent list every day, and I’ll report to my “get off the pot” friends and colleagues on my progress. I might even bore you with my progress here on the blog.
I’m still sitting here. But somehow I feel as if something has changed. I’m still unhappy with myself, but I’m beginning to understand why. Less shame and more impatience. It’s a start.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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