Personal Development

The Cost Of Imagination

I used to live in a neighborhood with some old warehouse buildings that had been converted into furniture shops. One of these shops was supposed to be a lighting shop. It had no windows. Strolling past the place one day, I turned back on a whim, pulled open the huge, steel door and finally took a look inside.

To my surprise, the whole place was dark. Was it closed? I stepped further in and the door fell shut. A small, dim desk lamp revealed a stack of papers on a desk near the entrance where I stood. Before long, I noticed a guy sitting behind that stack of papers.

This guy, disheveled and somewhat disgruntled in my memory, stared back at me. With an air of weariness, he began flipping switches on a large panel. One by one, clusters of lights came on, five here, twelve there, until the flipping was complete: a loud electrical hum could now be heard as hundreds of lamps and fixtures of every conceivable variety blasted their light throughout the enormous interior – just for me.

I walked around, stunned by the brightness, as if I had been transported into a production of Haydn’s Creation oratorio during the “And there was light!” passage.

When I began heading for the exit, after a few moments of pretend shopping, I heard the switches being flipped again, as one section of lights went dark, then another, then another. And there was no more light!

Why would a lighting shop keep itself dark? Presumably to save power and keep the place from overheating. No point paying the electric bills for hundreds of lamps burning in the absence of customers. 

I’ve come to think of my experience in this lighting shop as an analogy for memory itself. My memory is like that dark warehouse interior. Much of the time, the lights are off and I can’t see – in brilliant color – all of the experiences I’ve had, all of the people I’ve known, all of the places I’ve been. But sometimes the right switches are flipped, the juice flows, and my memory lights up. Recollections become more vivid, intense, and tangible. In these moments I can see my grandmother’s kitchen and taste her tomato salad.

The point is that brilliant memory, like the lighting in the shop, consumes a sort of energy, call it “mental energy,” call it focus or alertness or drive. The same is true of any kind of imagination, whether we’re imagining the past, or the future, or imagining a real, living person we’re interacting with online, through written words alone.

As I go about my day, I’m constantly using my imagination in ways that require energy. Imagination isn’t free. We have to bring something to the process of imagination to get something out of it. But I’m not always aware of how much energy it demands and how much I’m actually bringing to the task.

It’s as though I’m trying to flip the switches to light up the past, but there’s not enough electricity available at the moment to power all those lights, so the past stays dark and dim. I look around and conclude that the past was dark and dim. I think of the future and the same thing happens. If I don’t currently have the mental reserves to fully illuminate my image of the future, I might spend my time “looking” at a dim, murky image of what the future might hold, and then grow gloomy about what that image shows me. It’s as though I had walked into that lighting shop but only two or three fixtures were turned on, out of hundreds available. I looked around and concluded that this paltry light was as bright as the shop could get, so the place wasn’t worth visiting.

Imagination brings a risk of false conclusions. We might conclude that the past was not as rich as it actually was, the future is not as promising as it might be – not because we lack the capacity for imagination – but because we are in the habit of imagining “on empty.” That is to say, we expect our imagination to perform at full capacity whenever we call upon it, and this expectation convinces us that whatever our imagination delivers to us is the best possible product. Whatever it shows us now must be all there is to show.

A negative cycle comes about where feel a bit down, so we look for some kind of consolation in the past or future, but we envision these incompletely and feel upset by what we see, which only depresses us further, sending us looking again, without a light.

I’ve become more aware of this as I’ve continued practicing meditation. I find my imagination is most vivid after I’ve spent some time not using it. And I see how when I jump restlessly from thought to thought, I can run out of “fuel.” It’s like when you sit in front of a TV, surfing from channel to channel, and while there might be some great shows playing, your own lazy posture and lack of attention to any particular show makes them all fade into a blur, and you say “There’s nothing on TV!”

Imagination is supposed to be a virtue and a lack of imagination is a shortcoming. But perhaps there’s a case to be made that we should use our imagination less – which is to say, we shouldn’t expect it to perform all the time, constantly replaying memories and thinking of hypothetical scenarios, like a TV we never shut off — and taking what it shows us as definitive.

