[Just a quick personal update, then back to the normal Simple Ideas stuff. Stick around, though. This post is very good!
Over the past two weeks, I've taken a near-complete communication hiatus. I've barely checked email or social media, I published no new material, and even mostly ignored my phone, texts, and voicemail. Instead, I've spent a great deal of time everyday contemplating the direction and content here on Simple Challenges, as well as developing content for a new website which I'll announce later.
Interestingly, during my time incommunicado, I got calls, emails, or texts from two long-time friends who I haven't spoken to in months or longer, a cousin (also close friend) who happened to be in town and wanted to see me, and my Dad, who lives across the country. I've found this all only today after checking in for the first time in two weeks. I'm sorry if you've tried to reach me. I'll get caught up and get back to you very soon!
Now, back the what you're expecting: some awesome, free, Simple Ideas.]
Lazy Habits, In Action
For me, 2012 is the “Year of Taking Massive Action”. I’m keeping this as an informal theme, and using it to guide me from month to month. In February, for example, I’ve decided to focus on overcoming lazy “habits of action”. That is, what I do and how I do it. Here’s what I’m doing and how it’s working.
Past/Present/Future: a Limiting Model
People generally think that what enables laziness is the mental trick of settling for a less-than-ideal situation in the future in exchange for an easier or less tedious situation in the present. It’s the whole delayed vs. instant gratification battle. At least, I’ve thought this for most of my life. It seems to make sense, and fits with the model of time (past/present/future) and relationships (subject and object, or “me” and “everything else”) that most of Western culture uses. These models have their limits, though, which I’ll explore in another post.
Let’s ignore the past for a moment (it’s in the past, after all), and look just at the present and future. Our typical model tells us that what we do in the present will affect the future. We understand intellectually that we should take the actions now that will lead to us having the best possible future. We’re conditioned to believe that the “best” action is often more difficult or tedious than any alternatives. From this, laziness, and its close cousin procrastination, creep in when we take the path of least resistance, seeking instant gratification, but creating instead a future that’s not what we would ultimately prefer.
That sounds pretty accurate, so how is this perspective limiting? The past, as we say, is in the past and we cannot change it. The future exists only in our imagination. Everything thing we ever experience, we experience now – in the present. We make and act on decisions now, not later. And, when we experience the consequences of our choices, we experience them now, not later.
Okay, I know I may be over simplifying this deeply philosophical topic. Let’s just assume we agree on this, and hold the thought for a moment. It’ll tie back together.
Salad vs. Chocolate Cake – The Problem With Laziness
The problem with laziness/procrastination vs. taking action lies in the fact that the human brain is setup to prefer immediate returns on our efforts under certain conditions, specifically when the rational mind is distracted or uninvolved for some reason (study: Baba Shiv, 1999). To sum up the study, participants were asked to memorize and later repeat a number, either 2 or 7 digits in length. Between the point of memorizing it and telling it again to the researchers, they were offered a snack. They had the choice of either chocolate cake (unhealthy, but oh-so-tasty), or a fruit salad (much healthier and still tasty, but not quite to the sinful extreme of the cake). Here it gets interesting: the people who had to memorize the 7-digit number were significantly more likely to opt for cake (63%), where the 2-digit folks were less likely to choose cake (41%).
Behavioral economics is a fascinating field, but I’m not going to delve further into other related studies- like the very fun Stanford Marshmallow test – or the broader implications of their findings in this post. Rather, I want to focus on how it all relates to my old nemesis: laziness.
“I should, but…” – Try flipping it around.
It’s extraordinarily hard to fight against impulsive behavior. You can maybe do it with ease once or twice, but the mental and emotional effort required to continue for days and weeks becomes overwhelming. Ask anyone who’s quit smoking or drug use. I’ve personally repeated the pattern of “fight it and give in” countless times, though I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to deal with a drug addiction. It shows in the language I (might I say “we”?) use when talking about things we don’t do, but feel we should or have to do:
- I should do the dishes right after I eat so the kitchen won’t be messy all day.
- I should do my taxes early so they’re out of the way.
- I have to write 500 words today or I fail at life.
- I really should go for a run to stay in shape.
All true. Notice, though, that each of those statements almost feels like it has a “but…” coming right after? The words “should” or “have to” imply some sort of vague moral imperative, which my highly active inner rebel rolls his eyes at. I don’t fight anymore. Instead, I change my time expectation for my “return on effort”. I find the good in the moment.
- It’ll be great to have a clean kitchen now and also next time I need to make something tasty.
- I’m going to do my taxes now so I won’t keep feeling the pressure of having them unfinished. Plus, I’ll get back any refund sooner!
- I love the sense of clarity writing gives me. What topic am I passionate enough about to write a quick 500 words right now? (Note: this post is about 1300 words and flowed more easily than a 200-word post did just weeks ago.)
- I love the mental clarity and creative rush I get after I go for a run and take a quick shower. Plus, it’s great to get out of my desk chair and just move!
Not “but”, but “and” or “plus”. By shifting my focus to the benefits I get immediately, the task ahead is no longer some amorphous, tedious inconvenience. It’s something I can’t wait to do.
So, the takeaway is this:
Stop looking forward too much. What benefits do the tasks ahead of you give you in the present moment? Turn your salad into cake, and eat it too.
I’m Losing Sleep Over This!
Truly. The only negative effect this new habit has had is that it’s harder to get to sleep sometimes. I’ll take it though, and learn to adapt, since the up-side has been so significant. You see, I used to go to bed and fall asleep easily because I “had nothing better to do”. Now, my days are filled with things I love doing and can’t wait to do again. Yes, even cleaning the kitchen. I bet my Mom never though she’d hear me say that!
I’m in the process of restructuring Simple Challenges. No big design changes – we’re still keeping to the quiet, minimalist feel – but the content will be less frequent and more meaty. Or, as I’m a vegetarian now, more tofuy. I’m going to be reaching out for guest posts by some really great bloggers, interviews with some awesome people, releasing a podcast series, and a bunch of other goodies. My goal is still the same: to document the process of “doing great things, a little bit everyday” and invite you to come along.
Until next time, live now.