On learning to be present (or: Present Me realises that Future Me does not exist).

92768b6fb5d15f42f14d28bd4cc2436bFuture Me has been writing this post for about a year now. Or rather, Present Me has been imagining Future Me writing and finishing this post for about that long. And, inevitably, someone else went along and wrote my post for me, before I managed to transfer it from my head to paper. I accidentally stumbled across this post about why procrastinators procrastinate today. And it is quite literally the best and most true-to-experience post about procrastination I’ve ever read. The basic premise is this: In all our heads, we have a rational decision maker. This is the part of ourselves who sets out with purpose to Get Stuff Done. But in the procrastinator’s head, alongside the rational decision maker, there exists an instant gratification monkey. While the monkey does what monkeys do (“eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult”), the rational decision maker has no idea how to manage its monkey, and things very quickly get out of hand: “It’s a mess. And with the monkey in charge, the procrastinator finds himself spending a lot of time in a place called the Dark Playground” (you’ll need to read the full post to find out about the Dark Playground. It’s a place with which I am too well acquainted).

Tim Urban, author of aforementioned brilliant blog post, also wrote a follow up – equally wonderful and helpful – post on how to beat procrastination. There is lots of insightful stuff in this post. But what resonated with me most is that “the root of the problem is embedded in (her) Storyline and (her) Storyline is what must change.” My particular Storyline is tied up with the terribly adversarial relationship between my Past, Present and Future Selves. And, of course, Mr Urban has written about this too. In his follow up post about the procrastination matrix, he captures the notion of Present Tim and Future (much more capable) Tim. Which is basically the (other) post that I have been meaning to but never got around to writing (probably because my life is in a constant feedback loop consisting of this: Present Me goes on Facebook to avoid the tasks that Past Me left for Future-now-Present Me, while acknowledging that Future Me is going to be seriously pissed at Present Me for spending the past hour on Facebook, and will in turn spend another hour on Facebook to avoid the work that Present-soon-to-be-Past Me is now not doing. Damn you, Past Me).

Here’s what Tim says about it: “Future You is a procrastinator’s most important ally—someone who’s always there and always has your back, no matter what. I know all about this firsthand. Future Tim is an amazing guy…Future Tim also has a discipline and balance to his lifestyle I could only ever dream of. I’ve never been much of an exerciser—but Future Tim belongs to a gym and does all the jogging for both of us, and I love how into cooking healthy meals Future Tim is, because I personally don’t have the time. Future Tim is the kind of guy we all want to be like—I suggest getting to know him yourself, which you can do by buying his books, since he’s a prolific author.” Like Tim, Present Me is too busy dealing with the f*#king instant gratification monkey to Do All the Things. Which is okay. Because Future Me is totally going to be all over Doing All the Things. But there’s a catch. Future Me has one fatal flaw. And this is that Future Me does not exist. It’s probably appropriate (though likely somewhat developmentally delayed) that, as I near middle age, I am realising, like Tim, that Future Me is an illusion. Or at the very least, that Present Me and Future Me are never going to meet up. This puts Present Me in something of a predicament. It means that Present Me is going to have to learn to Get Things Done.

When I first started working on my PhD, I had a friend who I would spend PhD mornings and PhD evenings with. Our running joke was that we were a PhD (read: nerdy) version of Thelma and Louise. The gist of this was that she was Thelma – driven, hard core, take-no-prisoners – and her approach to working on her PhD mirrored this. I, on the other hand, was Louise and was far more content making daisy chains and dancing around in meadows than forcing myself to sit down and work on my PhD. As long as we were in the same room together, we were mostly okay. I would work; she would occasionally allow herself to take breaks. But any time Thelma stepped out of the room – for a bathroom break, for example – Louise would go back to daisy chains and dancing. (Incidentally – but perhaps not surprisingly – this friend also went on to produce three children and a PhD in the time it took me to write three pages. She has now submitted her PhD and I am still trying to decide what I am doing my PhD on, or whether I am doing a PhD at all).

All of this really amounts to employing different terms to speak about the same thing: what Tim Urban calls the instant gratification monkey, the rational decision maker and the panic monster, Freud called the Id, the ego and the superego. In my PhD friend’s and my terms, Thelma is the superego (a.k.a panic monster), and Louise the Id (a.k.a instant gratification monkey).

I have previously written about procrastination and my realisation that, somewhere in my late 20s, I broke my self discipline (a.k.a superego / panic monster). The challenge I faced then, as I do now, is to find a way of getting the pendulum of self discipline to swing back towards the centre. Or, in other words, finding a way to settle more comfortably into my Present Self, and not spend so much time casting blame onto Past Me or casting responsibility onto Future Me.

You may have picked up by now that I have developed a little crush on Tim Urban. And here’s another reason why: a frighteningly how-did-you-get-into-my-head post titled “Life is a picture but you live in the pixels“. That greener grass that I wrote about? Those mundane steps you take to get there? Yes. That. Apparently that green-grass-life-is-good picture is made up of a hundred little every day pixels. Life, as it happens, consists of a whole lot of Todays. What this also brought home to me, though it is hardly revelatory, is that it is always going to be Today. And that means putting one brick on top of another until, one day, that metaphorical house I have been dreaming of is finally built. It means not taking the path of least resistance and giving in to the instant gratification monkey, or leaving it all to Future Me. Ultimately, it means changing my Storyline. So tomorrow I will start to work on adapting my Storyline. But tonight…Facebook.

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On getting what you wish for.

il_fullxfull.279536639So, it’s been a while. Over a year, since I’ve been here. And, despite my strongly stated aversion to change, pretty much everything in my life has changed.

