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Putting Off The Important Things? It’s Not For The Reasons You Think

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Never put off till tomorrow what you can do now,
especially if you’re holding back in the hope of doing it properly

All you really need to succeed, according to the writer-philosopher Robert Pirsig, who died last month, is gumption. “Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going,” he writes, in a rare part of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance that’s actually about motorcycle maintenance. (Well, and the whole of human existence, too – but that’s always the case with Pirsig.) “If you haven’t got any, there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it, there’s absolutely no way in the world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed.” The biggest dangers, accordingly, are what he calls “gumption traps”: seemingly minor external events, or ways of thinking, that play a disproportionate role in depleting it. There are “maybe millions” of these, he writes. But there’s one I fall into far more often than others. You might call it the Importance Trap.

This is hardly a brand new insight – but then, as Pirsig liked to point out, looking for new insights can be a fool’s errand; what you want are the ones that make a difference. The Importance Trap refers to the way that, the more an activity really matters to you, the more you start to believe you need focus, energy and long stretches of uninterrupted time in which to do it – things that, you tell yourself, you currently lack. And so the less likely you are to do it. Unimportant stuff gets done; important stuff doesn’t.

Take reading. “If you’re only going to open a book on the off-chance you have several hours to kill in a comfy chair with a glass of scotch,” wrote Kevin Nguyen in GQ recently, “it’s only going to happen when you have several hours to kill in a comfy chair with a glass of scotch.” That’s classic Importance Trap thinking. We tend to think of procrastination as being motivated by more melodramatic emotions: fear of failure, the terror of being judged, etc. Yet sometimes the mere desire to do something properly is the reason you’re not doing it.

A close cousin of the Importance Trap – for me, anyway – is the Consistency Trap: the assumption that something’s not worth doing until your life’s arranged to do it regularly. No point going on a protest march, or rekindling a neglected friendship, unless you can turn yourself into the kind of person who does that all the time. This is absurd, firstly because such things are worth doing in themselves, and second because you definitely won’t become the kind of person who does them if you never even do them once.

The irony, I’ve found, is that the only way to obtain the things you imagine are the preconditions for acting – high energy, a sense of concentration – is to start acting. (“Motivation follows action”, as the saying goes.) So when you catch yourself telling yourself you’ll do something later, once you’re refreshed and ready, take it as a prod to do it now. You might think you need to wait for more gumption – but in fact that very thought is a hole in your fuel tank, through which the gumption’s leaking away.

oliver.burkeman@theguardian.com     @oliverburkeman      Friday 19 May 2017
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2 thoughts on “Putting Off The Important Things? It’s Not For The Reasons You Think

  1. wow–I found myself the past few hours struggling with this sort of thing–having everything ready to go and perfect before actually doing what needs doing. Consistency as a condition before you’ve even started IS freaking nuts…you gotta do, not plan forever and ever. Sometimes I have to let my mind absorb that thought (it’s been an exhausting few weeks, and I haven’t done myself much good lately).

    Anyhoo, gotta say I’m glad I saw your reference to “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.” I’ve heard of it a bunch of times, but now I’m sure I wanna read it at some point. Another one to throw in the shelf, I guess (hee hee).

    • I think it’s a common challenge for many of us … routine / auto pilot is easy, predictable and comfortable. Many of us make excuses and fall short of our potential. Awareness can be a stepping stone towards more success and progress 😉

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