To a person who thinks of the past and complains it was all a waste: don’t do that if you’re not well-rested enough to go on the journey back and see what’s really there. 

To a person who thinks of the future and finds it bleak: don’t do that if you’re exhausted at the moment. You’re probably seeing a tired image. But there’s good news in that.

Personal Development

A Trick for Being In the Moment By Choosing What To Look Forward To

When I finally got out for a hike one day this past Fall, after weeks of being mostly cooped up inside, I made a plan with my hiking partner that after the journey, we’d stop at a brewery for dinner and beer.

The hike was supposed to be my chance to move my body and experience the joy of being outdoors in a beautiful natural setting. And it did feel good. But the joy of it was diminished by my eagerness to get to the brewery. I found myself looking forward to the beer in a way that devalued the hike, casting it as a prelude to something I wanted more. I wasn’t able to “be in the moment” because I was anticipating a reward that would come later, once I had “gotten through” the present activity. 

How could I prevent the phenomenon of tunnel vision from diminishing my time outdoors? I could remind myself to enjoy the beauty of the trees and the hills, but these reminders we give ourselves don’t always stick. I could cancel the brewery plan so that I’d no longer have something to distract me from the hiking experience, but this would leave me feeling disappointed and looking for justifications to reverse the cancellation.

I came up with a trick. I would find something else to look forward to, something that could take the place of the brewery as the target of my expectation, something that would reinforce rather than detract from the experience of the hike.

I said to myself, “I’m looking forward to the calmness and satisfaction I will feel as a result of each of the many steps I’m taking on this hike. I’m looking forward to the experience of having communed with nature, the experience of having put my body into action to follow the hiking trail, having ascended the hills and emerged from the valleys, having seen the late afternoon sun grow golder, having heard the birds and the wind, having taken deep breaths of the forest air. ”

And guess what? It worked. 

My new, substitute expectation might be a mouthful, needing more words to describe than beer does, but “post-hike calmness and satisfaction” is a very real experience that I know from many hikes past – it’s an experience that’s tangible and specific enough for me that I really can “look forward” to it, in the same way I might look forward to a beverage.

The difference between these two targets of anticipation, these two available choices of how to set my expectations while I hike, is that one helps me enjoy each moment of the journey, while the other makes me want to get through with it so I can have what comes next. The beer is something different from the hike, something that “comes next,” while the post-hike satisfaction is something that derives from the hike, something that is inseparable from it.

Of course it would have been nice if I were such a Zen master that I didn’t need to have anything to look forward to and could simply appreciate the hike moment-by-moment. It would have been nice to not need a technique for embracing the present. But sometimes there’s no way to simply will oneself to “be in the moment” and we can benefit from a little trickery to help us achieve that state. 

The trick I’m proposing is to choose something to look forward to that redirects your attention back to the present. By forming an image of post-hike satisfaction and looking forward to this image, it might seem that I’m sending my attention away from the present and towards some future state. But in fact, this image serves to reroute my attention back to the present, as if the image of the post-hike satisfaction were a mirror reflecting each of the moments that I experience along the way. The more I look forward to the post-hike satisfaction the more I realize that this desired state can only come from each step I’m taking, including the current one, and so the more I appreciate that current step.

As I write this essay a few weeks after the hike, I remember that day outdoors as a particularly wonderful, calming experience. And I wouldn’t recommend a technique without having tried it out and had success with it at least twice. So here’s my second success story for the expectation technique, the trick for being in the moment by choosing what to look forward to:

The holidays can be really stressful for reasons I won’t elaborate here. Earlier this December I found myself thinking “I can’t wait to get through Christmas and have it be over with.” But I knew that the anticipation of “being done” with Christmas would only intensify the stress of each moment prior to its being done. So instead I said, “I’m looking forward to the experience of having connected with my loved ones. I’m looking forward to the satisfaction of knowing that I did what was needed to help everyone be together and have a good time.” And guess what? It worked. I had a good Christmas, in large part because I wasn’t thinking about “getting through” the holiday to attain some relief when it would finally be over. I had a good Christmas because I chose to look forward to a post-Christmas experience that could only come about by my being present for each moment of the holiday itself.

