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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Procrastinating 101: The Horror! The Horror!

Dum da dum dum.  Or whatever sound means "impending doom" to you.  That's the appropriate lead-in to Chapter 6 of Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.

In this grimmest chapter yet, entitled "The Economic Cost of Procrastination:  How Businesses and Nations Lose," Dr. Steel builds on the dark ground of Chapter 5.  Here, the focus goes macro, and we are confronted with an estimated societal bill for our collective procrastination.  Dr. Steel highlights our losses in the areas of work-time frittered away, savings postponed, and political procrastination.  The most haunting instance of the latter is the blind official eye being turned to the increasingly imminent threat of "environmental depletion and destruction."

Using relatively conservative figures, Dr. Steel arrives at the somewhat stupefying number $1,264,1200,000,000  [sic], which represents the value of time lost annually in the U.S. as a result of employees procrastinating on the job.  He goes on to detail some of what "workers" are doing, instead of working.  The list includes "video snacking," visiting pornographic sites, social networking, game playing, and excessive--and disruptive--email checking.  Some of us make use of technology to hide our technological abuses, like a "Boss Key," which allows the dawdler to quickly switch the screen to feign legitimate activity should said boss poke his pointy little head into one's cubicle. 

Dr. Steel's discussion of procrastination related to retirement savings essentially drills down on the previous chapter's mention of compound interest--which, he reminds us, Einstein "called the eighth wonder of the world."  Dr. Steel provides a dismal portrait of how the average American shoots him/herself in the financial foot on which the "golden years" must stand, by failing to save in time for this eventuality.  This fiduciary profligacy is "compounded," but not in a good way, by the host of other bad decisions these financial grasshoppers are likely to make.  Like signing up for variable rate mortgages; borrowing against houses and meager retirement funds; and relying on "pay day" loans, which can expose the borrower to annual interest rates of more than 500 percent.

Steel does hint at how such individual financial procrastination, in the aggregate, affects the economy as a whole, in this statement:  "Furthermore, since the dollars you save are invested, savings can help the nation as a whole, spurring economic expansion."  

However, I would be interested in seeing this relationship explored more deeply.  Clearly, the way so many of us mishandle our money, partly as a result of procrastination (though perhaps more as a result of mechanisms of capitalism), has repercussions for the health of our own economy, and globally--something demonstrated all too painfully in recent years.  And it is noteworthy that many who did not put off saving for retirement have found themselves, nevertheless, woefully under resourced at the planned-for end of their working lives, thanks to Enron, 401-K collapses, and pension defaults.  A diminishing sense of investment efficacy, along with a tendency to put off preparations, may be at work in the decline in savings, and in saving.

In his section on political procrastination, Dr. Steel reports some horrifying projections of what begins to read like an ecological apocalypse.  By the year 2050, an anticipated three-degree increase in temperature is expected to have a "mutilating" effect on the planet.
No matter what country you are in, there won't be any place that will truly benefit from this change.  Entire ecosystems, like the Amazon rainforest, are expected to collapse, about a third of all animals and plants will become extinct, and billions of famine refugees will fight to determine who starves to death first.

In the context of this urgent issue, the likelihood that our political institutions will continue to drag their feet leaves little room for hope.

But Dr. Steel finds some, in, oddly, bicameralism--which is intended to force legislatures to act more deliberately, and theoretically, less impulsively in the face of serious issues having long-term ramifications; in the growing policy role of behavioral economics; and in Obama's rhetoric about our need "to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations."  And yet, similar language, which urges us to stop "kicking the can [of public debt] down the road" to our children, is being used in my state to justify actions that will further enrich the privileged and increase the suffering of the vulnerable.

The stops on this week's post-industrial tour added to last week's panorama of personal devastation bring two things to mind.  One is the happy little industry of Katrina tours still extant in my second home of New Orleans.  The other is a quote from Winston Churchill, which has rearranged itself in my head thusly:

We shall go on to the end; we shall [procrastinate] in France,
we shall [procrastinate] on the seas and oceans,
we shall [procrastinate] with growing [consequences] and growing [slothfulness] in the air. . . .
we shall [procrastinate] on_ the beaches,
we shall [procrastinate] on the landing grounds,
we shall [procrastinate] in the fields and in the streets,
we shall [procrastinate] in the hills;
we shall never [catch up].

I am looking forward to Dr. Steel's next chapter, on "Optimizing Optimism," in which he promises to begin showing us the way out of the morass he has so persuasively depicted.    

