Why Do I Keep Procrastinating
Using Ancient Methods to Address Procrastination
Do you frequently find yourself procrastinating on your goals? It is probably not much consolation that procrastination was not a large problem for your ancestors. Unlike today, they had significantly less bells and whistles competing for their attention. Despite your more challenging environment, you can emulate some of their techniques to put yourself in a mindset that limits procrastination.
Many of us struggle with procrastination. Most of us live in the modern world - meaning we have an endless supply of distractions. With all of these distractions, the modern man has little opportunity to confront his finitude. He will die someday. Why the hell would he think about his death when he can laugh at Kevin from The Office spill chili all over his stupid self?
Watching The Office is clearly more pleasurable than exploring your death, an idea that is stressful for most. We find our mortality stressful because there is no definite way to know what happens after death. This clashes with the brain's programming to understand the way things work. Trying to solve this impossible puzzle creates stress.
If we continue our distracted lifestyle, our brains mull this problem over in the background, creating death anxiety.
When we don't take the time to address our stress, our brains let us know of it somehow. This usually happens through symptoms. Procrastination can be a symptom of death anxiety just like how stuttering can be a symptom of social anxiety.
When symptoms of anxiety accumulate, they tend to explode in a dramatic fashion, like a panic attack. The accumulation of death anxiety is characterized by a mid-life or quarter-life crisis. This is where someone suddenly understands they are much closer to death than they realized, so an explosion of desires to feel reborn washes over them.
Leaving your brain to contemplate death on autopilot is like asking a 1999 Macintosh to run a bunch of advanced programs from 2020 at once. Eventually it crashes. If we enjoy having a functional computer, we must consciously address our death anxiety.
How can we carefully address such an issue? Enter what I call the Memento Mori Cascade, the basis for relieving procrastination and death anxiety. "Memento Mori" is a Latin phrase that means "Remember Your Death”.
This Cascade stands the test of time. It has been practiced by ancient Greek, Roman, Buddhist, and Japanese samurai cultures. Today it makes appearances in Islam, Christianity, and Mexico’s Day of the Dead festivities.
There are Five Phases of the Memento Mori Cascade. The first few phases demand the most effort, but they open us up to the rewards of the later phases. Consider it a form of delayed gratification.
Phase 1: Remove Distractions
In order to effectively manage symptoms of anxieties, we must have the discipline to cut out things that distract us from consciously exploring our stressors.
Like a husband and wife, you have a relationship with your brain. Distracting yourself from your stressors is equivalent to the husband returning home from work to immediately sit in front of the television. "Yes dear," is all he utters while his wife tries to tell him about her day. Like your wife, you and your brain have each other for the rest of your life. So, you have a responsibility to be supportive of your lifelong partner.
Distractions like excessive television consumption make it easy to ignore this responsibility. Neglecting your responsibilities to your lifelong partners is a dangerous road to walk since they hold the power to make your life miserable.
To be supportive, you must have the discipline to be quiet and attentive at times. Be it with your brain or your spouse. Reducing distractions gives your brain the space it needs to tell you about what it has been stressed about.
Phase 2: Exploration of Death
When you make time to keep quiet and listen to what your brain tries to tell you, you can gather a clearer picture. In this context, the most effective form of listening is taking the time to contemplate your sources of stress.
For many, death is a significant source of stress and cause for fear. Contemplating your death can be uncomfortable, so it feels natural to want to distract yourself. However, having the courage to sit with this discomfort creates an understanding. Like an antidote, reaching an understanding of your fear inhibits its ill effects.
Daryl Davis, a musician, has a theory on the therapeutic effects of understanding your fears: The root of all hatred is fear. And all fear stems from ignorance. Understanding is the antithesis of ignorance, so open exploration can be used to levy fear and extinguish hatred.
Daryl proved his theory by having open discussions with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The result? Over 200 Klansmen renounced their hateful ways and handed over their robes.
Daryl's example is a powerful testament to the impact understanding has on fear. If a black man can help Klansmen renounce their hate through understanding their fears, imagine the impact of understanding your fears.
Knowing the importance of reaching an understanding with our fears can help us through the discomforts of Phase 2. As a reward for our courageous efforts, we earn the understanding in Phase 3.
Phase 3: Increased Appreciation of Your Time
Confronting the stressful reality that we will die someday leaves us with a particularly productive insight: our time is scarce, making it inherently valuable.