Personal Development

5 Questions To Improve Any Situation

  1. What is your view of the situation?
  2. What is the consequence of your holding that view?
  3. What is the consequence you want?
  4. What alternate view would produce that desired consequence?
  5. How can you move your current view towards that beneficial view?

Example: I am writing an essay. My view of the situation is that I’m headed for failure: the essay won’t do justice to the idea at hand, because I don’t have the time or focus write everything I want to say. The consequence of holding this view is that I’m likely to abandon the essay. The consequence I want is that the essay gets published. An alternate view of the situation that would bring about the desired consequence is to believe that what I have already written is good enough. I can move move my current view towards the beneficial view if I remind myself that keeping an essay short and sweet does more “justice” to the idea than attempting to write a long, elaborate essay that never gets finished.

Background: Where did these 5 questions come from? The short answer is that they popped into mind a few mornings ago at the end of a coffee-and-meditation session. The long answer is that in 2018 I took a course in mindfulness techniques at the Benson-Henry institute at MGH in Boston and there was one aspect of the course material that shocked me. A central theme in the course was to use “perspective” to one’s advantage. The instructor defined a “distorted perspective” as any perspective that doesn’t serve you, any viewpoint that doesn’t help you cope with a situation. This shocked me because I would typically think of a distortion as an inaccurate idea, one that is out of whack with the reality of the situation, to whatever extent that reality is knowable. But in this framework, the reality or “truth” of the situation is not what matters; all that matters is the utility of your concept of the situation. A concept that helps you handle or adapt to the situation could be called an “adaptive perspective” and everything else is “distorted!” The course material focused on identifying “distortions” and trying to convert them into adaptations. The shock of sidestepping the question of truth (and treating utility as a substitute) was so strong for me that I never forgot it. To see this “move” performed in the context of abstract philosophical discourse would not have shocked me, but to be asked to actually perform the move in my own thoughts most certainly did. These 5 questions are probably the remnants of that experience as it has percolated in my mind for five years.

Discussion: I purposefully worded Question 5 to speak of “moving” one view “towards” another, rather than simply adopting the new view. I don’t have the ability to believe whatever I decide it might be useful to believe, and I think that having such an ability could be quite dangerous. But, acknowledging that my beliefs and outlooks are constantly being nudged one way or another by a host of forces and factors, the idea here is to be a more active and intentional participant in the nudging.

Personal Development

What if I valued health above all else?

I’m not sure that a person needs to have one overarching priority in their life – we are complex beings capable of holding multiple values and goals that conflict with each other as often as they agree. Still, we can learn a lot about ourselves by going through the exercise of picking one priority as our top one. That’s because our true attitudes only reveal themselves when we’re forced to make a choice. 

If you asked me to name my top priority, I’d say it’s creative expression. What I’m seeking in life is to realize my creative vision as a musician first; then as a visual artist and writer. If creative expression is a form of achievement, then you could say my value scheme is oriented around achievement. Of course, creative expression is more than achievement; it can be a form of giving; a form of connecting; a form of prayer; but I will be simplistic and refer to it as achievement here because I am trying to draw a specific contrast.

If achievement is one priority, another priority for me is health. When I talk about health I mean “big picture” health. That includes physical health. It includes mental and spiritual health. And it includes interpersonal health, social health, relational health. 

If health and achievement are two things that matter to me, what’s the problem?

The problem is that if health is second to achievement in my value scheme, it becomes a victim of compromise. To situate health in the number two slot poses no real “ask” of me – no challenge to my current habits and routines – because I can always argue that health is receiving a decent enough level of attention for its rank. It’s true that I’m not getting quite enough exercise, or making quite enough time for friendships, or giving quite enough attention to psychological well-being, but I’m doing much better than I could be.

But what if I were to swap my priorities? What if I were to position health – big picture health – as the most important thing in my life, with achievement taking second place? What if I were to dedicate the rest of my life to health, which could mean spending more time on health than on my creative goals? 

When I carry out this thought experiment, a host of objections begins to bubble up in my mind and I am going to list those objections here. 

