I’m a hopeless procrastinator. When I was given the subject for this post (the assignment was “time”) I literally had months to complete it. Here it is the night before my deadline and I still haven’t written anything. You should feel cheated. I should be ashamed. And I am. I had all the time in the world to write something good. To write something meaningful. To write something, dare I say, important? Instead, I painted myself into a corner with time. I boxed myself in. I vastly limited my possibilities by eliminating the ability to explore. But maybe that’s what procrastination really is; a forced narrowing of one’s options when faced with too many possibilities.
When I was in college (I was an English major) I would often be given an assignment with a deadline that was weeks, and sometimes even over a month away, yet I can’t think of a single instance where I was not up all night the evening before my assignment was due, furiously scrambling to complete the project. And I don’t mean just the writing itself—I mean the narrowing of my topic, the research involved, the gathering of my thoughts, and the actual writing of my essay were more often than not executed in one outlandish sprint of cognitive and creative output that would leave me simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated when I had finished (usually minutes before I had to leave for class).
One particularly painful example of my procrastination while I was in college always comes to mind. It was my junior year at UC Berkeley and I was enrolled in a world literature course. For some unknown reason I decided to write an essay about the novel Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. For the life of me, I can’t remember a single thing about the book (or anything that I wrote for that matter), but I clearly remember getting my essay back after my graduate student instructor, George, had read it, only to find it covered in red pen marks. I’m not claiming that I was a perfect student, or that my writing was always flawless, but over the years I had become fairly good at writing essays on the fly, and I was not accustomed to seeing them returned covered in corrections. Upon closer inspection I discovered the source of most of the angry pen strokes—I had been in such a rush to complete the essay that I hadn’t bothered to proof read it for grammar, spelling or punctuation (and I was arrogant enough at the time to believe that I didn’t need to proof-read for content). To my absolute horror I realized that in my haste I hadn’t caught the fact that my spell-checker had automatically replaced the name “Anaya” with the word “annoy.” To this day, the only comment I can actually remember George writing on my essay (although I’m sure he had plenty more to say) was “yes, it is annoying!” after the word “annoy” appeared for the 10th or so time.
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On a lark, I did a Google search for the term “procrastination” and discovered some interesting results. According to Psychology Today, “perfectionists are often procrastinators; it is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short on performance.” Holy shit! This is me to a T! Or is it? While I do consider myself somewhat of a perfectionist, I don’t feel as if the reason I put off tasks is merely due to some unconscious fear of not living up to my own expectations. But then the article goes on to say, “many procrastinators may contend that they perform better under pressure, but research shows that is not the case; more often than not that's their way of justifying putting things off.” This harkens back to my original thought, that by limiting my options and eliminating the luxury of time, I am somehow forced into performing. The problem with this scenario, as we have seen, is that I definitely do not excel under pressure. I like to tell myself that I perform better under pressure, but that’s really just the lie I tell myself when I’ve taken all the other options off the table and have forced myself to perform under the tightest of constraints. I suppose what I am really doing is allowing myself the ability to say, “Well, the work that I did was pretty great considering I only had one day to do it,” or some such bullshit. But deep down I know that what I’m really saying to myself is “You’re a fucking coward and you’re too afraid to give yourself ample time to do the work because you’re scared that it won’t be that good without the artificial barriers you’ve constructed for yourself.”
However, as it turns out, the reason people procrastinate is not so cut-and-dry. According to the article, thrill-seekers (that’s me!) tend to procrastinate in order to “reap a euphoric rush” by completing a task by the skin of their teeth. And truly, what is more exhilarating that narrowly avoiding disaster? Imagine how alive one must feel when the parachute that has failed to open suddenly bursts forth form its pack and arrests the skydiver’s horrifying plummet towards certain death? Well, as it turns out, it feels fucking amazing! That very thing happened to me the first time I went skydiving—I was jumping solo (as opposed to being strapped to an instructor), and my chute was supposed to deploy via a static line attached to the airplane, but when the chute came out of my pack it was hopelessly tangled and did not deploy until I had fallen a few hundred feet in a state of horror and confusion. Luckily I did not panic and I remembered my training, so I was able to “rock the toggles” (super cool parachuting lingo!) and get it to deploy. The instant it opened my horrifying plummet was transformed into an exhilarating, yet gentle downward journey towards terra firma. The feeling of narrowly escaping death was absolutely invigorating and I couldn’t wait to go back up and jump again. But is this really the same sensation that thrill seekers get when putting off a task until the last possible moment? Not by a long shot. The sensation is more one of relief that the task is finally finished than a “euphoric rush” akin to narrowly cheating death.
