Oblique Strategy #45 — When the best action is no action.
When the title of a book or article contains certain words, I feel compelled to read enough of it to see if the author has something new to say.
Procrastinate is one of those trigger-words and, because of its close association with laziness, we procrastinators tend to be defensive about the subject.
Speaking from my experience, I’ve found that when I’ve made an intentional decision to hesitate, to defer, or to stall — whether for an hour, a week or a year — it works out for the best, even though justification for delay wasn't apparent when the decision was made.
Urban is a bright, young Harvard graduate who has employed his original mind in a number of ways. Both his TED presentation and his blog use stick figures as an effective way to convey his novel ideas.
His description of the psychological basis for procrastination and its positive potential is engaging and comforting to the procrastinator.
However, he’s not old enough to have collected the life experiences necessary to appreciate several benefits of procrastination, especially for someone going through an important life transition and who is compelled to choose between action and inaction.
Divorce is such a transition, and there are at least six ways procrastination can be used effectively during its course:
1. Time Allocation. There are projects that invite wasted effort. My mother used to say, “Don’t send someone who can read to clean out an attic.”
In divorce, for example, one of the necessary tasks is the division of tangible personal property. Most people sense the dangers inherent in the division of the stuff, but some tackle it shortly after separation.
They struggle and fail and wonder how they can do the hard work if they can’t divide the pots and pans.
Early on, every object in the house has a psychological charge originating in the relationship that’s now being terminated. When the parties procrastinate and give themselves enough time to accept the major changes in their lives,
The stuff turns into just stuff that has to be either distributed or tossed out.
2. Mood Exploitation. Some creative activities can’t be done if the creator isn’t in the right mood. For some this observation is self-evident. Others think of it as an excuse to avoid work.
I concede that “I’m not in the mood” is an especially annoying plea when invoked to avoid doing work for which one is responsible — and there is plenty of work that can kill or inhibit any kind of positive mood.
For many people, the creative mood comes and goes. When the mood is present, they feel a creative imperative and should strike while the iron is hot.
In the absence of creative energy, however, I doubt anyone can create anything he or she considers worthwhile, and procrastination, even over opposition, is the reasonable thing to do.
Divorce is a transformative event that presents opportunities to create who or what you are to become; wait until the timing feels right.
3. Cultivation of the Open Mind. A lot of people, especially lawyers, grow up in an atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to have and to express opinions — opinions about everything.
We sense there is something lacking in those who don’t actively agree or disagree with the opinions we are eager to parade.
There are other people who see opinions as limitations and avoid their formation until it is required by a situation.
This attitude toward information is a powerful way to resist the confirmation bias that causes us to avoid all data that challenges our opinions as soon as they’re formed.
Procrastination is the corrective for the human preference for easy confidence over accuracy. Life-defining decisions aren’t easy and warrant accurate information.
4. Ecclesiastes and Situational Ripeness. There are complex events that have a beginning, middle and end unfolding in an order beyond the influence of human will; one must move with rather than fight the process. “There is a season…”
There’s no better example than the way divorces are resolved by the parties themselves because they have procrastinated in the legal divorce. They have taken the time to do the psychological work necessary for both to accept the new reality of their lives.
This is often referred to as “ripeness for settlement,” and it’s a characteristic of divorce making it different from any other kind of legal action.
5. Just In Time Allocation of Energy. “Just in time” inventory control is designed to deliver items for sale or for use as they are needed and avoid the costs accrued when items sit on shelves.
Some people have a finite amount of energy and procrastinate to conserve its expenditure. This can happen in a group of well-intended people at work on an extended project.
Early enthusiasm causes a competition of ideas, which leads to a struggle, covert or overt, for control. Power struggles are exhausting and are best left to those with a surfeit of energy.
One who deliberately procrastinates in committing her whole-hearted participation saves the energy she can infuse into the project when her colleagues tire.
Divorce is an extended project. At various times the expenditure of energy is invited; one of the optional responses is procrastination.
6. Changing Lifestyle. After nearly 20 years of smoking two packs of Marlboros a day, I stopped smoking. It was in 1981, and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
I started smoking in college; “we” smoked from morning until late at night. We smoked everywhere, including classrooms. The social pressure against smoking didn’t start to build until the late 1970s.
Doctors used every opportunity to tell patients to “Stop!” They had neither drugs nor useful advice for how this was to be accomplished, so their imperative implied that breaking an addiction to nicotine was something any normal, intelligent person should be able to do.
For those of us who made repeated attempts to quit and failed, the effect of the doctors’ equivalent of Just say no! was demoralization.
The worst advice I got came when I was suffering from two weeks of nicotine deprivation. A well-intentioned friend assured me that, after three weeks, the craving would diminish.
On the 21st day I wanted a cigarette as much as I did on the first day — and the same was true after another seven days of deprivation. It was never going to get better, so I gave up and spent $5 on a carton (10 packs with 20 cigarettes in each).
Another friend told me it took her a “year of doing nothing but not smoking” to finally quit. It was grim news, but it made perfect sense to me. I spent another year of smoking to contemplate a year of not smoking.
When I thought I knew what was in store for me, I was ready to commit to the ordeal. Each week was so much worse than anticipated that the primary motivation for abstaining for the next week was the fear of ever having to repeat the experience of the previous week.
My friend needed a year of doing nothing but not smoking; I needed to procrastinate for a year before I was ready to commit to a year of doing nothing but not smoking.
It’s infinitely more difficult to divorce than it is to stop smoking.
The back cover of the March 12 issue of The New York Times Magazine is a full page picture of sparkling-new waterside Manhattan apartments “starting from approximately $2 Million.” The tagline is “Rethink How You Live.”
It could be rewritten to say: “Procrastinate: Rethink How You Live.”
Next column: Oblique Strategy #46 — Reckoning with an “alternative fact.”
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.