One way to apply this abstract idea into a concrete model is by viewing each second like a dollar. Spending time is no different than spending money. Whenever each month passes, you must pay rent to continue living in your apartment. Whenever a second of your time passes, you are paying rent to continue your existence.
Take a moment to put this equation into your calculator to estimate how many time dollars you have left based on the average life expectancy in the United States:
Your Time Dollars [s] = [80-Your Age in Years]*31,536,000seconds/year
Whenever you procrastinate, you spend your money on a meaningless endeavor. Neither a financially nor temporally responsible person would spend their resources on the meaningless. A financially responsible person tracks their credits and debits, budgeting accordingly. Likewise, a temporally responsible person tracks what buys them time and what wastes their time, creating an attention diet accordingly.
This is not to be confused with the wantrepreneurs that think spending a second to relax makes you a failure. A temporally responsible person focuses on spending their time on what gives them value. Taking the time to relax can be valuable just like spending money to take a much needed vacation. It does not matter that these activities don't generate more resources for you.
Responsibility is about directing your resources towards what you value most.
Each time we become more temporally responsible, we procrastinate less, marking Phase 4.
Phase 4: Procrastination Halts
Each time you gain a deeper understanding of the value of your time, your mindset shifts a little. You start to see the world through a lens of scarcity. This acute awareness of your brevity forces you to focus on what you value most. As your focus narrows, you spend less time on things that do not serve you well. You stop procrastinating.
Procrastination is a particularly intoxicating use of your time that does not benefit you. With a laser focus on your values, you try to squeeze as much life out of your time as possible like the terminally ill.
You become the prudent budgeter from Phase 3. You slash expenditure on meaningless activities that leave you unfulfilled. Soon you start to accomplish more goals that align with your values faster than you ever thought was possible. You start to feel more complete as you do more of what makes life worth living to you.
This sense of fulfillment marks the final stage of the Memento Mori Cascade.
Phase 5: Death Anxiety Subsides
Doing more of what you love most leaves you fulfilled with the course of your life. Fulfillment relates with death anxiety like a seesaw: when one goes up, the other must come down.
This suggests that high death anxiety is a consequence of feeling dissatisfied with life. So finding things that fulfill you and doing them as frequently as possible is a remedy. However, this requires conquering distractions, confronting your emotions, and overcoming procrastination via Phases 1-4.
The old man that has created a legacy for himself is rarely scared of death. George Eastman is an extreme example of how amassing accomplishments that align with your values reduces death anxiety. Eastman invented the film camera, built the Eastman Kodak Company, and was heavily involved in philanthropy. He was so unfazed by the idea of his death that he decided to go out on his own terms. His suicide note simply read:
To my friends,
My work is done.
When was the last time you heard of someone that committed suicide cheerfully? Only someone who spent their time doing what they loved could leave this world with such a demeanor.
Due to unlimited distractions, our brains track the stress associated with aging on autopilot. While you remain distracted, this stress builds in the background, creating death anxiety, manifesting itself through procrastination and mid-life crises. Through the Five Phases of the Memento Mori Cascade, we can effectively address procrastination and death anxiety.
Phase 1 requires the most discipline, but it triggers the entire cascade. To get through Phase 1, you must cut out activities that distract you from your feelings. This generally includes excessive consumption (e.g. social media, television, food, etc.).
As you cut out distractions that prevent you from listening to your brain, you enter Phase 2. This phase involves sitting with the uncomfortable thoughts regarding your inevitable death. It is critical you have the courage to sit with these uncomfortable emotions so you can better understand them.
As a reward for your discipline and courage in Phases 1 and 2, you come to understand a valuable lesson: your time is short. Valuing time as a tangible resource like money can help you remain mindful of its scarcity.
Reflecting on your eventual death gives you a paradigm similar to the terminally ill, creating a laser focus on what fulfills you. When the only things in view are what you value most, procrastination is nearly impossible.
Being released from procrastination's grip allows you to do more of what you love. Doing more of what you love leaves you fulfilled with life, making death less frightening. How could death scare you if you lived your best life?
When you sit on your deathbed, you want to look back on your life with a sense of satisfaction. It's impossible to get there if you spend your time on activities that aren't meaningful to you. Putting the wisdom of the ancients to use through the Memento Mori Cascade leads you on a path towards satisfaction.
As the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said:
We each have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.
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