What Happens on the Tail End

How we pla our days

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

[Oscar Wild]

We all suffer from bouts of procrastination, and we may not even be aware of when these instances occur and understand how they hurt us until it's too late. It's become common practice to focus on deconstructing the habits of original thinkers and successful people to find methods and practices we can emulate and adopt.

But we rarely look at the habits we have for opportunities to identify what hold us back. Yet, even becoming aware of them could help us improve our odds of success exponentially. Identifying triggers and removing obstacles could help us get ourselves out of our own way.

Master procrastinator Tim Urban set out to learn what got him into the habit of waiting to do things until the last possible moment. He discovered that procrastinators have a well-developed Instant Gratification Monkey who lives entirely in the present moment and pays attention only to the Panic Monster to get things done. The Panic Monster is a looming deadline.

And then something interesting happened. As he wrote about the issue, he started hearing from more and more people whose procrastination habit made them unhappy with their lives. Their stories contributed to the realization that while missing a deadline at work may have bad repercussions, there are more devastating consequences to procrastination. The problem, says Urban, is worse when there is no specific goal in sight:

If you wanted a career where you're a self-starter —something in the arts, something entrepreneurial —there's no deadlines on those things at first, because nothing's happening.

There's also all kinds of important things outside of your career that don't involve any deadlines, like seeing your family or exercising and taking care of your health, working on your relationship or getting out of a relationship that isn't working.

In the absence of a hard deadline, even a mild form of panic doesn't set in. At least not until something else intervenes to drive the message home. There's an expression we hear used in conversation, often without giving its meaning a second thought —“at the end of the day,” we say.

What we mean is “net/net,” as a shortcut to getting to the bottom line, the thing that matters most. But using the expression as common colloquial term may create a case of crying wolf. Because with things like relationships, an artistic pursuit, and/or taking steps to care for our health, we learn of their critical importance when it is too late.

We don't live forever, our family, friends, and colleagues don't, either. Opportunity may not knock twice to make a first go at something that can help us close the gap between our good taste and our creation.

It is far preferable to focus on developing our selves and our relationships that going through life trying to conform to what we think we should do based on what is popular and successful. That includes our propensity for wanting to emulate the success of others —thus constantly looking at who is doing what, a natural and human inclination— yet procrastinating putting in the work to figure out what is in us we can develop.

Oscar Wild says, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (fully appreciating the irony) We never do know when our time is up with someone or something.

Urban says we should look to extract data from knowledge —what percentage of time do we dedicate to building relationships with the people who matter most in our lives? Some of us have reunions with friends every year around a race or special event, for example. Some of us reconfigured our work and careers to be close to family and dear ones, especially when they are in need of assistance.

What are the things that matter on the tail end?

Desire to be connected —the best way to have fewer regrets is to figure out what matters to us, rather than letting external factors or inattention make the decision. Quality time together —maybe short and intense bursts of conversation or vacation experiences away from the everyday hustle and bustle or distractions.

Physical proximity plays a role, and I'm constantly reminded of this with family scattered all over the world. There is no Facebook profile and messaging app that can replace the touch of a human hand, or a tender look into someone's eyes. We feel and hear them at every level face to face. Technology and tools help, but they are not a substitute, because even a screen can provide a convenient hiding place from where we can make excuses not to be fully present and mindful.

This is the kind of procrastination we all do to varying degree. We get away with it because it's not as visible. Says Urban:

Now if the procrastinator's only mechanism of doing these hard things is the Panic Monster, that's a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations, the Panic Monster doesn't show up. He has nothing to wake up for, so the effects of procrastination, they're not contained; they just extend outward forever.

And it's this long-term kind of procrastination that's much less visible and much less talked about than the funnier, short-term deadline-based kind. It's usually suffered quietly and privately. And it can be the source of a huge amount of long-term unhappiness, and regrets. And I thought, that's why those people are emailing, and that's why they're in such a bad place. It's not that they're cramming for some project. It's that long-term procrastination has made them feel like a spectator, at times, in their own lives. The frustration is not that they couldn't achieve their dreams; it's that they weren't even able to start chasing them.

But we don't really get away with it on the tail end. This is when our personal culture catches up with us.

Culture influences our search for meaning. Strip everything and what are we left with? In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl says:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life —daily and hourly.

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

How we plan our days is how we spend our lives.

Watch Tim Urban's entertaining talk below.



[image courtesy Unsplash]