I believe each of these objections is a kind of misconception that could be rebutted, but I’ll save the rebuttals for elsewhere. Whether I agree or disagree with these objections, they are lodged in my thinking somewhere, and they do have some influence over my choices. I believe they hold me back from being even healthier and happier, so I’m glad that this experiment has helped me see what they are.

So here are all the reasons why I “shouldn’t” make health my top priority:

  1. Health is not a path to distinction. It’s not a way to stand out. I’m not an athlete. No one’s going to remember me for being healthy, but they might remember me for my achievements.
  2. Health is fleeting. Age takes it away. A person can experience a health setback at any time, and everything could change in a moment – so it’s best not to become too attached to health. Achievements, in contrast, are enduring.
  3. The pursuit of health means sacrificing freedom and accepting a more boring, rigid lifestyle. It means giving up on the risks and indulgences that bring fun and sparkle to life.
  4. Health is potentially all-consuming. If I were to truly dedicate myself to health — to give it the time it actually deserves — I’d have little time left for anything else.
  5. Health is incompatible with true achievement. To really accomplish something hard, I need to focus on that thing to the exclusion of all else, which means compromising on sleep, exercise, social connections, etc.
  6. Health is incompatible with originality and creativity. Art is inspired by suffering. For example, the funniest comedians find material in their own bad habits. To be too healthy would be to become less interesting and less creatively potent.
  7. A focus on health is self-indulgent. It’s all about me and how I feel. In contrast, my achievements are contributions that I am offering to the world, for others to experience and enjoy.
  8. I’m healthy enough. No need to overdo it.
  9. Health is not my “style.” Health is oppressively positive. I need room for darkness and complaint, sarcasm and gloominess.
  10. Health is relative, impossible to define.
  11. Pursuing health would confront me with impossible tradeoffs. For example, living near an airport with all of its air pollution and noise pollution is bad for my health; but the community and social connections that I have in my airport-adjacent neighborhood are great for my health. It’s not clear how to resolve this conflict, or other similar ones, so I might as well not get too caught up in the pursuit of health. I should just live my life.
  12. Health is unattainable. Life presents us with too many stresses and challenges for us to expect to come out healthy. Illness is inevitable, in one form or another, so we must accept and cope with it rather than trying to surpass it.

But here are some arguments why health should be my top priority:

  1. Health is the foundation of everything else. Anything I might want to do in my life depends to some extent on my health; any effort of mine is more likely to succeed, the healthier I am.
  2. Health is a path to connecting and ultimately giving to others. The healthier I am, the less consumed by mental and physical struggle, the more present I can be for those around me.
  3. Re-framing my other pursuits – like making music – as a path to health sheds new light on those pursuits and infuses them with new motivation.
  4. Health is efficient. I could spend days, months, or years analyzing and trying to “cure” my dissatisfaction and distress. But if I simply get some vigorous physical exercise, eat well, and do some meditation each day, it largely melts away.
  5. My health — or lack thereof — defines my experience of being alive. It’s how I feel in my body and mind. I’m only alive for a short time. Might as well have as good an experience as I’m able to have, by being as healthy as I can be.

Meditation, Personal Development

When Meditation Feels Irresponsible

The popular image of meditation is that it’s a tranquil, virtuous activity, something monks and sages do, a path to wisdom, and not a thing that would ever be associated with risk or irresponsibility. 

But the feeling that you are being irresponsible is a sign that your practice of meditation might be growing deeper.

How can meditation trigger a feeling of irresponsibility? 

If you practice observing your thoughts and letting them pass, without clinging to them, or encouraging them, or following them down the paths they lead, you’ll find that some thoughts are like background noise, seemingly unimportant, and easy to let go of once you notice they’re occupying your attention. But other thoughts are unignorably urgent.

During meditation, you might remember you were supposed to call someone back yesterday but you forgot and they’re waiting and surely mad. Should you stop the session and call them right now?

You might remember a bill that you haven’t paid. Should you get up from your seat and mail the check before you forget again?

You might remember a medical test whose results are on the way. Should you see if they’ve arrived? Should you think through the possible outcomes so you can be prepared if your condition turns out to be serious?

