Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, December 23, 2010

From Me to Me: A "Gift" I Keep on Giving

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, whose credentials are much more impressive, and whose blog Don't Delay, for Psychology Today, is much headier than mine, recently wrote a post entitled "Is Your Future Self Getting a Bad Deal?"  In it, he considers questions raised by Christine Tappolet in her chapter "Procrastination and Personal Identity," in the edited collection of essays The Thief of Time:  Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.

Tappolet uses the example of leaving the dishes for our future selves to wash, and argues that to do so consistently is to demonstrate a lack of concern for that heir to the crusted, stuck-to-the-countertop messes. [1]

Pychyl counters, in part, that we may reasonably expect that our future selves will have a greater capacity to manage the task than our exhausted present selves.  He likens this kind of procrastination to being willing to accept help from another when we are overwhelmed.  And he suggests that one way to alter this habit, if it is proving excessively burdensome for future self, is to develop and act on empathy for that future self, much as we might for another person.  I recognized myself in his observation that many of us will burden ourselves (present and future) in ways we wouldn't think of doing to someone else.

In her pre-vacation post this week, Gretchen Rubin (For anyone still living under a media blackout, she is the author of The Happiness Project, and the blog that gave birth to the book.) mentioned writer Anne Lamott's practice of referring to herself in the third person as a means of self-protection.  She cited this example:  “I’m sorry, Anne Lamott can’t accept that invitation to speak; she’s finishing a book so needs to keep her schedule clear.”

In a similar vein, I'm thinking it may help me to negotiate my procrastination tendencies to, well, actually negotiate with my future self.  Bringing the transaction into consciousness would force me to consider the impact of the implicit shifting of tasks from Today Me to Tomorrow Me, to weigh the relative capacities of each of these entities, and to exercise compassion toward both.  It would also promote a better accounting, and a fairer overall distribution of work to each party.  

There is, of course, the issue of progressive selves, and of determining whether my Tuesday Self or my February of 2011 Self should be recruited to deal with the chore I postpone today.  The calculus might become prohibitively complicated.  It might also cause a fracturing of self, ala Sybil.  

But it is an idea I intend to explore further, waking as I do this morning to some hangover items on my rolling to-do list, passed on to me without consultation by the selves of yesteryear.  (In my mind's eye--or the eye of the mind "I" occupy today--I have a vision of a bucket brigade, stretching into infinity, passing the bucket/buck from hand to hand, but never addressing the fire. . . .)

[1] I should note here that when I leave the dishes for another day, I sometimes delude myself as to the likelihood that another family member’s future self might step up to do them.  It happens with just enough frequency that blind hope enters into my calculations, to an extent dependant on my mood on any given day.  So I am reimagining Tappolet’s dishes as a work task that only I can do—but one that, like the dishes, becomes more irksome and requires more labor the longer it is left.

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