0103 – The sneaky procrastinator waits patiently for The Slip

A picture speaks a thousand words, so lets start with that.

beeminder-slips

 

Do you see The Slips? If I didn’t use this external to keep myself accountable, the slips would’ve been the beginning of the end- where I’d have tapered off and done nothing.

My targets for “meditate”, “guitar” and “read” are all incredibly low- 2-3 times a week each. I expected to be dominating them, the way I thought I was dominating “exercise”.

The data doesn’t lie: I’m far less capable than I think I am. This isn’t a put-down or an act of self-loathing. I’m pretty proud of myself for sticking to this for as long as I have. I haven’t broken any of the commitments I’ve made to myself in this context- if I practice guitar today, meditate tomorrow and read a book the day after, I’ve been on track so far, and I intend to stay on it. What’s blowing my mind is how much I’m “struggling” to keep up with something I thought would be “really easy”.

What does 20 pushups a day sound like? Simple, doable, right? Yet I slipped- you can see right there, in that little blip in exercise. It’s the smallest slip I’ve had, but it’s still a slip. There were a few days where I was just really tired and exhausted and didn’t want to do anything at all. I think it was a decent call to make, and I’m still very much on track. I’m not a machine. But the point is that I think too highly of myself.

I thought I’d be very quickly progressing on all fronts- that I’d soon be meditating, practicing guitar and reading daily, within a week or two. I left my targets (the slope of the dotted line) alone instead of updating them mostly because I wanted to feel good about dominating them. (I increased the slope of the Exercise line- you can see it has a slight curve to it that the others don’t).

I can’t help but think about what causes the Slips. Why do they happen, and why do they persist? Sure, I’ll miss a day of exercise because I’m tired or not feeling well- but it seems like statistically, missing a day is very likely to lead to missing another day. The longer I go without doing something, the longer I keep going.

It makes me think about my childhood. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers used to scold me for not doing my homework. My parents would take away my computer privileges and attempt to monitor me- my mum would write up a timetable for me to follow, and she would police me for a week or two.

The thing is, I knew that she’d never be able to keep it up. She has her own life to live, she has her own responsibilities to worry about. Nobody can permanently police anybody else (unless that’s their full-time job, I suppose). If you wait long enough, eventually your supervisor or boss is going to have to look away, to do their own thing- and then you can start fooling around again. Funnily, this is the one thing I have almost absolute faith in: the fallibility of others. Everybody eventually moves on, everybody eventually leaves, so you just have to wait.

The thing is, this clearly applies to my own conscious self. This is part of the source of my personal akrasia. The saboteur bum inside my head knows that my conscious self, the decision-maker who attempts to control his behaviour will eventually have to leave the room. I’ll eventually get distracted, I’ll eventually stop paying attention. And then the bum can have his way, spending hours and hours on the internet, Tumblr, wasting time with frivolous distractions, smoke cigarettes, generally being a bum.

So I realized that I needed some sort of scaffolding- an exoskeleton for the brain, a prosthesis to keep me going. To prop me up even when my conscious self is out of the room. A part of the solution is to keep bringing the conscious back. Another part is to modify the environment to limit the damage that the saboteur bum can do on his own.

So beeminder is working great- it emails me when I’m I’m about to screw stuff up, and the email shows up on my smartphone, and in that moment it becomes something I have to confront. If I don’t meditate when it tells me that I’m about to screw up the commitment that I made to myself, then I can no longer feign ignorance. I can’t pretend that “things just happened”, no- I’d have consciously decided to let things fall apart. While this isn’t the perfect, fun, stylish solution I’ve dreamed about, it’s working well. It’s like the clunky suit that Tony Stark built to get him out of the Afghan cave. It’s working well for me so far. And working is better than hypothetical-perfect.

Once I’m well and truly out of the cave, I plan to build or help build the actual suit.

Anybody interested in this analogy should read Venkatesh Rao’s Shleps, Puzzles and Packages: Solving Complex Problems The Iron Man Way. I think a lot of procrastinators in the ENTP-stereotype tradition will relate to RDJ’s portrayal of Iron Man to some degree- witty, broad range of interests, follows nose, etc- but the point is that Tony Stark had to build the goddamn shitty suit in the Afghan cave before he got out. Many of us are stuck in the cave and dreaming of one day seeing the Extremis armor (or some equivalent) materialize. No dice. We have to work with what we have and bootstrap a makeshift solution and get the hell out of the cave. It’ll get a lot more interesting.

I think this is my shlep- the writing, the confrontation of clunky day-to-day works. I’m going to build relationships with other people who are in similar predicaments. I’m going to help myself, then I’m going to help other people, and then we’re going to build an army of ex-procrastinators and we’re going to be a force for good, to a phenomenal degree.

3 thoughts on “0103 – The sneaky procrastinator waits patiently for The Slip

  1. mrsv

    This is an interesting take on an issue that has been dogging my footsteps ever since I can remember, and I’ve read so much about what causes it and how to cope with it that the whole field of procrastination-solution is starting to take on this kool-aid quality for me. The one time I didn’t procrastinate was when I was at home looking after two babies. Because there was a sense of personal stake that went deeper – than just meeting job requirements, say, or improving myself according to some externally imposed standards – there was no gratification from procrastination. It was the one time I felt self-actualised, self-driven, empowered, and blissfully happy. When the kids started school, and external agencies started determining our family’s goals, that’s when it all fell apart again. I’m not saying this is how it is for everyone, but my feeling is that procrastination is a subconscious response to disempowerment. We can keep trying to find techno-psychological solutions that are based on assumptions about our own culpability and psychological dysfunctionalism, but ultimately the problem may be a political one (and not just at the level of nation states). I’m drawing on a number of critical theorists here – the idea is not an original one. Only the example is intensely personal, and it occurred to me as I was reading your very nicely written and engaging piece.

    1. Visakan Veerasamy Post author

      thank you for this! I wish I could give you a response it deserves (I’ve written and re-written this several times but nothing is good enough) so I’ll just… keep going with more posts in the future, and hope that suffices. I do think I know where you’re coming from. I tried re-taking my A levels as an “experiment in self-discipline” but the whole thing just fell apart, it didn’t matter enough and I couldn’t buy my own bullshit.

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