In such cases, the thought or “interrupt” enters your mind and demands your immediate, absolute attention. Like someone shouting “Fire!” in a theater, it presents itself as an exception that you simply cannot ignore. The chance of fire is categorically more important the movie. The urgent thought seems categorically more important than the meditation.

While no one should ever ignore the word “Fire!” shouted in a theater, you can usually relinquish an urgent thought that occurs in the span of, say, a twenty-minute meditation session, trusting that if it’s really so important, you’ll be able to remember it and attend to it after the session ends.

When you do release the thought and bring your attention back to breathing, you might feel like you’re breaking an obligation or behaving in a reckless way.

Many of us are slaves to our thoughts – to one degree or another – and what perpetuates this enslavement is a feeling of responsibility. We take it as our duty to pursue troubling or urgent pathways of ideation in search of dangers that must be avoided, eventualities that must be prepared for, unfinished business that must be completed, and to never stop this pursuit lest we be caught unaware.

When you do stop paying heed to these mental exclamations of “Fire!,” even just for a moment, you might feel that you’re imprudently embracing danger. You’re being “bad” or foolhardy to pay no heed to such an urgent matter that’s presenting itself to your awareness right now – as if you were drunk or high and not in your right mind.

It’s true, when you meditate you learn to step out of your “right” mind – the mind where thoughts rule. And then a sense of obligation tries to bring you back. When you ignore the obligation, you feel irresponsible, but that’s good. It’s good because it’s a path out of servitude.

Personal Development

On Keeping Gratitude

It’s convenient to think of gratitude as an emotion that should come over us naturally, when the time is right, without our forcing it or making a fuss over it. Convenient because this view leaves us nothing to do but wait until the emotion spontaneously transpires. But if you believe that gratitude promotes well-being, that it can make a person kinder and happier, then you might consider gratitude as a thing you’d want to increase in your life even if the increasing takes deliberate effort. 

When you want to have more of a thing, you can create the thing, or you can conserve the thing. This dichotomy is true of money: if you want to be richer you can make more money or save more money. But what if you want to be “richer” in gratitude? Does a similar distinction between creating and conserving apply, or do emotions just not work this way? 

If you browse the literature on mindfulness, personal development, or positive psychology, you will find lots of exercises for creating gratitude. You might be asked to smile more. You might be asked to meditate on the topic of thanks. You might be asked to keep a gratitude journal, writing a list of the good things that happen to you each day. 

But what would it mean to conserve gratitude? Can we become more grateful if we focus on saving or protecting the gratitude we already have? Does this even make sense?

The idea of being stingy with gratitude, hoarding it for special occasions, is antithetical to gratitude’s very meaning – if anything, gratitude is a generous feeling and one that begets more of itself. But there’s another way to unpack the idea of “conserving gratitude” that does make useful sense.

The reality of gratitude is that when we feel it, we might not hold onto the feeling for long. Although gratitude is not something we expend, it is still something that can be lost, drained, or inhibited. So we can become more grateful by turning our attention to what inhibits gratitude – what makes us ungrateful – and learning to avoid those things.

What’s an example of a gratitude inhibitor?

Let’s say you’re having a fine day. You appreciate the gift of being alive – great! Then you spill some milk and start to feel angry and upset. Your perfect day is ruined. From then on, you can’t be happy about anything.

In this example, the spilled milk is not the gratitude inhibitor. The inhibitor is the assumption that you shouldn’t have spilled the milk. It’s the assumption that you shouldn’t have had an accident or made a mistake. It’s the expectation of perfection, the idea that perfection is your right. Once that right is taken away, you feel violated – attacked by reality, so to speak – and closed off to positive interactions with the reality that was so unfair to you.

By saying “I’m not perfect and perfection is not my right,” you can neutralize the inhibitor. Once you’ve accepted imperfection, perhaps you can feel grateful that you had some milk to spill in the first place.

I first started thinking about the idea of a “gratitude inhibitor” after a fight with my partner.

One day, a difference of perspectives led to a misunderstanding which turned into accusations and shouting. After the fight, my feelings were hurt and I couldn’t return to normal. I knew my partner and I would recover from this rough patch like every conflict we’d had in seventeen years, but that didn’t help. Why did I feel unhappy for days on end? How had my sadness become so intense?