Done for the Week: Getting Into Getting Out of Stuff

For the first time since I started this Done for the Week feature, I am a day late (if not a dollar short) in posting it.  I may have some fine-tuning to do on this whole laying back thing.

I am still, however, getting some things finished, of the many that matter to me.

Done for the Week:  June 20-26, 2011
  1. Completed Week 7 of 15-week triathlon training program; ran twice; biked twice; swam twice
  2. Swam once, ran once with my training partner 
  3. Got my son to the gym with me once
  4. Finished Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem
  5. Attended 2 yoga classes
  6. Participated in final interviews for organizer position 
  7. Participated in hiring decision
  8. Continued to work my two part-time jobs 
  9. Planted orphaned begonia
  10. Put in backyard sandbox
  11. Cut back summer blogging schedule
  12. Stepped further back from organizational overcommitment
  13. Blew off a couple of meetings 
  14. Published 4 blog posts 
  15. Meditated 2 times
  16. Had lunch date with my husband
  17. Went to Happy Hour with my husband
  18. Watched two episodes of Treme with my husband
  19. Took care of my out-of-town daughter's dog and house, days 3 through 9 of 11
  20. Got various family members, including our dog, to walk temporary foster dog with me
  21. Met again with major new website client
  22. Went out driving with learning teenager several times 
  23. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to his job
  24. Volunteered with recall campaign
  25. Continued spending time on, and making progress with, yard recovery project
  26. Spent time outside in my swing, reading and relaxing
  27. Continued supporting my 20-year-old in his return to the academic environment
  28. Made progress in cleaning/straightening/decluttering work room, bedroom & kitchen

Last week's most important accomplishment, in the opinion of this overworked and under rested blogger,
was the jettisoning of some items that have been clogging my agenda of late--this was by way of embracing summer, and its legendary opportunities to sit quietly on the planet and revel in its glories.  Now if I can just keep myself from indulging my busy-ness tic and signing up for replacement obligations, I may begin to recover some much-needed energy.

My focus goal for last week was to begin to declutter our house, and to involve my housemates in the excavation.  The plan was to start with the kitchen, my work room, and our bedroom.  As you can see, in green above, I did make some progress on this goal.  But I am almost always (my family would say always) too ambitious.  Our nest has been neglected for too long, and by too many of us, to be rewoven in a week.  Or two.  Or three.  So I am extending this focus goal at least into next week.  After I have unearthed a modicum of surface space, I intend to fight the impulse to move on, until the hordes of stuff have retreated significantly.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Taking Time for Summer

One take on chronic procrastination might be to redefine our to-do lists to reflect what we're actually likely to do.

Along those lines, I have observed in recent weeks that I am more likely to publish 3 or 4 blog posts per week, than I am to achieve my self-established standard of Monday through Friday, 5 posts a week blogging.

I have therefore decided to relax my blogging rule for the summer, and to aim for 3 to 4 posts each week.  This reflects more sensibly the time I have to give, what with two recall elections, one triathlon, and work for a major new web client vying for my energies.  It answers my "heart's desire" for a more leisurely pace than the one I've been keeping.  And it will instantly improve my rate of success, and transfuse my flagging self-esteem.

I may be, as some have suggested, a bit of a troglodyte.  But I savor memories of summertimes past, when life slowed, routines fell away, and there was time to read, to garden, and to play.  I am lucky enough to live in a house filled with books, with two well-stocked libraries nearby, just in case.  God knows my "garden," in a state of utter neglect, needs me.  And one of my favorite people in the world is three years old, and treasures his "long-Nana-days."

I trust the world will survive with one or two less bulletins a week from me, for the next couple of months. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One or Two Parts of Desire*

Something about my attention span, or what I like to think of as my "hungry mind," has me most often reading several books at once.  And sometimes, two or more authors are wrestling each other for space inside my head.  This is particularly the case when their words and ideas share conceptual and/or psychological acreage.

At present, I am making my way, week by week, through Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation as part of Put it to Bed's Procrastinating 101 feature.  At the same time, I am reading Martha Beck's The Joy Diet:  10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life.  Because who doesn't want one, right?

And the work of these two writers is intersecting around thoughts of desire.

