The Silent Killer
This episode is dedicated to the silent killer. It doesn’t make any noise – in fact, it’s characteristically silent. It’s the lack of noise, the avoidance of responsibility, and the deferral of work. It’s procrastination: putting off the important or less pleasurable for the less important and more pleasurable. It makes sense actually. Why do the hard things now if we can put them off to later? After all, there is always later, right? Maybe we’ll be in a better place to do it, or maybe we’ll actually have time, but it sure feels good to pretend it won’t matter.
The Dirt: There’s always tomorrow
We set goals with specific milestones
We delay and miss the first milestone
We start to fall off the pace
The next milestone becomes insurmountable
We give up and try again
Rinse and Repeat. Every Year.
Then we die.
It’s getting around to life insurance after the deadly accident. It’s deciding it’s time to save for retirement at 58 years old and realizing you can’t afford to make up the lost years. It’s the pile on your desk on a Friday with your dreams of weekend “freedom” only to come back on Monday to last week’s work on top of the new week’s pile.
“The fallacy is that there is always tomorrow. While that sounds good, tomorrow never really comes and one day, neither will today.”
When we put off doing that which we dislike, does it usually get better or worse? You bet, worse. Yet you’d be flabbergasted at how many ways we do this in our society: We put off exercising and healthy eating to find we’re overweight and sluggish, forcing us to workout in such poor conditioning anyways, else risk death. We utilize a 401(k) type retirement plan (with no knowledge of why or how it works) and instead of paying taxes today, we’ll pay the unknown going tax rate when we retire. Just curious, if you had the choice on when to pay taxes, would you rather pay tax on the seed or the entire harvest? How does that answer compare with your choice of long-term financial vehicle?
What’s the mindset of procrastination? I’ll submit to you that it’s a misunderstanding of value. The wealthy and successful are masters of value. Value is how much more you get in return for a given cost. Value only concerns itself with one question: Is it worth it? When making a value-based decision, it doesn’t matter how much it costs, how much time it will take, or how much effort is involved. If it is a good value, it gets done on time and properly.
If there were a suitcase with $1 million in it, 2000 miles away, with your name on it for the next 24 hours, would you go get it? What if you were tired or had a bad day? What about missing work or your kid’s baseball game? But it’s the season finale of Survivor, surely you can’t miss that? What if your car has a flat tire? So there’s no chance you’d NOT get the suitcase??? That’s the power of value.
The procrastination mindset may have a twinge of laziness about it, but most people are working hard, So it’s not a matter of being lazy, we just don’t see the value in doing the important things now. Our desire to live easy today exceeds our desire for living well later. We lack the vision to see the connection between today’s activity and tomorrow’s results.
Imagine we could cut out the middleman called time. That we could immediately translate what we do today into results tomorrow. For example, we know we shouldn’t smoke, but we decide to put off quitting. Instead of having to wait 35 years, we immediately find ourselves as a leather-skinned, raspy, cancer patient in pain. How fast would we drop our bad habit? How long would we procrastinate on quitting?
The fallacy is that there is always tomorrow. While that sounds good, tomorrow never really comes and one day, neither will today. It’s this comforting delusion of putting off to tomorrow what we must do today that eats away at our being. What if doing so not only robbed us of the results, but changed us as a person, and not for the better? Consider how you feel when you don’t get something important accomplished. Perhaps a bit depressed, angry at yourself, demotivated, loss of hope, or frustrated. Now go try to do something great while carrying around these emotions and attitudes. It would be like trying to win a marathon with gout in your right foot and inflammation in your left knee. Procrastination doesn’t just delay the good, it pulls us into a mindset that attracts more of the bad.
If that’s not enough, consider how you feel when you do indeed accomplish something on time. Doesn’t it feel good? That’s partially due to the release of dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter that is tied to our motivation and reward centers of our brain. So your dopamine hit, which like after a good workout at the gym, makes you feel good, accomplished, and fulfilled. That good feeling propels us to do more in order to get that feeling again. So goes our identity and self-confidence in a upward spiral of success.
