During the 2020 pandemic year, people were challenged to spend their time in a different way. Many thought: ‘Great, now I can get on with a few things I’ve been postponing’. Desired activities included learning a language, getting fitter, home improvements, self-education of various kinds, and arts and crafts, to name but a few.
But many were surprised by how little they got done. Life seemed to become more of a general mope. People were at home more. Others they lived with got on their nerves. Time passed by, and still these cherished new activities didn’t get done. Why not? What is it in the way humans behave that makes it so hard to take on new ways, even if they are improving?
Here are two ways in which we divert from early travel in new directions through procrastination, but also two ways in which we hold back from new directions in order to premeditate.
PROCRASTINATION 1 – DEFERRAL
Humans have a perfectly natural deferral impulse. If something can wait, then we let it wait. It saves energy, which is a scarce resource. Not everything can be attended to with 100% attention – we simply don’t have enough attention available – and so we have to have ways of putting off activities until another time.
PROCRASTINATION 2 – DISPLACEMENT
Humans are also good at replacing something new and uncertain with something old and certain. This is why we intend to take on new exercise regimes, diets, etc., but often drift back into our old ways. This could be called displacement, because the higher pulling power of comfortable habits easily displaces the search for the new. New things have to be REALLY good to displace our usual habits.
PREMEDITATION 1 – GETTING READY
It’s not always a good idea to leap straight into something. Even if we have decided it’s what we want to do, we still need to guide our mind and body around to a new design, and it can be violent to expect ourselves to adapt without premeditation. That’s why most ceremonies allow time for pre-planning, invitation, introduction, and settling-in, before the key moment of change. It’s kinder that way.
PREMEDITATION 2 – WAVING GOODBYE
Change always involves loss. That’s why it’s change – there is something that has to go into the background to make way for a new foreground. It takes time for humans to process a loss, to detach from old circumstances, and get prepared for something new.
THE FOUR EXCUSES
The above four items translate into the following statements:
- I don’t have enough spare energy right now.
- I’m happy with my old habits.
- I need to prepare.
- I don’t want to lose what I already have.
It’s important to recognise that these are not always conscious. Sometimes they are expressed indirectly, through ‘acting out’, or indirect conversation.
In counselling, I often hear clients reflect variations on the first three. ‘I started, but I suddenly got tired.’ ‘I found myself surfing the internet.’ ‘I made a list, but somehow didn’t get any further.’
The fourth item is more subtle. The fear of loss is often expressed indirectly. So the client may simply divert into talking about old problems, people and events, as a means of staying tied up in them. (It’s the same thinking that pulls people back to old boyfriends or girlfriends, returning to an uncompleted loss process.)
A POSITIVE RESTATEMENT
If you are sure that you want to make a particular change, the above four statements can be reframed as action points to create more forward momentum:
- Diarise your change program. At the diarised times, however short, give it your energy and attention. Steadily increase the dedicated time.
- Keep your old habits, but diarise them, too. Let yourself indulge old habits at those times. steadily decrease the dedicated time.
- Diarise time for reflective preparation. This could include talking to others about what you plan; reading what others say about it; brainstorming. Tempt your mind forward by stimulating your imagination.
- Dedicate and diarise times to process the old. If you are tidying up, give things you’re chucking away a good send-off. Be open (perhaps in counselling) about how hard it may be to let go of old habits, people and activities.
You will notice that I recommend diarising quite a lot. This is because your diary is a tool of your conscious intention. If you write something down, you know what you intend to do. You can then deal with the experience, and notice what was easy and what was hard. If you don’t diarise, you are much less likely to do.
In trying to change our habit, we have to acknowledge that humans procrastinate, and also have valid reasons for needing time to change.
To help ourselves, we can:
- Diarise our change actions, and grow those times
- Diarise our old habits, and shrink those times
- Diarise time for reflective preparation (talking, reading, meeting, gathering ideas)
- Diarise time for reflective loss-processing (e.g. counselling, ‘ceremonial’ disposal of the old)
Even when we want to change, we need to be wise about it. Diarising can help.