Dr. Steel is concerned largely with the limbic system, and our difficulty controlling the impulses that arise from it, leading to procrastination.  Dr. Beck has her readers adopting a progression of habits, ranging from "NOTHING"--as in "doing nothing for at least fifteen minutes a day"--to "RISK"--as in "Every day, do at least one frightening thing that contributes to the fulfillment of your desires"--to "FEASTING"--as in "Have at least three square feasts a day [which] may involve food.  Then again it may not."

In week three of my retooling, ala Beck, I am directed to focus on "DESIRE."  "Each day," she instructs, I am to "identify, articulate, and explore at least one of [my] heart's desires."  According to Dr. Beck, desire is something that has been pretty effectively schooled out of us.  We are so busy tending, (or not, as Dr. Steel observes) to all the things that are required of us, and that others expect, that we are not much attuned to what we want.  We have been taught to be suspicious of what we want, and to regard wanting itself as selfish, and also as risky.  Because we expect to be disappointed, wanting something, and acknowledging that disposition, is setting ourselves up.

Dr. Steel is concerned with impulses, and an inability to delay gratification.  But in the conversation he is holding with Dr. Beck inside my head, they find common ground in their concern with what Dr. Beck calls "true" desire.  She says, and I believe Dr. Steel would agree, that the things we are afraid we might want, if we unleashed our minds and hearts, are, in fact, pale imitations of our real desires.  She holds that the addictions, distractions, petty compulsions and cheap amusements that pull at us--and Dr. Steel would say keep us from doing what we should--are not our "heart's desires."

In fact, those heart's desires are what we really should be doing, or concerning ourselves with.  And true procrastination, in some existential sense, might be seen as putting off the life we are meant to live (in Oprah-speak), rather than as the lag time we experience in getting down to business we have not been very intentional about agreeing to.

I find myself woefully out of touch with what I want, but I am looking forward to thinking about it.  For the moment, it seems to be almond M & M's, but I suspect that is not exactly in the realm of a "heart's desire."  Obviously, it will take some work to uncover the real stuff.  But in the meantime, chocolate couldn't hurt, right?
*This post's title was suggested by a (much more serious) book I love, entitled Nine Parts of Desire:  The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Procrastinating 101: Who Can Afford All This?

Poster child for the Costs of Procrastination?
In Chapter 5 of The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Piers Steel brings in two of my favorite subjects--colonoscopies, and the superfluity of ABDs like me.  What's not to love?

This fifth chapter, entitled "The Personal Price of Procrastination:  What We Miss, What We Lose, and What We Suffer," begins with the cautionary tale of famous procrastinator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the relative ruination of a career, and a life, caused by his extremes of lateness.  Oh, and the little matter of "a severe drug addiction," which should probably be regarded as contributory.

Following this horrifying preamble, Dr. Steel shares the results of a survey he conducted on his website,  While few of us rise to the level of the apparently self-destructive author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Steel's survey provides a sketch of procrastination's impacts in our lives--or at least those self-selecting individuals concerned enough about procrastination to visit the site, and complete the survey.

Results of the 4000 online responses reveal fascinating patterns in procrastination difficulties across twelve "major life domains."  These domains, in descending order of average levels of procrastination (2=seldom, 3=sometimes, and 4=often) are:  Health; Career; Education; Community; Romance; Finance; Self; Friends; Family; Leisure; Spirituality; and Parenting.  Respondents also identified those domains which constituted their "top three problems."  56.8% named Career as one of their top three procrastination problems; 42.2%, Health; 35.9%, Finance; and 32.9%, Education.  In contrast, relatively few reported serious procrastination issues in relation to Family (18.9%), Leisure (11.4%), Spirituality (8.5%), or Parenting (4.1%).

Of course, I've never met a survey I didn't want to try my hand at (well, almost never).  My results would seem to fall into the category of atypical.  My "often" areas of delay were Leisure and Friends.  But the "biggies"--Career, Health, Finance and Education--all showed up in my "sometimes" group, along with Family.  My top three procrastination "hot spots"--those areas in which procrastination causes me the most trouble--are Finance, Friends and an area intriguingly left off Dr. Steel's list--I'll call it Household Operation and Maintenance.

I could not really identify among his 12 domains one which encompassed my worst postponement bugaboos--dishes; repairing all the appliances and fixtures my family keeps breaking; grocery shopping; laundry; mending; painting; amateur plumbing; straightening, purging and organizing all our stuff; mowing, and nagging others to make mowing happen; etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.  Additionally, the aspect of Finance which I find most troublesome is one I'm betting doesn't plague Dr. Steel and his fellow Canadians.  I am so frequently and grievously irked by items related to the management of my Health Insurance claims, appeals, snafus, and the like, as well as the resultant communications with providers and bill collectors, that I feel this area really deserves its own separate domain.  This is particularly so since the recent economic crisis has slowed the payment of claims to a rate that has taxed providers' patience, my short- and even long-term memory, and my filing space.