I saw that my temporary anger was obscuring my gratitude for the person I had chosen to spend my life with. I couldn’t feel thankful for my partner at the same time I felt so mad. If you had asked me whether I still counted our relationship as a blessing, I would have said yes. But the answer would have been a cerebral one at the time. I wasn’t able to experience the gratitude in my heart in the very same moment I was experiencing the anger. The anger was the inhibitor, a powerful one.

I could see that the fight, with all its shouting and exasperation, wasn’t actually the thing that had made me miserable. The fight was like spilled milk. By itself, it wasn’t so bad and it didn’t have to make me miserable.

What caused the misery was the anger that built up within me in the hours and days after the fight. The anger obscured the gratitude that had been a longstanding source of happiness for me. The anger took that source of happiness away.

If anger inhibits gratitude, then forgiveness is a way to neutralize the inhibitor. In my case, forgiving my partner was a path back to experiencing the gratitude that had always made me feel so good.

Forgiveness is hard. But it can benefit you as much – maybe even more – than the other person, so self-concern is a good enough motivation to try it.

Another inhibitor is comparison. Today’s weather might be decent. But if yesterday’s weather was nicer, we think “Today isn’t as nice as yesterday.” Or “Today’s weather isn’t as nice as I was expecting it to be.” The comparison leads to a feeling of loss. The sizing up of “what is” in relation to “what was” or “what could have been” leaves us feeling cheated. Why do we have to compare in the first place? As soon as we stop comparing, we stop losing. We neutralize the inhibitor. We reclaim our appreciation of “what is,” whatever it happens to be.

In conclusion, there are two ways we can pursue gratitude. We can try to create more of it within ourselves, and we can try to hold onto it longer by noticing and avoiding the things that take it away.

Personal Development

Declutter like an investor

When I look around a cluttered room, I can see it as a physical manifestation of hope. Seriously. Each item that I’m unwilling to part with – it’s there because of hope. I hope I’m going to use it someday. If unconstrained hope can lead to a bloody mess, what’s the lesson? Must we kill our hope if we want to free ourselves from unnecessary stuff?

I don’t want to kill my hope, so I’ll frame the situation a bit differently, and see if a different lesson emerges: Each item that’s cluttering my room – it’s there because I’m avoiding risk. I’m avoiding the risk of regret. I’m avoiding a scenario where I throw the damn thing out and then wish I had it back, only to find it can never be retrieved.

The hat that doesn’t go with any of my clothes? It’s there because of risk avoidance. The folder of old notes? The camera lens I never use? Risk avoidance.

It can help to think of decluttering like investing. You’re investing time and effort in creating a cleaner environment that will serve your future.

What’s the best way to not succeed as an investor? Avoid risk. Be unwilling to lose money, unwilling even to accept the temporary appearance that you’ve lost money.

The same is true of decluttering. Want to fail at decluttering and keep all your unused stuff? Simply refuse to make any decision that exposes you to the risk of regret.

Of course, if you find yourself in tears after a decluttering project, missing everything you gave away, then you were probably too aggressive.  

Moderation works. At the beginning of your decluttering project, aim to miss maybe one or two things when it’s all done. When you experience this moderate dose of regret, take it as a prize, because it shows that you were willing to accept the risk that created the possibility of reward.

If you had taken less risk, you’d still have that old hat – maybe it’s something you loved – but you’d have a pile of other stuff preventing you from finding it.

Personal Development

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is pain avoidance. 

If something makes you feel good, you’ll do more of it. So if you’re struggling to complete a task, then it’s not making you feel good; it can’t be. It’s causing you some kind of pain and you’re avoiding that pain.

What can we learn from this view of procrastination as pain avoidance?

First, we can see that procrastination is natural. Avoiding pain is natural. It’s as natural to avoid pain as it is to seek pleasure. 

But avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are two behaviors that cause trouble if they’re not constrained. Procrastination is what happens when our natural tendency towards pain avoidance continues without a limit that’s firm, immediate, and external to the self.

