Procrastination Part 2: The Power of Once
This post is a follow-up to last week that emphasizes the extent to which we (or I, anyway) do and don’t do things only partially out of motivation, but largely out of habit. We tend to conform not only to our individual habits of action and inaction but to labels we put on ourselves as a result. This makes turning over a new leaf especially difficult. But paradoxically, our very habitual nature gives importance and power to those times when we muster the strength to act differently just once.
In his book Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns identifies among the cognitive distortions that contribute to depression “all or nothing thinking” and labeling. These terms, whose relevance extends far beyond the field of mood therapy, refer to a dangerous yet prevalent human tendency to generalize about the implications of particular instances, assign simplistic black-and-white value to these implications, and then label ourselves as this or that kind of person as a result. (For a helpful list of cognitive distortions and ways to combat them, check out this page.
For instance, imagine I’m training for a road race as part of an attempt to live a healthier lifestyle. I have a goal of running every day. Yet one day I miss one of my scheduled runs. The all-or-nothing thinker in me over-interprets this (actually rather minor) event as a complete failure to live according to the healthy lifestyle that I value. The logic goes something like, “either I’m a fit and healthy person who exercises everyday, or I fail to meet this goal once a day exercise goal and thus fail in my goal of living a healthy lifestyle.” Moreover, the over-generalization does not stop there. One who doesn’t meet her exercise goals, I tell myself, is lazy, undisciplined, a failure. In this way, a minor event (really of minimal importance in the context of an exercise routine) becomes an excuse to tell myself I’m failing at my goals because I didn’t met them perfectly this once. But even more perniciously, a one-time event gives me the excuse to label myself negatively, and that negative label has power over me: when I think of myself as lazy and a failure, not only do I hold an incorrect view likely to damage my happiness, it’s also much more difficult to convince myself to go for a run the next day when I believe deep down that I’m not the kind of person who can do such a thing.
This labeling is a big part of how habits gain their power over us. Labeling can at times work for the good; if it is a deeply ingrained part of my identity that I am the kind of person who treats others kindly, then I’m likely to do so even on days when I feel bad and smiling is an effort. But labeling very often traps us into patterns we don’t desire. Our all-or-nothing, perfectionistic labeling of ourselves limits our potential and tricks us into maintaining patterns of behavior we don’t actually value.
This explanation makes understandable apparently illogical decisions that we often make when precisely the opposite decision is the logical one. Why is it easier to stick to a homework schedule, or a plan of healthy eating when we’ve been meeting our goals than when we haven’t? Theoretically, if I’m trying to maintain healthy diet, then the fact that I binged on ice cream last night should make me more, not less, likely to eat healthily today. But I often find that the opposite happens. When I fail to meet my goal once, my subconscious mind labels me a failure and proclaims that all is lost. And this gives me an excuse to continue, not correct, the less healthy behavior. After all, if I’m an unhealthy person, who am I to think I can act otherwise? If it’s hopeless anyway, I may as well at least have some enjoyment now.
This logic is self-defeating, but it has its temporary appeal. And I’ve found that it has a major role in trapping me in the cycle of procrastination. Once I’ve labeled myself as someone who procrastinates, I’m more likely to procrastinate again. And once I’ve done that a few times, I now have a procrastination habit, hard to break because it is habitual, and also because it confirms my label of myself as a procrastinator.
However, this very power of labeling and habit also gives great power to those times when we muster the strength to do something once. We all know the proverb “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and also that the first step is always the hardest. That’s largely because we give the first step symbolic weight greater than the action itself. When I plan a four mile run, I put off taking the first step not because I fear that step, but because I fear what it symbolizes: the beginning of a larger, more difficult task. But really, a four mile run is nothing but a series of steps. And when I think honestly about it, my actual experience of running tells me that a run is rarely if ever as bad as I imagine; if I just stay in the moment and take this step then that one, run past that tree, then around that curve, while enjoying the view all the while, it’s much more fun and less difficult than I imagined.
The same applies to doing something once. Cleaning every day seems terrible daunting, but cleaning for 15 minutes this afternoon isn’t really very difficult at all. And if doing it once isn’t that hard, then doing it other times isn’t either; it’s the IDEA that scares us, perhaps because the idea comes with a label (I’m “a cleaner” or “a slob”) that we find sometimes intimidating, sometimes debilitating.
So if you have a goal, do it once. Do a part of it. Don’t feel you have to do it every day for the rest of your life, and don’t feel you have to finish now. Becoming the type of person you want to be isn’t achieving some sort of perfectionistic essence of an elevated label. It’s simply doing what you value regularly, when you can, without stressing yourself out about how perfectly you conform to your ideal image; ultimately, the image of the person you want to be should conform to the type of life you want to live. So live as you want to, one task at a time.