In further mining his data (minus information on Household Operation and Maintenance, and Health Insurance), Dr. Steel finds procrastination clusters, patterns which reveal groupings of domains that tend to "hang together."  Specifically, respondents' procrastination difficulties could often be categorized as falling into a "Success" cluster (Career, Education and Finance); a "Self-Development" cluster (Health, Self, Leisure and Spirituality; and Community and Romance); and/or an "Intimacy" cluster (Friends, Family and Parenting).

Again, I don't quite fit the mold.  My Success cluster hangs together pretty well, but my Self-Development and Intimacy clusters are somewhat scattered.  Like my mind, at times.

Be that as it may, I am warned, along with readers more or less typical, that
Whether your procrastination lies in the Success, Self-Development, or Intimacy cluster determines the price you pay for procrastination, as these three areas translate into three major costs:  your Wealth, Health, and Happiness. . . . Wherever your procrastination lies, the more you do it, the greater the cost.
Dr. Steel goes on to discuss, in distressing detail, some of the big ticket items related to dalliance in each of these realms.  The ABD story, so dear to my heart (See my previous posts, Any Better Designations? and Dealing with the Undead), is a feature of his picture of the costs of "financial" procrastination.  (He uses the term "financial," but I believe, judging from the scope of the discussion, that he is referring to the Success cluster, not to the more narrow Financial life domain.)  The "at least half" of PhD students who don't complete the degree waste their "immense investment of time," not to mention money, and forego, on average, the "30 percent increase in salary" that would result from finishing.  (So that's why I'm running out of money before I run out of month!)

In this section, Dr. Steel also touches on late-filing penalties on taxpayers; the compounding losses of those who fail to save early enough to take full advantage of compound interest; the financial gouging experienced by credit card balance "revolvers;" and other equally enchanting outcomes.  From his exploration of the results of dying intestate (without a will), I was motivated to clean up my testamentary act--as was Dr. Steel himself, who "completed [his] will within a few days of writing this sentence." The sentence in question referred to a statement regarding procrastination of wills in 1848, and read "In the ensuing one and a half centuries, nothing much has changed; right now, I bet your will is almost certainly either out of date of completely undone."

And as much fun as I had reading about the high price of putting off things financial, I enjoyed even more the graphic, eight-sentence, reality-TV-worthy description of a standard colonoscopy that opens the section on Medical procrastination.  Dr. Steel seems to intend that his straightforward depiction will help us miscreants to see that the procedure and its accompanying preparation and aftermath are no big deal.  Thus disabused of our exaggerated fears, we will presumably flock to the proctologist, or whatever specialist can visit this life-saving experience upon us.

We should also be enlightened to learn that,
not only are procrastinators less likely to pursue treatments but they are more likely to indulge in the very behaviors that create the need for treatments in the first place.  Procrastinators are health risks because their impulsive nature makes them susceptible to vices, attracting them to short-term pleasures despite their long-term pains.
According to Dr. Steel, us procrastinators are likely to smoke, drink to excess, overeat, drive carelessly, abuse drugs, fight, and (gasp!) neglect to floss.  (In my case, I gave up smoking long ago, and never indulged in most of the other behaviors, but I admit I seldom floss.  Mostly because I'm too impulsive not to fall on my face into bed at the end of a long exhausting day of too many damn things to do!)

Dr. Steel's consideration of religious procrastination focuses largely on how procrastination is viewed by the major religions.  He mentions another famous procrastinator, St. Augustine, whose feet-dragging approach to celibacy after his conversion to Christianity earns him a place on most lists of such postponement overachievers.  And he points out that
Procrastination is a universal theme in all these religions because we cannot predict when we will die; thus, the best time to repent, to act morally, to commit ourselves to doing good is now.
The overview was interesting, but I confess to wanting a little more help making the connections to the overall accounting of the personal costs of procrastinating, in this case spiritually.  Like not really taking time to figure out what the whole thing, this limited life we're living, means.