We procrastinate on a task when nothing forces us to do it right now. There’s no predator darting towards us that makes us jump into action. We know we can get away with sitting idle another moment, so we do.

Often, we’ll try to simulate that predator. We’ll growl at ourselves. “You must do it, now!” We’ll promise ourselves that we’ll be very angry and upset if the thing does not get done by us.

Those words never have much of a chance. They are just words competing against our primal instinct of avoiding pain.

What more can we take away from this view of procrastination as pain avoidance?

We can see that there’s hope for breaking the cycle.

Anytime we find ourselves procrastinating, we can consider it as an opportunity for self-improvement. It’s a chance to improve one of the most important relationships in our life: our relationship with pain. 

Instead of saying “I’m procrastinating,” say “I’m avoiding pain.” What are you going to do next, having admitted that?

Yes, you can work on increasing your pain tolerance, learning to grin and bear it, so to speak. But you can also look closer at the pain itself. Why does it hurt so much, or does it? How does your response to the pain make it worse, or better? How much of the pain are you actually creating for yourself? If you knew you were inflicting that same pain on another person, would you stop?

Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of pain that are often involved in a “case” of procrastination.

Maybe the most common trigger for procrastination is boredom. But what is boredom? It’s the pain we experience when we crave stimulation and don’t receive it.

If we use social media, we’ve cultivated an intense craving for stimulation. We scroll through our feeds, looking for the next item that will excite or enrage us. When we don’t get the titillation we been trained to expect, we keep scrolling. Of course, when we try to turn away from social media to do something like writing an essay, we experience a loss of stimulation. Writing the essay isn’t as exciting. It’s slower. It’s harder. It’s more solitary.

If the essay and the social media feed exist in two competing panels on our screen, of course we’re going to keep returning to the social media feed. We tell ourselves to stop slacking off, and when this barked command doesn’t work, our self-esteem is damaged. We think we should be authoritative enough to tell ourselves what to do and have it get done. We should be virtuous enough to concentrate and keep our word. Breaking our word time and time again makes us feel ashamed.

We begin to fret over how much time we’ve wasted and how delayed we are on a task that could have been quick. We feel guilty about the waste. We compare the way our efforts were supposed to turn out with the way they’re actually turning out and we can’t bear the disappointment.

Observing our ineffectiveness, we begin to fear failure. Ditto if we have a high standard: we fear that we won’t meet it. This fear becomes part of the bundle of pain we must now avoid. 

Some tasks are large and complex. If we feel confused, indecisive, unsure how to proceed, this feeling of confusion becomes part of the pain.

As we try to work on a given task, we know there are other tasks we could or should be doing too. Are we spending too much time on the current one? Would it be better to switch? Could we be more effective working on something else right now, or should we stick it out? Our indecision around time management becomes part of the pain.

And so a mild pain like the pain of boredom can grow, through our avoidance of it, into a big tangled knot of different kinds of pain including the intense pain of self-doubt or even self-hatred. And our avoidance of that pain will intensify along with it.

The key observation is that most of this pain is self-created. The guilt, the fear, the frustration, the doubt, the anxiety – these are all emotions we’re experiencing in response to our own behavior.

We would surely hesitate to inflict this much pain on another person, and yet when we do it to ourselves we somehow have the idea that it’s necessary. We think that by feeling this guilt, by calling ourselves names, scolding ourselves endlessly, our suffering will grow so great that it will be greater than the pain of doing the task. It will serve as the counterbalance that finally snaps us out of our avoidance behavior and forces us to get to work. 

But our self-inflicted pain can’t serve as an effective counterbalance because it is not independent from the task; it’s tangled up with the task. There’s no clear, easy choice between guilt and work because the guilt doesn’t evaporate the moment we get to work; in fact, we feel it more strongly as we try to re-engage with what we’ve been avoiding. The shame that’s supposed to nudge us to confront the task actually repels us from it.

What is the solution?





To start, forgive yourself immediately and absolutely. Realize that self-imposed pain is not helping you. Your likeliest path to getting the task done is to regain self-esteem. It’s to feel better, not worse. If you think that you’ve wasted so much time and slacked off for so long and fallen so far behind that you can’t possibly forgive yourself, think again. You can forgive. If you’re alive, you’re a survivor. Be proud of that. Start there, with the acknowledgment that you had to do a lot of really hard things to get to where you are right now in your life and you got through them and you’re here – amazing. 

