• Thu, Jul 8 2010

Bullish: Maybe You’re Not Actually a Lazy Procrastinator

I have a love/hate relationship with certain “motivational” literature. On the one hand, there are some good ideas, one of which I’m about to recount.

On the other hand, the idea that your happiness is entirely dependent on your mental state can keep you from taking action to actually make changes, and in many cases is a way for employers to keep employees in soul-sucking situations. For instance, much of the market for motivational literature is composed of salespeople, and many examples in the books themselves are about salespeople. If you don’t love sales (and you’re selling someone else’s product, not your own), you should get out, rather than let your employer pump you up a couple times a year with affirmations, ropes courses, and instructions for self-brainwashing. The bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? has incurred much criticism as a way to get employees to give their employers a free pass on screwing them over.

Also, if you own a copy of Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, you might want to hide it behind some actual literature on your bookshelf (mine was hiding behind Camille Paglia. I don’t know what that means).

But back on topic: Tony Robbins recounts in his book a story about his daughter Jolie who, at the age of 16, was selected out of 700 girls for a job dancing at Disneyland. Yet, the job turned out to be grueling, and the little time she wasn’t at the job, she was irritable and weepy. Yet, quitting this Disneyland job would make her, well … a quitter. Of course, there’s an advantage to having Tony Robbins as a dad: he prompts Jolie to define her values, which turn out to be love, health and vibrancy, growth, and accomplishment, in that order. (At the point that I originally read this story, as a beleaguered entrepreneur living on Costco vegetable soup, I kind of immediately disliked someone who put “vibrancy” above accomplishment. Now, as an actual grownup, I see the girl’s point. I’m feeling pretty vibrant, but it might just be espresso and Botox.)

Jolie’s interlocutor then helps her to see that, before she took the Disneyland job, she was living out her top three values, which prompted her to move on to her fourth, accomplishment. But then, “accomplishment” took on a sort of kudzu-like quality and overtook the first three values, thus making her unhappy. End of story: she quits the gig, and her dad makes her feel better about “quitting” by pointing out that turning the gig over to the first runner-up will help her fulfill her value of love, as she defines it, and also that “making a decision to live congruently with your values is not quitting.”

Jolie’s story is a pretty good one, no? How many times have you wanted to quit something — or had trouble finishing something or even getting started — and just felt generally bad about it, like there’s something wrong with you?

I thought of this story years later, when I was tutoring a high school student in her family’s apartment on the Upper West Side. She was usually my last student of the night, so I would sometimes hang out afterwards with her and her mother, who would offer me some of whatever she was cooking. The mother — I’ll call her Elena — wanted to lose five or ten pounds. She was attractive, looked much younger than her age, and was by no means overweight. Yet, every time I spoke to her, she expressed disappointment in herself for cooking all kinds of healthy food for her family, and then ordering pizza for herself and eating it standing up in the kitchen. Additionally, she was from a big Italian family that loved food, and her husband wasn’t; he was extremely fit and would happily subsist on grilled asparagus and protein shakes. I had mentioned once that I was thinking of becoming a personal trainer, and, as we drank wine in her kitchen, she broached the subject of my possibly training her.

While tutoring teenagers and then personal-training their parents is a pretty sweet business plan, Elena’s tone of voice carried a depressing level of ambivalence: she sounded as though she had already failed, before even beginning. I tried my best attempt at a Tony Robbins: “Starting something rigorous like a new workout and diet plan can be a lot easier if you figure out what you want to get out of it and what the costs will be. What are the most important things to you on a day- to-day basis?” (You can’t ask people “What’s the most important thing in your life?” or they’ll feel obligated to start talking about world peace and other beauty-pageant standbys.)

Elena gave me a list: family (with several subcategories of children, extended family, out-of-towners, etc.), dancing (generally at big gatherings of extended family), Italian food, wine, etc. Having a bikini body just didn’t figure in, and the amount of time, effort, and food deprivation that it would take an already thin and relatively fit person to achieve and maintain a Hollywood-style body was simply incompatible with her values. Her whole life was built around big Italian meals and wine and family. She wasn’t overweight or an alcoholic or anything of the sort, and she did exercise; no harm was being done by loving the things she loved. For some reason, though, she had gotten it in her head that something that probably ranked #8 or so in her list of values ought to overtake everything else while she dieted her way down to a six-pack.

