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

  1. […] my last post I wrote about the instant gratification monkey, a constant companion of mine. I also mentioned but focused less on the mean voices in my head, and […]

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