Which brings me to my next point. According to an article in The New York Times, procrastination is really about “managing negative moods” associated with a given task. In a study conducted in 2013, researchers determined that procrastination is “the primacy of short-term mood repair...over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.” In other words, one is privileging the immediate sense of relief one gets from putting off a task over the possibility of a future sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, or relief that will surely result from finally tackling the long put-off endeavor. In essence, what we’re really doing when we are procrastinating is saying, “fuck you, future-me, present-me is anxious/uncomfortable/stressed out about this thing we have to do, so we’re gonna put it off and make it your problem!” Of course, all this does is compound the negative associations we have with the task, and increases our sense of guilt, shame, and anxiety we get by avoiding the task. This, in turn, creates a snowball effect—the longer we put off a task the more unpleasant it becomes because of the sense of anxiety and self-loathing we experience by putting it off in the first place. So in order to experience some relief from these negative feelings, we put the task off even further. And so on, and so on. To quote Dr. Fuschia Sirois from the aforementioned New York Times article, “the thoughts we have about procrastination typically exacerbate our distress and stress, which contribute to further procrastination.” It is truly a vicious cycle.
And then, as I continued my journey down the procrastination rabbit hole (who knew that looking up the word “procrastinate” was a way to procrastinate in itself?) I came across this savory nugget: according to recent studies, on a neural level we perceive our future selves as complete strangers more than a continuation of our familiar, everyday selves. When we procrastinate, our brains literally think that the discomfort we are creating for our future selves belongs to someone else!!! So It makes all the sense in the world from a neurological perspective to say, “fuck that stranger in the future, I’m uncomfortable in the here-and-now.” Of course, this is completely irrational and only complicates matters further. However, because of the way we’re wired, the “threat detector” area of our brains known as the amygdala views tasks that make us anxious, uncomfortable or stressed out as actual threats to our existence. So even if we realize on an intellectual level that putting off a task is only going to cause us more stress and discomfort, we are hard-wired to remove the immediate threat regardless of future consequences. This is known as “amygdala hijack,” and even though we realize that it is happening, and are aware of the fact that it is completely irrational, we are somehow helpless in its unyielding grasp.
So in the end, what does all of this really mean? It means that even though a couple months ago I was thrilled at the prospect of writing a piece about “time” for the It’s Personal blog, the irrational, stress-avoidance mechanism of my brain instantly kicked in, and for a variety of reasons, prevented me from embarking on something that I had actually been looking forward to. I was truly eager to write about my personal relationship with time—how I see it as both the most overwhelming and horribly destructive force in the universe, and at the same time, a truly bizarre concept that I don’t actually believe in on the deepest intellectual level (I have this crazy idea that the entire history of the universe, some 14 billion years or so, is actually an illusion and everything that has ever happened, is happening, or will ever happen is happening right now, in this eternal instant). I wanted to be able to explain how only yesterday I was a little boy watching sailboats race on the San Francisco bay, and today I am somehow a middle aged man occasionally overwhelmed by the simple act of existence. I wanted to explore the idea of the ever-divisible present (take the smallest known increment of time, then halve it)—I wanted to discuss my notion that time and space are precisely the same thing (and no, I don’t mean space-time), and that reality is just an illusion—I wanted to discuss the idea of an infinity that simultaneously spreads outward and inward, expanding in both directions so that the concepts of “outward” and “inward” are rendered meaningless— but the hard-wired stress-avoidance mechanism in my primitive, sluggish ape-brain took over and now all I’ve got is a semi-coherent, rambling piece about my lifelong struggle with procrastination. At least “future me” can rest easy now.
Two of my best friends since high school, Joe and Noah, have a connection that fascinates me. Despite all of us going to the same school for four years their worlds never quite overlapped (outside of yours truly). Joe had a focus of math and science classes and was a cross country runner. Noah was a creative type, playing in a number of bands and enrolled in theater and creative writing classes. But when their paths did cross, they got along famously. The two of them could go on about movies, music, and more with such a genuine interest and respect for one another. At one of my birthdays, they played ping pong continuously for hours and chatting throughout. For months after they would both tell me how much fun they had had that night. To this day, if I bring one up around the other there is an apparent fondness for each other. If you ask me, I think they have a crush on one another.
I say “I think” because both of them are straight, so it wouldn’t be romantic (presumably). This begs the question though, does a crush have to be romantic? When most people think of crush, its usually googily eyes, big stupid smile, and hearts popping up around your head (the typical Charlie Brown lovestruck look). A crush seems to be a romantic aspiration. Someone you want to be with but maybe can’t. Whether they’re dating someone else, you’re not around them enough, or they are a celebrity and you spent that past three years working as a tour guide (come on Rooney Mara, what does Joaquin Phoenix have that I- oh right, the oscar... and massive amounts of talent). But do crushes have to be romantic? If not, how should they be defined?
For some time, whenever I spoke to Noah and Joe about the other, the fondness grew to: “I should really reach out to him. He’s such a good dude.” Or something to that extent. Any time I heard this, I said “You should!” They’re great people, I love them both, and if they’re both such good friends with me, they would be great friends together. Am I crazy?! Cut the middle man (says the middle man)! And yet, it has never happened. They went to different colleges in different states so naturally there’s a challenge. But we share a hometown… I see both of them every holiday season. Come on Joe, Noah, be friends already!