In the final section on what we lose by procrastinating, Dr. Steel writes about stress, quoting poignant posts on Procrastinators Anonymous and Procrastination Support forums; and regrets.
Looking back on our lives, it is common to feel that we should have gone for that degree or tried harder in class, that we should have mustered up the courage and risked rejection for that date, or made time for that phone call to Mom.   We are haunted by the ghosts of our own lost possible selves--what we might have been:  could've, should've, but didn't.
All in all, a sobering treatise.

Next week, the economic cost of procrastination to society.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Done for the Week: Less is More

I spent some time last week learning to do nothing--something I'm not so good at.  I've always been the whirlwind, the one with all the balls in the air, the "busy person" you go to to get something done.  

But I'm determined to master this new art.  Before I self-destruct.  The week's "done list" is still fairly long, but closer examination will reveal a certain amount of breathing room.

Done for the Week:  June 13 - 19, 2011
  1. Completed Week 4 of 15-week triathlon training program; ran once; biked twice; swam twice
  2. Swam once with my training partner 
  3. Organized training schedule
  4. Finished Saving Peacock Prairie, by Bernice B. Popelka; The Charming Quirks of Others, by Alexander McCall Smith
  5. Attended 2 yoga classes
  6. Attended Issues Night meeting
  7. Continued to work my two part-time jobs
  8. Created chains for two necklaces 
  9. Took two "just because" days off blogging
  10. Stepped back from organizational overcommitment
  11. Published 3 blog posts 
  12. Meditated 2 times
  13. Had lunch date with my husband
  14. Paid monthly bills
  15. Attended high school graduation of son's friend
  16. Celebrated Father's Day with my husband and sons
  17. Celebrated youngest child's 18th birthday
  18. Met with major new website client, made schedule for project
  19. Went out driving with learning teenager several times 
  20. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to his job
  21. Volunteered with recall campaign
  22. Continued spending time on, and making progress with, yard recovery project
  23. Spent lots of time outside in my swing, reading and relaxing
  24. Saw my therapist
  25. Supported my 20-year-old in his return to the academic environment

The most important 
thing I got done last week, I believe, was getting on track with my triathlon training schedule.  It was an almost daily battle to pry myself off the couch and get to the gym, or to hit the streets, the track, or my indoor bike trainer.  The weather was uncooperative, my schedule was jumbled, and my training partner was sick.  

But this is where the triathlete is made, in my limited experience.  The discipline, the focus, and just plain wanting it more than not, will get me to the appointed day in August, eleven weeks from yesterday, ready to run my race.  And along the way, I will get stronger, faster, readier, and more resolute--not to mention, calmer and happier.  All good.

And all traits that will serve me well in living the way I want, and doing the work I choose.

Last week's focus goal was to get organized for the summer, and particularly to trim the list of things for which I am holding myself, or allowing myself to be held responsible.   As you can see, the items I have highlighted include some not doing, which is a kind of progress, given my frazzled state.  I have more to do in this area. 

My focus goal for the week ahead is to begin to declutter our house, and to involve my housemates in the excavation.  I have been feeling the need to clear the decks for some time now, and it has reached the critical stage.  Visual clutter has blossomed into dysfunctionality, just in terms of space for work and rest.  It is also seriously interfering with peace of mind.  The priority areas for attention this week are the kitchen, my work room, and the bedroom I share with my spouse.  

And in between the necessary expeditions, I'll be on the swing. . .

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On the Couch Again

(Can you hear the Willie Nelson melody behind the title?)

I'm getting a fair amount of things done this week, but for some reason my current default position is sitting or lying on the couch.  In between work and errands and tri training, and the odd swipe at domestic sanitation and rearrangement, that's where you'll find me.  Unless I'm on my backyard swing/couch, or in my hammock/couch, weather permitting.  Much tea is being drunk.  Several books are in the process of being read.  Some phone conversations are being conducted.  And my new computer is too often in my face.  But the mode is definitely sedentary.  Oh, and the wardrobe?  Except when I have to leave the house (all too frequently, in my estimation), suffice it to say that my daytime and nighttime apparel are pretty much indistinguishable.

I'm not sure what that's about.  But I've decided it's not entirely healthy.  I'm getting stiff from lack of movement, despite yoga and almost daily brief but intense workouts.  And my mood goes south after a few hours of this sort of inertia.

My preliminary self-diagnosis is spiritual exhaustion--akin to the burnout we used to read so much about.  

Whatever happened to burnout?  Is it one more thing we can no longer afford in the present economic circumstance? 