A year ago, I had just emerged out of a particularly bad episode of depression and, technically, should have been happy. Anyone who knows me well might have been able to tell me that this could have been a slightly unrealistic goal for someone whose standard operating system looks and sounds a lot like Eeyore. Having spent 37 years with my Self, I am aware that I am, well, a little Dark and Twisty*.

At the risk of stating the obvious, my view of the world is strongly coloured with cynicism (it sort of goes hand in hand with the Dark and Twisty). But in my ongoing conversation with the Universe, I decided to send out a few messages about how I would like my life to look. And I decided to give it a visual aid to help it unfold this life before me. So I made (shudder) a vision board. The gist of the board was this: If I could just live in that city, and work in that institution, and be in a relationship, and be doing the running and dancing that I love, and get the chance to read and write and publish, then I would be the Person I Want to Be and that person will of course be happy. I will have arrived at my Self and in My Life.

Then the Universe decided to come to the party. (Or to throw a party at my expense. I’m still not sure which).

I applied for (and got offered) a job at the institution I wanted my Self to work at, in the city I wanted my Life to be in. I was also, despite all my beliefs and expectations to the contrary, equipped with the necessary emotional resources to overcome my crippling fear of change. I took the job. I packed up myself and my cats and all the parts of my Life and Self, and moved to this new city. The acute loss that I felt at leaving some of my very important people in my previous city was somewhat mediated by moving closer to some of my other very important people. The suburb I moved to is so delightfully free of hills (or any incline whatsoever, really) that I am for the first time able to run a respectable distance without actually stopping (or dying). The job that I have taken up allows me to be both an academic who can read and write and publish, and an administrator who can make lists and file things and channel all my obsessive compulsiveness into work I get paid for. The dancing is still a work in progress, but this is certainly a city in which there is no shortage of creative opportunities and probably all forms of dance you can think of (and some you can’t). And along with the cottage that I rented came a landlord who I fell so easily and so surprisingly into a relationship with that it felt as though the most inevitable and natural (and wonderful) thing in the world. (Note to self: Missed opportunity for a blog post here, fabulously titled On Landlords and Landrovers).

If you asked me a year ago if I was the sort of person who thought that if I just lost weight or got a better laptop/ wardrobe/ car or could finally meet (okay, kiss…okay, marry…who are we kidding here?) Colin Firth or had some or other such thing happen to them, then I would find happiness, I would have laughed. Probably scathingly. I am, after all, a psychologist. And a rationalist. (Also, a cynic). But one of my self knowledge lessons of the year has been that I subscribe strongly and irrationally to the belief that the grass is always going to be greener somewhere else…usually, some future place that I imagine I will reach and, when I do, the grass has moved or the field beyond this one is actually an even brighter green.

A vision board may be a handy psychological tool to work towards where you want to be. But what a vision board doesn’t tell you is, firstly, that you’re going to get to that place, do all those things, or have them, and still be your (mostly) same Self. And secondly, that you actually have to take all the little, mundane, hard and consistent steps to get to that place (e.g. being a runner requires that you actually run) and that you have to KEEP DOING THEM. I am beginning to strongly suspect that I wanted to get there, and then retire. Kick back. Relax. (Much like Allie Brosh spoke of wanting to win the trophy for being an adult, and then go back to perpetually surfing the interwebs). See, I’m really good at imagining. And planning. But when it comes to actioning, I’m a little less enthusiastic. I can sit in my head and think about who I want to be, what I want to do. But once I’ve externalised that in the form of a list (because having lists of who you need to be and what you want to do is a very satisfactory, brilliantly passive exercise), I want to just sit on the couch and watch series. I suspect this has something to do with a less than amicable relationship between my past, current and future selves (wherein my current self believes that my future self is a far more capable, fabulous and willing individual who will actually want to Do All the Things, and my future-now-current self is perpetually pissed off with my past self…but that gem of self knowledge is a topic for a post all of its own). Perhaps this is mere laziness. Certainly, the meaner voices in my head call it laziness. But going on previous experience of what I have apparently achieved in my life, I am not sure this is (always) true. Perhaps it means rethinking who and what I think I want to be. Do I really want to be a runner, when how much I love actually running is not at all? Do I really want to be an academic when that means spending most of my day inside my head trying to produce clever things out of it despite what all the mean voices say about not being very clever at all?

Change is very unsettling. It is also an opportunity to reassemble your Self and your Life in a newer way. Leave out the bits that you don’t like or that aren’t working for you. Unfortunately, in times of change you (and by you I mean I) tend to hold onto the bits that are familiar. My poor Self took fright and, in the face of all the change, began to employ old coping mechanisms. Control and order and routine (hello, OCD), and attempting to mould myself back into an old prototype of my Self, using my trusty yardstick of perfectionism to measure that self against. So I got everything I wanted but – surprise! – I am still the same old person. A person made up primarily of Dark and Twisty bits, who is always going to be at risk of falling into Darker and Twistier places in herself.

So what do you do when you get what you wish for? More specifically, what do you do when you end up arriving in the Life you wished for but your standard operating system is still Eeyore? Do you flagellate yourself until you damn well appreciate and love every moment of your life (tip: I’ve tried this experiment. It doesn’t work). Or do you write a blog post about not just making peace with but trying to embrace your Dark and Twisty Self in a way that allows her to assemble these new and shiny bits into a wonderfully dark and twisty Life? I am learning that this involves less planning and more doing, less future self and more current self, less visioning and more living. Less perfection and more compassion. And, still, many hours of sitting on the couch watching series. We don’t judge here (anymore).

*with thanks to BFF for coining the phrase as it applies to me