A certain longing is key to a crush. You see something in someone and you just want to be around them more to find out what it is. That doesn’t have to be romantic though. Often, it’s something physically attractive, but isn’t that just lust? Like if you see someone you’re attracted to from across the room, you wouldn’t call that a crush right away. A crush involves a little more personality, or character. You have to know someone a little bit for that crush to develop. Think back to crushes you’ve had. It’s not just how they look, it’s what they do and say too. There is affection there, but is that romance?
I may just be splitting hairs here, but must a crush be limited to school days of like-liking someone. Noah and Joe have this certain compatibility that they’ve experienced in too small of doses. Neither want to date each other, but they see something in one another that they respect and admire. Someone once told me a crush challenges you, and that it’s that being challenged that draws you to them. This friend was describing not only how she connected with her husband but also people she grew close to in college. Maybe it’s precisely that Noah and Joe are from such seemingly different worlds that the differences just to more to enhance the common ground they do have.
I wonder if things had worked out differently, we went to a smaller school, they were in more classes together, they hung out socially more, they could have had a great friendship that would last to this day. But maybe crushes are unrequited by nature. For it to truly be a crush it has to be from a distance. I know I’ve had a lot of crushes that haven’t panned out (really Rooney, the Joker?!) But I’m still rooting for this one.
Can I tell a romantic gesture to politely fuck off?
If I had had the vocabulary, that’s what I would have been thinking on Valentine’s Day in 6th grade. Instead, I stared at my desk in silence, eyeing the ticking time-bomb that sat on top of it: a small, cardboard purse full of chocolates. A quick glance around the room - no other desk had it. In preteen-boy chicken-scratch writing, it read: From - Jack. That alone caused me no grief. Jack did not, in neither name nor personhood, make me feel anything. No, I was welcomed into a special hell because that it said my own name. And that’s what made my ribs crack open and my heart drop to the soles of my etnies. I did not want this. I did not want to deal with this. I did not want to acknowledge it. But the bell to start class was moments from ringing out, and I was going to have to confront this.
And so I did the very, very brave thing. I took that cardboard purse and shoved it in the front zipper of my Jansport and left it there for 3 years.
What was I supposed to do? I hadn’t been trained to rebuff! What movies and TV had been trying to train me to do was acknowledge the bravery of boys for putting their precious hearts on the line...for loooooove.
But what if I didn’t care? Nobody taught me to say no. And so I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I ignored him and the stupid purse and the bad chocolates entirely. It wasn’t until I was cleaning out that backpack in high school to prepare for a bad and boujee North Face upgrade that I remembered it ever happened. I reminisced on the moment, solidifying it as a (terrible) lesson learned: wow, just ignoring a problem seems to work pretty well!
GIve me some credit though, I didn’t always just ignore unwanted romantic gestures. A few years later, I learned to outright deny them!
It was 8th grade. Math class. The last semester before we upgraded to full-fledged high school ballers. My desk was sandwiched between my best friend Grace and a guy I had known for 8 years, Adam. It was fun. We goofed constantly and learned geometry occasionally. With only 3 months left until summer, I felt like I had it made. Until Adam leaned to me one day in class and whispered: “Hey. Guess what?”
I whispered back: “What?”
Adam smiled: “I like you.”
Damn it. Our friendship flashed before my eyes and I saw it all: laughter, the pythagorean theorem. The only thing I didn’t see? A single moment that felt like I had exuded or implied any sort of romantic or flirtatious vibe. Yet here we were - again I was forced to confront something that I did not want. But I was a few years older now, and a few years wiser. So I didn’t just shove Adam in my backpack and leave him in there for 3 years.
I did the even braver thing. I took a breath, looked him in the eyes, and said: “No, you don’t.”
His smile faded and he said “Oh uh...yeah, you’re right, I don’t.”
And then I ignored him for the 3 months until we graduated and parted ways forever.
Okay, the whole ignoring-him-for-3-months thing didn’t exactly fill me with pride, but I understand it. I didn’t know that I was allowed to say no. I did what I could to protect myself in the best way I knew how, as ill-equipped as I was. But the older I got, the more I started to see my experience reflected back at me. I saw women saying no to things they didn’t want. I tried it. It felt good and it felt right. I said no to school dances that expected dates. I said no to men who asked me out while I was at work. And once I said a big ol’ no to alcohol for good, gosh, saying no to things got even easier.
Of course, there are moments when I wish I had said no. Moments I wish I could re-live, re-work, undo. But when I think of that Valentine’s Day in 6th grade, I don’t cringe anymore. I laugh. Because it’s hilarious. So what if I didn’t know how to say no to a boy I’d known since I was 5 after he put a dumb chocolate-filled paper purse on my desk? That’s okay. I got there eventually.
I felt unlucky about romance and love for most of my young adult life before meeting my husband. Dating is rough. I feel as though there are so many rules and stipulations that go along with being with someone these days. Are we dating? Dating just each other, or seeing other people too? Are we in a relationship? Is that different than dating? I found myself navigating these and so many other questions during my time being single and trying to find romance.