According to that incontrovertible source, Wikipedia, burnout is recognized by the ICD-10: International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization, 1994, as "Problems related to life-management difficulty."  And anyone who has read more than a couple of posts here almost certainly knows that I have a few of those.  Problems, that is.  And difficulties.

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have theorized that the burnout process can be divided into 12 phases, which are not necessarily followed sequentially, nor necessarily in any sense. . .exist other than as an abstract construct.

  • A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder
  • Neglecting one's own needs
  • Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
  • Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
  • Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
  • Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
  • Behavioral changes become obvious to others
  • Depersonalization (life becomes a series of mechanical functions)
  • Inner emptiness
  • Depression
  • Burnout syndrome
Uh-oh!  This is sounding familiar.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about dealing with burnout:

While individuals can cope with the symptoms of burnout, the only way to truly prevent burnout is through a combination of organizational change and education for the individual.  Organizations address these issues through their own management development, but often they engage external consultants to assist them in establishing new policies and practices supporting a healthier worklife. Maslach and Leiter [Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 52: 397-422 (February 2001)] postulated that burnout occurs when there is a disconnect between the organization and the individual with regard to what they called the six areas of work life: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Resolving these discrepancies requires integrated action on the part of both the individual and the organization.
But which of my many organizational contexts is the culprit?  And if, as I suspect, my problems are multi-situational, could the problem be moi?

Maybe a few more days' rest, tempered with a bit more movement, will allow some insight. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Procrastinating 101: From Hammock to "Halo"

In week 5 of our sojourn with Dr. Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation, we consider Chapter 4, "ProcrastiNations:  How Modern Life Ensures Distraction." 

Dr. Steel opens with an engaging tale of his personal struggles with video game addiction.  Of course, he passes off his most recent skirmish as having been in the interests of science.  Thusly:

To better write it [the chapter], I reacquainted myself with an old distraction, purposefully re-infecting myself with what had afflicted me for so long as a student--video games. . . . for the purposes of this book. . . . Oh, the sacrifices I make for science!

Wow!  Taking one for the cause.  And his drug of choice?  Conquer Club, the electronic version of Risk, a board game which nearly ended my first marriage, long before I eventually ended it myself, for much more mature reasons.

Steel identifies the following "elements" of his ensuing enslavement, typical of the situation too many of us find ourselves in these days.

  • proximity to temptation
  • virulence of the temptation
  • variable reinforcement
  • instantaneous reward

Following his consideration of the harmful nature of this form of entertainment, he goes on to discuss the even greater damage wrought by TV, in the six decades plus since it was welcomed into our hearths and homes, and its ongoing inroads with near-universal adoption of cable and digital service, DVR technology, and migration to computers and smart phones.

And then there's the Internet itself, with its (ahem) blogosphere, 24/7 email, and social networking.  (Excuse me while I take a brief break to check my Facebook page.)  Not to mention the lure, for an information junkie like myself, of all the reference material (refereed and not), arcane tidbits, and spiritually uplifting (or not) stuff (for lack of a better word.  No, wait.  My computer-housed thesaurus suggests "resources."  Yes, much better.)

And the games!  No console necessary.  (My personal Waterloo?  Bejeweled BlitzAnd it's on Facebook.  A two-fer!)  One-stop shopping for the procrastinator.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the shopping!  (Where else could I spend 45 minutes searching for the exotic new tea-processing device I recently saw in Seattle?  Or the perfect, like-new triathlon suit for my next race?)

Dr. Steel doesn't mention porn, but no matter whose numbers you believe, it seems pretty clear that the pursuit of prurient interests on the Internet is not adding to our productivity.  One much-cited source tells us that 25% of all search engine requests (68 million a day) and 35% of all Internet downloads are pornographic; that every second, 28,258 Internet users are viewing porn; and that 20% of men and 13% of women (but not this one) admit to watching pornography at work.  Another claims that 70% of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9 to 5 workday.

But whatever we're doing on the Internet, and the TV, and our cell phones, smart and otherwise, and our Wii's and Playstations and X-Boxes, and our iPads, a lot of it could properly be termed procrastination.

As Dr. Steel says, "Every distraction the modern world offers also exacerbates the mismatch between who we are and what we need to be."  

