To be able to make ourselves sit down and do something we have been avoiding may be one of life’s most valuable skills. Otherwise, the lengths we go with delaying tactics can be extraordinary. Day after day, strategies of avoidance may come to dominate how we spend our time. Everything becomes more inviting than that which we are supposed to be doing.
We make clever evasive deals with ourselves like, “I’ll vacuum the living room, then I’ll get started.” A whole house then turns immaculate in the process of our not making a difficult phone call or not starting in on paperwork with a looming deadline. I often intentionally trick myself into cleaning the house by making an elaborate to-do list that sends me running to the vacuum cleaner.
In essence, we tend to put off that which makes us uncomfortable—whatever brings up worries, requires effort, evokes guilt, demands focused attention, includes an apology or a decision, involves calling someone we would rather not speak to, or confronts us with an impending insufficiency of funds. There are times when we would rather do anything than harness our minds and make ourselves think something through, or put ourselves face-to-face with our anxieties.
Meanwhile, what we are postponing takes up more and more mental space. If we had just gotten it done, the thing would have remained proportionate to its true importance. In pushing it aside, trying to relegate it to a corner of our consciousness while we do a crossword puzzle or watch just one more episode of a Korean soap opera, the thing feeds on the energy of our avoidance and grows more massive.
The weight of procrastination exacts an ever-enlarging toll on our spirit. We end up being driven by negative consequences—being pestered for something that’s been promised, losing opportunities due to missed deadlines, feeling so much guilt that we don’t respond to messages from people we like and respect. Avoidance just keeps on costing us more in our relationships with people who count on us, in addition to peace of mind.
Yesterday, I took care of a call to our accountant’s office that I have been avoiding. The conversation took all of nine minutes. Relief spread across the whole morning. So, what was the big deal? Why had that simple task dwelled on my to-do list for more than two months, nagging at me the entire time? It is absurd that I let this small but necessary inquiry oppress me to the degree it did.
Lately I am trying a tactic that is bearing fruit, my new Do One Every Day rule. I ask myself to take care of just one of the things I am avoiding each morning, before I embark upon any of the calls, tasks, or projects ready to serve as legitimate evasions. Requiring only a single push has been crucial to the technique’s success. If I try to load on one or two more because, after all, these things are also pressing on me, an avoidance pile springs up to be immediately shirked. Nothing gets done. It turns out that a pile is easier to evade than one phone call, one email, one check put in the mail, one awful form to fill out.
The call to the accountant’s office made me feel lighter. There was hope for the multiplicity of things awaiting my attention. Getting this done actually made me look forward to the next day’s choice, knowing that another burden will be lifted, one more layer of anxiety will be removed. I can see that deciding to commit to a daily practice of taking care of just one thing that is bugging me could turn into a reward system, instead of the punishing cycle of waiting until the last minute and letting avoidance weigh me down.
Ironically enough, today’s choice was getting this blog post finished. This was made much easier by having asked myself to dash off a quick draft one morning last week. Getting started on a writing project is always the hardest part, so I made sure to ask myself only for a sloppy draft, nothing fancy. Then, this morning, I called up the file and there were no barriers to expanding the draft into saying what I needed to say.
I am starting to feel excited by the Do One a Day rule. Putting things off doesn’t lead to the kind of life I want to live. At 62, I am ready to be unburdened, to feel as weightless as it is possible to be, one task at a time.
Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, author of Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin 2011.