How many times have you heard someone, or even yourself, say, “I’ll start from tomorrow” or “I’ll start from Monday” or “I’ll start from next month” when there’s some new habit to form or a new project to work on? What is behind this common human tendency?
I’m not talking here about procrastination which is a general term implying a delay of action but I’m talking about delaying action and then promising yourself that you’ll do it at some perfect time in the near future. So, procrastination is only a part of this phenomenon.
Behind every human action or decision or promise, there is some kind of a reward. So what are the payoffs that we get by delaying important actions and promising ourselves that we’ll do them at an ideal time in the future?
The illusion of perfect beginnings
In nature, we see perfect beginnings and endings everywhere. Everything seems to have a start and an end. Living beings are born, grow old and then die in that very order every time. Many natural processes are cyclic.
Each point of time on a cycle can be considered a beginning or an end. Sun rises, sets and then rises again. Trees shed their leaves in winter, blossom in summer and then go naked again in the winter. You get the idea.
This perfect pattern of almost all the natural processes has led us to believe, at a very deep level, that if we begin something perfectly, it will run its course perfectly and will also end perfectly. It does seem to happen in natural processes but when it comes to human activities, nothing can be further from the truth.
A perfect human being who does everything perfectly can only be a fictional character. Yet, this fact does not deter most of us from believing that if we start something at a perfect time, we’ll be able to do it perfectly.
This is, I believe, the main reason why people make New Year’s resolutions and think that if they start their habits from the 1st of the next month, things are more likely to pan out perfectly. Gym memberships are usually much higher in January than they are in December.
Even right now if you decide to do something, let’s say read a book, you’ll most likely choose a time that represents a perfect beginning, e.g. 8:00 or 10:00. or 3:30. It’ll rarely be something like 8:35 or 10:45 or 2:20.
These timings just seem odd, not suited to begin great endeavours. Great endeavours need perfect beginnings and perfect beginnings must lead to perfect endings.
This is the first, though subtle, payoff that we get by delaying our work and deciding to do it at some perfect time in the near future. The second payoff is not only subtler but also more insidious, a classic example of human self-deception that can keep us mired in our bad habits.
‘You have my permission’
To throw light on this covert and insidious payoff, I’ll need to first explain what really goes on in your mind when you delay actions and promise yourself to do them in the future. It has a lot to do, like almost all other human behaviors, with psychological stability.
Let’s say you have four days to prepare for an exam. Today is the first day and you don’t feel like studying at all. You’d rather do something pleasurable, like watch movies or play video games.
In ordinary circumstances, your mind won’t just let you forget about studying and start having fun. It will keep warning you that there’s something important coming up and that you need to prepare for it.
Let’s say you ignore the warning and start smashing aliens on your PlayStation. After some time, the warning comes again and perhaps a bit strongly so that it makes you psychologically unstable.
You pause the game and think for a moment, “I have an exam coming up. When am I going to study for it?” Your mind has succeeded in seriously warning you.
Today, all you want to do is to have fun. But your mind keeps nudging you, saying, “Dude, Exam! Exam!”
You need to quieten your mind so that you can play your game in peace. So you come up with an ingenious plan. You tell yourself something like this
“I’ll start from tomorrow and three days should be sufficient for preparation.”
What a lie! You have no idea if three days are sufficient or not. That’s why you use “should” and not “will”. But your mind is now satisfied. You’ve managed to convince it.
You’ve managed to quieten it. “You have my permission son, enjoy!” it says to you. And when your mind doesn’t bother you, you become psychologically stable.
That’s what this whole thing was all about- regaining psychological stability.
This is not true only for exams. Take any good habit or any important project that people want to start and you’ll see them following the same pattern. It serves only two purposes- quietening the mind and giving oneself permission to indulge in one’s pleasures. What really happens in the future doesn’t matter.
Tom: “I want to eat another pizza.”
Tom’s mind: “No! One’s enough! Your body weight is far from ideal.”
Tom: “I promise, I’ll start running from next week.”
Tom’s mind: “Okay, you have my permission. You can have it.”
Does he seriously plan to run from next week? Doesn’t really matter. He managed to quieten his mind for the time being.
Amir: “I’m in the mood to watch an action movie.”
Amir’s mind: “But what about that book you need to finish today?”
Amir: “I can finish it tomorrow. Hell won’t break loose if I delay it one day”
Amir’s mind: “Okay dear, you have my permission. Go watch!”
I’m not saying that every time we postpone something, we do it to indulge in our unwanted habitual behaviour. Sometimes the postponement can be very reasonable and rational.
In fact, it may be the best decision that you could possibly make at that moment. Also, I don’t consider pleasurable activities as bad- only when they interfere with our important goals or when they turn into addictive behaviours.
The purpose of this post was to show you what mind games we play to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, even when we know deep down that it is not the right thing to do.
When we become aware of what we’re really doing, we are bound to change our behaviour. You can’t change that which you’re not conscious of.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 400+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4.5 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.