And, more pointedly, 

Modernization brings with it procrastination.  As our economies have grown over the last few decades, we have experienced a fivefold increase in chronic procrastination.  In the 1970s, 4 to 5 percent of people surveyed indicated that they considered procrastination a key personal characteristic.  Today, that figure is between 20 and 25 percent, the logical consequence of filling our lives with ever more enticing temptations [or of ever more books, articles, and blogs about procrastination?].
And while work is as much fun as it ever was (!), whole industries have grown up around the competition for our time and attention.   And with all this proliferation of entertaining alternatives,

[t]he rise of procrastination is hard to avoid, given its deep roots in our brain’s neurobiology.  The limbic system focuses on the now while the prefrontal cortex deals with longer-term concerns. . . . Though both the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex come together to reach a final decision, their duet ensures the rise of procrastination.

And the effect is purposeful, relying on sophisticated design and advertising:

Businesses respond to our dominant desires, so there is no coercion or conspiracy here, just the invisible hand of the market building a limbic system wonderland. With the ubiquitous overemphasis on the immediate and the material, on the instant and the consumable, people are seduced into putting off long-term but ultimately more satisfying goals involving career achievement, volunteering in the community, raising a family or following a spiritual path.  Materialism and consumerism are merely emergent properties of our neurobiology given free rein in a free market.

As he wraps up the chapter, Dr. Steel builds to a crescendo of foreboding, from this Aldous Huxley quote, from Brave New World Revisited-- 
 "All the resources of psychology and the social sciences are mobilized" with the aim of controlling people by finding "the best ways to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality."  

to this from Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death--

“the rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

And finally, to this—

In sum, the free market is geared toward providing increasingly irresistible temptations that distract us from our greater goals.

Never before in our history have there been as many temptations, as succulently devised, as readily available, and as adeptly marketed.  Adam and Eve only had to deal with a juicy apple purveyed by a serpent.  Nowadays, our apple is caramel coated and chocolate dipped, marketed with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in a blitz of commercials, pop-ups, and inserts.  Inevitably, as our lives drown in these diversions, our procrastination is on the rise.

The exploitation of the limbic system is baked into capitalism and you can’t stop it without making the entire wonderful wealth-generating machinery grind to a halt.  Someone will always create a product that provides short-term pleasure along with considerable but deferred pain simply because we will buy it.  Consequently, dealing with constant temptation and its potential for creating procrastination is and will continue to be part of living in this world. 

But, lucky for us, we

are reading this book. . . . Learning better ways to cope with temptation and procrastination is what we will be doing together in later chapters; we will make the Procrastination Equation work for us, one variable at a time.

Except earlier, Steel hazarded a guess that those of us making our way through this third chapter would have already been engaged in reading the book for about three months—based on statistics about how much time people spend, relatively, watching TV versus reading.  So the (over)haul is likely to be a long one.  

And what of those of us who will remain unremediated?   

I've spent a fair amount of the last, well, more than a decade, reading about young people who are "twice exceptional," "driven to distraction," and "differently abled," in the attempt to facilitate the education and uprearing of my middle child (And what kind of word is that, anyway, uprearing?  And what might it mean about the tendency to "rear up" that I observed in that same dyslexic, ADD, and eventually depressed son, as he wrangled with the academic powers-that-were in his tender years?).  But are any of us, however abled, immune from the cultural influences so hauntingly described by Dr. Steel?  And which is the new, and which the retro neural architecture, and "learning style?" 

Will the successful educational institution, and workplace of the future accommodate the brains our technology is rebuilding, so that work becomes more reinforcing?  My husband, the university professor, has adapted his pedagogy to reflect the cable-ready students who must take his courses.  The end result?  What appears to be real learning seems to be taking place, and students flock to sign up for his classes, and swell his waiting lists.  But is this pandering, akin to the infotainment that passes for news coverage on our TV screens?

Dr. Steel's description of the forces of distraction is compelling, if distressing.  He does not, however, examine the cultural shifts involved in what might be termed our present day procrastination hysteria.  As leisure shrinks, and work and its demands consume us more and more, are we more focused on the unproductivity we therefore problematize?  Steel provides this example of early 20th century exhortations about procrastination, from William Bagley's 1911 treatise on "The Craftmanship of Teaching," in which he described 
the "hammock on the porch," the "fascinating novel," and the "happy company of friends" as the "seductive siren call of change and diversion, that evil spirit of procrastination!"

Were the hammock, the novel, and the friends' happy company really so much less distracting a century ago?  Or were those who turned to them perhaps less overwhelmed with work, and less concerned about dalliance?