Procrastination is not just delaying the inevitable, it’s sniping the accomplishable, leaving us a successor called failure.
What feeds our procrastination? There are a host of things that feed or at least facilitate our avoidance and apathy. Let’s look at a couple of them here.
Fear of failure. Somehow we got it into our minds that it’s better to ignore something than to fail at it. Isn’t ignoring something also a form of failure? When you procrastinate on filing your tax return and the IRS levies everything you own, have you succeeded or failed? When you put off that tough conversation with a loved one about their chronic drug habit and they die, was that a smashing success or a devastating failure?
If ignoring something is a sure way to fail, then all that’s left is to attend to it. This is not to suggest rushing into action when you don’t have a good plan of attack. In my field of finances, there are many less than optimal vehicles for long-term savings, but I would much rather someone save money in one of them than not save money at all. So be careful to never use planning as a reason to procrastinate. Shouldn’t the only thing we fear be not trying and living a life of regret?
Waiting for the right time. On the list of excuses, this one usually ranks near the top. Notice I didn’t say a top reason, just a top excuse. Could there be a good reason to wait? Yes. Is it more often used as a poor excuse that feeds our delusional rationalization of inactivity? Yes Yes. Just be aware of the distinction.
When is the right time to start saving money for retirement? Was it the right time this month? Last month? Last year? Meanwhile, at 8% rate of return, a 35-year old can put away $702/month at have $1 million at age 65. Waiting just 10 years to start, a 45 year old would have to sock away $1776 per month and a 55 year old, $5,595 per month. So the choice isn’t whether you need $1 million (according to CNBC 2017, this is the poverty line in retirement), it’s how much procrastination will cost you.
In object terms, would you rather carry in your pocket a marble for 30 years, baseball for 20 years, or bowling ball for 10 years? Such is our choice to build wealth.
If it’s important, the right time is more often now than not. Even if we jump the gun and get it done early, would that be so awful? Imagine having a choice between relaxing and getting more done, but only as a result of taking care of all the important things. Could this be one step closer to freedom? Isn’t such choices the reason we work so hard anyways?
What can we do to reduce our procrastination and increase our happiness, success, and all things associated? Here are a few things to consider.
- Know your big goal. See the bigger picture so that the tasks at hand don’t seem so daunting. After all, obstacles are those frightful things we see when we take our eyes off our goals. The bigger picture can help motivate you to complete the smaller pictures.
- Write down your daily tasks. Put them down on paper the night before. You may find you sleep more soundly and as a bonus, you’ll get your dopamine hit every time you cross an item off your list.
- Reduce to the ridiculous. How do you eat an elephant? Take a big task and break it down to smaller chunks. If you fear starting a whole new diet, start just one part of it each day until it is fully in place.
- Eliminate distractions. Yes, there are squirrels everywhere, but that doesn’t mean you have to chasing them. Put the blinders on and focus on your list. Once complete, open your eyes to all else.
- Eat the frog first thing in the day. Your frog is the one thing you hate to do the most. It could be phone calls, workout, or pay bills. Do it first, get it out of the way, and you’ll find yourself happier and more productive the rest of the day.
- Reward/punish yourself. You probably procrastinate less at work than at home because you are accountable to another person, or boss. When you fall short of your commitment for the day, have a small but meaningful punishment ready. When you do well, reward yourself accordingly. Use another person to hold you accountable to your system.
The good news is it only hurts in the beginning. Then again, it will hurt worse later, so if we’re not going to avoid pain either way, then let’s get it over with. Start with small commitments and work up to larger ones. If you can keep perspective on your today and can see the reality of tomorrow’s results, you’re most of the way there to “getting stuff done”. And that will put you in the top few percent of society, also known as a winner.
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
I appreciate every single one of you and I’ll meet you at the top because the bottom’s way too crowded!