Wanting, but Holding Back

Excerpt from the blog You are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion, and more specifically, the article Procrastination:

“Thinking about thinking, this is the key. In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial – want never goes away. Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted. You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong.”


I admit it. Despite years of being rigorously self-controlled in high school and undergraduate university, with a strict regime of diet, exercise, and work, I have more recently fallen off that boat and become what my brother teasingly refers to as “human”. The me that once refused to leave my room in favour of writing yet another paper for school is long gone, replaced with someone much more relaxed and, I think, mentally and physically healthier. Before I would think things like:

“I won’t ever eat another french fry, but I am allowed to eat as many peanut butter-covered crackers as I want”

“I won’t break from school work until it’s done, but I will sleep 8 hours a night”

Essentially, I tricked my brain into feeling like I was making the right choices, when really all I was doing was focusing so completely on one single thing that I didn’t have to worry about balancing carbohydrates with vegetables or work with socializing. I removed all possibility of temptation and socialized very rarely; this brought me positive rewards such as high marks in school. What it didn’t give me was the internal struggle that everyone else has to face, the demon mentioned in the quote above – procrastination.

David McRaney, author of the blog and related books entitled You are Not So Smart, suggests that the reason for procrastination is the difference between the now-you and the future-you. Now-you is childish, primal, and desperate for pleasure and novelty (McRaney, October 2010). The now-you likes to engage in ‘hyperbolic discounting’, where you essentially dismiss current problems or to-do items for better payoffs in the future (McRaney, October 2010). This situation can cause you to over-commit to your future productivity – and is problematic when you get to being future-you and realize that you’re no further ahead and no more productive than when you were past-you (McRaney, October 2010). Disillusionment and self-flagellation ensues.

McRaney proposes that the solution to procrastination is not will power, drive, or day-planning apps on your phone. Instead, you have to “think about thinking, about states of mind, about set and setting” because this allows you to outsmart yourself and get more done in the present moment than in that vague, uncertain future where everything looks idyllic (McRaney, October 2010). Because chances are, that future will be less than idyllic and possibly more stressful than the present moment.

Although I’m faced with more choices in my daily life right now, and have to struggle to sit down and get work done most days when there’s no associated deadline, I think these are challenges that everyone has to face. It’s not healthy to be so rigidly focused on a single thing that you never get outside for a hike, or meet up with a friend for coffee. Nor is it healthy to be procrastinating all the time. A healthy balance between the two may be hard to achieve, but is a worthy goal to reach! Good luck!