For myself, as I wrote this piece over the course of the day, I took a page out of Dr. Steel’s book, literally, and got in some Solitaire ‘Til Dawn (Forty Thieves), and a little Facebooking.  I also stopped off at the donut shop for some empty calories to celebrate my son’s return to school, after a several year hiatus for academic detoxing.  I spent some highly distracting, and enjoyable time in a hammock, socializing with my husband and kids.  I read a bit.  I checked my email to see what time I was supposed to meet my running partner.

I'm not always clear what is really "productive," goal-oriented use of my time, and what is real distraction.  I do know, though, that I am enjoying wrestling with Dr. Steel's ideas, and their articulate presentation.

Next week--Chapter 5:  The Personal Price of Procrastination.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Done for the Past Two Weeks: Way Off My Beaten Path, for Once

A good chunk of the past couple of weeks was spent traveling, an accomplishment in itself, as you will see.  
While getting ready to leave, while away, and since returning, these things got done:

Done for the Past Two Weeks:  May 30 - June 12, 2011
  1. Continued training for triathlon; biked 3 times, ran 4 times
  2. Ran twice with my training partner 
  3. Finished TheWorld According to Bertie, by Alexander McCall Smith; The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, by Alexander McCall Smith; People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks; Life After Loss:  Conquering Grief and Finding Hope, by Raymond Moody and Dianne Arcangel
  4. Went to "Train Day" with my daughter and grandson
  5. Attended 1 yoga class
  6. Provided last-minute emergency assistance with major annual project
  7. Survived eleventh-hour travel plans disaster
  8. Succeeded in enjoying first real vacation ever with my husband of fifteen years
  9. Met my cousin, her husband, and new in-law for brunch in Seattle
  10. Walked and biked and ferried around Seattle with my husband
  11. Mailed postcard to my mother
  12. Continued to work my two part-time jobs 
  13. Attended the Bead & Button Show with my sister
  14. Took extra "trip recovery" day off blogging
  15. Published 5 blog posts 
  16. Wrote 2 gratitude journal entries
  17. Got my husband to the gym with me once
  18. Meditated 12 times
  19. Oversaw completion of bathroom electrical work
  20. Had lunch date with my husband
  21. Completed website in time for client's book launch
  22. Contracted with major new website client
  23. Watched six playoff basketball games with my sons and husband
  24. Went out driving with learning teenager several times 
  25. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to his job
  26. Began spending time on, and making progress with, yard recovery project
  27. Spent lots of time outside in my swing, reading and relaxing
My focus goal for the past two weeks was to meditate and relax.    

During the years when I was overwhelmed with the challenges of raising a bright, sensitive, dyslexic child, a favorite resource was Rick Lavoie's video, How Difficult Can This Be? F.A.T. City--A Learning Disabilities Workshop.  The question posed in Lavoie's presentation, which called on teachers to apply compassionate understanding in working with "LD" kids, seems an apt one to put to myself, in this context.  How difficult can it be to consistently attend to my own need for peace of mind?  Not rocket science, surely.  But a struggle for me, nonetheless.  

On vacation, I managed to meditate every day, without benefit of routine.  And I squeezed in a fair amount of relaxation while gone, and since returning.  Then again, I was sheltered for much of this time from the gazillion demands that fill every non vacation day.  I think it best, however, to rest on what laurels I have at this juncture.  So I'm gonna say done, and done.

My most important
accomplishment of the past two weeks, hands down, was having a wonderful time with my husband on the first real vacation we've taken, without kids, in fifteen years of marriage.  Turns out I retain my splinter abilities to travel, to explore new and even novel settings and experiences (somewhere short of bungee jumping, I admit), to spend extended periods of time solely in the company of (more or less) mature adults, and to connect romantically and intellectually with the man I married.  (Whew!)  And turns out my kids survived.  And that I didn't worry about them.  (Whew, again!)

For the coming week, my focus goal is to get organized for the summer.  Part of reentry from vacation was facing the realization that my everyday agenda is scattered, superfluous, and downright overwhelming.  I intend to look at all the things I have committed to do, and the things I want to do, and the things I have to do, and then to do some serious pruning.  I aspire to narrowing the gap between how I feel and live on vacation, and the rest of my life.  (Especially important given the dearth of vacations I have experienced in the course of my current family life, and the unlikelihood of that changing drastically in the near future!)  The level of dread and exhaustion that have been dogging me lately is motivating change, if nothing else.