Be a cheerleader. Listen for the critical voice in your mind that’s saying “No, this isn’t good and you’re not doing a good job.” As soon as you hear that voice, drown it out with cheerleading. Don’t worry if the cheerleading seems contrived; trust that it’ll work. Say “Yes, this coming along. Great! Keep going!”

Try to summon so much positivity that you look forward to getting to work on the task because of all the nice things you’re going to say.

Think about the pain you’ve been avoiding. Is it the pain of boredom? Try meditating to reduce your craving for stimulation. Is it the fear of failing? The fear of not meeting your standards? Not being good enough? Not being effective? Envision yourself creating a “shitty first draft” and feeling great about it. Be flexible. Consider it a badge of honor that you’re willing to take the risk of reducing your standards to get something done.

When you’ve released yourself from all the pain that’s self-inflicted, when you’ve shedded the baggage, decluttered your mind as much as possible, now look at the pain that’s left, the smaller core of pain that’s intrinsic to the task itself. Is the pain of the task really that bad or is it something you can face? And if you do face it, what good things will be unlocked?

How much could a little more bravery contribute to your life? How much happier would you be if you could learn, through the task at hand, a better way of conceptualizing and responding to pain? Now’s your chance to practice.

Personal Development

A month of essays

In March and April I took on the challenge of writing a 300-word essay each day for 30 days. And then I wrote a few more. If you’ve heard of “Ship 30 for 30,” that’s the challenge/course I was doing. Common themes are music and personal development. I posted these essays to Twitter each day. Here they are all together:

Audience Building, Music, Personal Development

What can I learn about myself from a video?

Can video be a tool for self-discovery? If you make short videos with your phone, capturing little slices of your life, what can you learn?

I decided to put my camera in selfie mode while I was doing one of the things that’s most important to me in my life: listening to music. What does it look like when I do that, and what can I learn from seeing it?

Here is me listening to my piece, Garnet:

And here is me listening to my piece Birdsong:

What are my takeaways?

  1. Music makes me really happy. I already knew that. But these videos make me think about how I typically project (or don’t project) my experience of music to the outside world. When I write about music, I’m often concerned with communicating technical details, and all the theory can seem pretty dry and serious, I bet. And when a friend asks me what I’ve been up to and I say I’ve been struggling to finish a composition, perhaps it’s not evident to them how much I actually delight in that struggle. These videos give a direct look at how music actually makes me feel, and I’m not sure most people in my life have had a glimpse of that before. This get me thinking that as I move forward in life, I’d like to do more to convey my pleasure in music rather than keeping that pleasure inside.
  2. The ultimate way to experience a piece of music, for me, is to gesture as I listen. I’ve been doing this for my whole life, but only when I’m alone. This kind of gesturing is not conducting, where you’re guiding a performance using specific motions to convey your intentions. It’s also not dancing as we might typically think of dancing. You can do it sitting down, with your upper body alone. You just move spontaneously in response to what you hear, to imitate or interpret it, to express your excitement in it, to release the energy that it gives you. You don’t have to get anything “right” or keep accurate time — you can do whatever you want! Spontaneous gesturing is such an important part of experiencing music for me that I’m amazed by how little attention it gets when we talk about music appreciation, especially when it comes to classical music. If you want to get to know a piece of music, especially classical music, move to it, any way you want!
  3. When I think about sharing these videos, I realize I’m grappling with some perfectionism. I find myself asking: are these videos the best they can be, or should I make some more and see if I can do better (gesture more fluently, coordinate better with the music, improve the lighting and overall presentation)? As the composer of the music, I feel some reluctance to show myself getting “fooled” by one of the pieces — Garnet — thinking that it’s going to end a few moments before it actually does, even though that trickery is an explicit intention in the composition. The piece is working on me exactly as it should. But do I need to justify that? Sharing videos that aren’t perfect is a good exercise in personal growth, if one is looking to become less guarded and more accepting.