Don’t put it off.

January 2nd, 2010


A friend pointed me to this New York Times article by John Tierney:

Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow

The basic point: lots of people (including you?) postpone something pleasureable — like cashing in a gift certificate or opening a prized bottle of wine — because they obsess about extracting the absolute maximum value from it.

The underlying problem: the structure of our brains makes us lousy at estimating future value.

The upshot: we miss out on pleasures that we ought to enjoy.

Key tidbits:

We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time lost versus the pleasure or money to be gained, but we’re not accurate in our estimates of “resource slack,” as it is termed by Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch. These behavioral economists found that when people were asked to anticipate how much extra money and time they would have in the future, they realistically assumed that money would be tight, but they expected free time to magically materialize.

This is one of the most pernicious forms of magical thinking, especially for habitual overcommitters like me.

Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be.

I knew someone like this in graduate school. That super-special case of wine could ONLY be opened on their wedding day . . . no matter how long that day might be in coming.

“People can become overly focused on an ideal,” Dr. Shu said. “Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one.”

This, to me, points at an issue of life management that’s much bigger than letting air miles expire. I’ve known too many people — myself very much included, at times — who become so focused on an imaginary ideal or perfect scenario that they can’t let themselves LIVE in the present. They end up waiting for some magic moment that may not ever happen, but that they imagine will be so special that it will make up for all their waiting. Far better to cease waiting and to start enjoying the quotidian moments of life for the understated magic that they already have. (Cue Arthur Rubinstein.)

Instead of waiting for a special occasion to indulge yourself, create one.

Amen. Have you been waiting for that special occasion? How about declaring TODAY the special occasion?


(Photo by mao_lini, used under a CC-Share Alike license.)

2 Responses to “Don’t put it off.”

  1. Rachel Strate Says:

    I recently had a conversation with a friend concerning this exact topic. I really appreciate this post as it is perfectly timed and, of course, perfectly written.
    Hope you are well!

  2. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Rachel — glad you liked the post.

    Enjoy your stay in France!

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