Whenever I watch the Nolan classic The Dark Knight I wonder, what if the Batman had not procrastinated in taking care of the Joker, when Gordon had asked him to, right at the beginning of the movie, when Joker had merely robbed a bank in Gotham city - how would things have transpired then? Would things still have spiraled out of control as they did? Would all hell have still broken loose on Batman as they eventually did? After pondering on this I take solace by telling myself ‘Look Mayur, even the Superheroes procrastinate. You are only human.’
Often people come up to me and ask “what keeps you motivated each day to wake up and go for a jog? I can’t even get myself to shut that alarm in the morning.” To that, I only respond by saying “it’s natural, I too have my lazy days, days on which I also don’t feel like moving my ass, one bit” But when I tell them that the act of moving-my-ass has nothing to do with motivation, they feel stumped!
It’s got to do with pain and beliefs.
We all have beliefs about who we are and we try hard to safeguard these beliefs in a way protecting who we are from any external attack. Anything that threatens or questions or contradicts the way we believe ourselves to be, we surely delay or avoid or put off doing that thing altogether. Because this is hard. Trying to go against our identities requires a lot of emotional resistance. By going against I do not mean to go and rob a bank, it’s got to do more with doing something which we believe is not in line with who we think we are. The more that something threatens to disrupt our beliefs about ourselves, the more we resist doing that thing, the more we put that thing off i.e. the more we procrastinate.
Be it getting your ass off to go exercise daily, or go for a run, or follow that healthy meal plan or writing your blog article or working on that book you wanted to write, or going after those dreams of yours, in some way or the other you avoid doing that because it threatens your beliefs about yourself. If I believe “it’s not possible for me to lead a healthy life” then I will do exactly that to corroborate that belief I hold of myself. I delay in sitting down to write that book, I have been wanting to write, because the possibility of its failure will threaten my beliefs that “I write well.” I will procrastinate working on that idea because the possibility of its failure will threaten my belief that “I am a good entrepreneur.” The belief always supersedes the thoughts and emotions that arise subsequently.
WHY DO WE DELAY THINGS? - MAYUR’S LAW OF PAIN THRESHOLD
Chances are high that you have heard of the all-pervasive ‘Murphy’s Law’ that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”, or
even the ‘Law of Attraction’ famously put in the form of a third-rate movie's superhit dialogue – “Kisi cheez ko dil se chaho toh saari kaayanat usse tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai.”,
or maybe you would have heard the ‘Law of Repulsion’ which states, paraphrasing the above dialogue - “Kisi cheez ko dil se chaho toh saari kaayanat tumhari waat lagane mein lag jaati hai.”
Okay, I just made that up.
But the next time you do meet someone at an (online) booze party who talks about procrastination, you can boast-your-lungs-off by throwing at him Mayur’s Law of Pain Threshold, which states that -
At any given point in time, irrespective of how important the task is for us, as long as the pain associated with ‘not doing’ that task is less than our pain threshold, we will delay or procrastinate consciously or subconsciously. But the moment that the pain of ‘not doing’ exceeds our pain threshold, the scales will shift and we act.
I just made that up too!
Now, we all have our pain thresholds and there is a pain associated with not doing a task that may be good for us in the long run. The pain that we may experience in the long run associated with not exercising. The pain that we may experience in the long run associated with not following that healthy meal plan. The pain that we may experience in the long run associated with not working on that brilliant idea that we have. The pain that we may experience in the long run associated with not starting that business we have been wanting to. The pain that we may experience in the long run associated with not being on social media as of today. The pain that we may experience in the long run associated with not taking any action. And this pain varies from person to person. It can’t be quantified in Joules or Watts, but we all have an imagination of that pain. However, we wait till the last minute, till all hell has broken loose on us or ‘it’s just enough’ or we realize, like a bulb going on, that the pain associated with not taking action has just become unbearable. We then act.
BUT MAYUR, HOW TO BEAT IT THEN?
Look, it’s damn hard. Even the fittest of fit people on Earth procrastinate. Even the toughest of tough dudes procrastinate. Even the most successful of guys procrastinate. If someone comes up to you and says ‘I don’t procrastinate’ you can safely assume that he’s lying. So you need to understand that because we tend to delay things because of our internal beliefs and internal pain thresholds, procrastination is natural.
But have you ever experienced a situation in which, you aren’t bothered about the outcome of the task at all i.e. you are not emotionally enrolled about the outcome and you simply act in a carefree manner? You will notice at such times the task appears easy and smooth to do as if like the task unfolds itself automatically. Conversely, you may have also experienced times that the more emotionally enrolled you are about the outcome of the activity, the harder that task becomes for you. And so you tend to delay or procrastinate little by little. Like if I am freaking shit scared of talking to a crowd of people from stage, and if this task is staring right at me, and I keep constantly imagining that ‘what if I am unable to speak?’ or ‘what if people don’t like what I say?’ or ‘what if people start throwing shoes and sandals at me?’ and get all emotionally worked up about it, my tendency will be to delay the task further and further. But if I care jack-shit about what the people might think and am carefree of the outcome of the task, I’ll not procrastinate and simply take it on.
In the short term, maybe letting go of the narratives we have of who we are, gives us a sense of liberation relieving us of the pressure of doing that task. We should try to avoid being heavily emotional about the outcome and instead simply go perform the task by the sheer righteousness of doing that act.
In the long run, however, it becomes imperative for us to imagine what the pain of not doing a task might feel like or what the pain of facing the long-term repercussions of not doing that task today, might feel like and then act in accordance.
BUT, PROCRASTINATION IS NOT ALWAYS BAD
It’s tough to fathom that at times procrastination can work in our favor, and all thanks to the scholars who have always been shouting to ‘never procrastinate.' or 'Procrastination is bad.’ Now I know that you won't procrastinate if you see a snake in front of you. You will simply sprint for your life. But at very many times, procrastination might be our best defense. Romans were known to respect the act of voluntary omission and hence the Latin phrase Festina Lente, which means ‘make haste slowly.’
Think of when we say ‘time is a big healer’ or ‘time will tell’ we in a way are all procrastinating – to let events take their own course and give ‘time’ a chance to make things fall in place or bring things in order.
A person who believes himself to be a party-goer might find it identity-challenging to stay at home these days but because COVID is out there, procrastination may be his best defense.
Think of a doctor who doesn’t prescribe pills for viral fever and says ‘let the viral take its own course, let it subside on its own. If it persists then we will see.’ is using procrastination as the best course of treatment, as that doctor knows that in the long run prescribing antibiotics screws up the immunity, so if it can be avoided or delayed, the doctor does so.
Think of a doctor who thinks long-term and advises back exercises to a patient suffering from chronic back pain, vis-a-vis another doctor with a short-term outlook who simply advises going for an expensive back surgery accruing financial rewards for himself.
Think of an entrepreneur who intentionally delays his gratification by choosing to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow.
Think of an insurance employee who refrains or delays in the underwriting of a financially large risk and avoids a huge loss for his company.
However, in today’s times as Nassim Nicholas Taleb rightly puts it ‘a true hero in this Black Swan world is someone who prevents a calamity and, naturally, because the calamity did not take place, he does not get recognition – or any bonus for it.’