I told her some version of this: “It’s actually quite a lot of work to maintain the very low body fat percentage we’re talking about, and it sounds like doing that would actually compromise a lot of things that are much more enjoyable and meaningful for you. So you’d be making a logical decision to forget about it and enjoy the things you actually enjoy. No reason to feel guilty about not pursuing something you don’t value that highly.”

She seemed relieved, although I wasn’t in a position to follow up and see if she’d gone back to feeling unnecessarily guilty. (Note: You gain a lot of credibility when you seem to be turning down money).

While we all procrastinate from time to time, people who think of themselves as chronic procrastinators are rarely exactly that. There’s usually something in their lives that they are never late for. People who are weeks behind on work at their jobs often manage to pick up their kids on time every day, arrive hours early for a baseball game, have spotless houses, update their blogs, etc.  Obviously, it’s pretty hard to make a living at some of those things, and we’re all forced sometimes to do things we don’t like in exchange for food and shelter. But we can also, in the long run, steer our lives towards the sorts of things we rarely fall behind on.

I’m sure you’ve heard the usual advice against procrastination: break the job into small chunks, gather in advance all of the materials you’re going to need, do the most difficult thing first, never check email in the morning. All fine advice. Here’s another cheesy but helpful book you could hide behind Camille Paglia:
Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.

So, if you clicked on this article wanting a pep talk, here it is. You may be procrastinating. But don’t think of yourself as a procrastinator. Think of yourself as someone in a situation where your responsibilities — or perceived responsibilities — don’t match up with your values. Now, it is of course possible that your tasks do match up with your values and you simply have too many tasks and not enough time. It’s possible. In such a case, you might have to talk to your boss about priorities, or outsource your personal life to India. But it’s at least as likely that you would benefit from defining your values. And I won’t be so condescending as to ask you to share them in the comments, especially since people tend to fancy that shit up when sharing with others (if your main value actually were world peace, you wouldn’t have time to read this). It’s totally okay if your main value is friends, love, sex, food, enjoying nature, or smoking a lot of weed.

On that last note, actually, I was recently told a story about a young woman who swung the perfect job situation by explaining to her employer (a successful freelancer who employed her as a part-time assistant) that the thing she loved most was smoking weed, and that if her part-time job became closer to full-time, she wouldn’t have to get other clients and could dedicate all of her time to being a good assistant and smoking weed. The employer accepted and everyone is, to this day, very satisfied with the situation.

My values are something like 1) living in a state of cool, collected, highly-competent confidence, 2) good food and alcohol that I paid for myself, 3) solitude, 4) receiving respect from those I respect as well as credit for my work, 5) helping people who want to learn, 6) love and friends, 7) travel, 8) ultimately pursuing philanthropic projects once I gain more money and power and can make awesome things happen in a will-to-power type way.

Hmm. I’m not sure that list makes me look great, but it is honest. And I’m not sure whether “money” should be its own item, or whether I’ve covered it with the things I want to do with that money. Also, it’s pretty hard to know where to put “health” when you’re fortunate enough to mostly be able to take that for granted. Finally, I’d also like to throw in “justice” or the more schadenfreude-containing “seeing wrongdoers punished for their misdeeds,” but it’s pretty hard to compare apples to oranges: what do I love more, a Chimay Grande Réserve, or drunk driver Lindsay Lohan going to jail, where drunk drivers belong?

But while defining one’s values is an inexact process, even a slightly mis-ordered list can make it much easier to stop beating yourself up about the things you think you should get done. Why don’t I have a six-pack, even though I’m pretty sure I know how to get one? Because I value “good food and alcohol” and “travel” way more than “having an impressive stomach that hardly anyone will ever see,” and because I’m not sure it would gain me respect from people I respect (in fact, I suspect it would alienate virtually all other humans, and lead to compliments from people who value things I don’t). So, poof: that goal is gone! I’m not procrastinating on my exercise plan; I’m making a strategic decision that will allow me to best fulfill my values with the limited time and resources available.

As it turns out, Tony Robbins’ daughter Jolie grew up to be an actress who has appeared on The X-Files, The West Wing, and Desperate Housewives.  Dancing at Disneyland, it turns out, is not a prerequisite for any of that. Incidentally, the Disneyland gig required wearing a costume described as “extremely heavy,” but no mention was made of whether it involved an animal head, which would violate nearly anyone’s value of “gravitas.”

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