When you know you are supposed to exercise self-discipline, yet it conflicts with a belief or assumption of yours, tension and discomfort will be created. This happens because there is a direct conflict between what you desire (no car washing!) and what the world (or an individual) is telling you (just wash it for once).
The phases are unhelpful assumptions (“Life is short, so I should enjoy it and not spend my precious time washing that dusty car!”); increasing discomfort from knowingly avoiding responsibility (“I’d rather not wash the car. It’s boring and uncomfortable.”); excuses to decrease discomfort (“It’s perfectly reasonable for me not to wash the car. It’s so hot outside I would melt.”); avoidance activities to decrease discomfort (“I will clean the bathroom instead. I’m still productive!”); and negative and positive consequences from avoiding responsibility (“Ah, I feel better about myself now. Oh, wait. I still need to wash that car”) – at which point you find yourself right back at the beginning, except with less willpower and incentive than before because negative consequences create pessimism, while positive consequences create self-sabotage.
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Imagine being told that the sky is actually red, which probably conflicts with what you’ve been taught since childhood. You feel that something is amiss, but you might not be able to put a name to it. You will have a range of emotions, all of which are uncomfortable: anger, boredom, frustration, exhaustion, resentment, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, or despair.
The end result of this conflict is that we are in an agitated state, and we don’t like feeling that way. Something will need to change. If the source of this discomfort is anything having to do with washing that darned car, that means you’re going to avoid it like the black plague.
We know it still exists, but we are in the beginnings of rationalizing why we shouldn’t or don’t need to do it. Think of it this way: your brain doesn’t want you to stay in a state of psychological discomfort – it’s like standing on the bow of a sinking ship – so it deals with it the only way it knows how through the next two phases.
Excuses are what you use to make yourself feel better when you are ducking responsibility. You know you should do something, but you don’t want to. Does this mean you’re just lazy, tired, or entitled to no action? Of course not. Admitting those would cause even more discomfort and tension than you already feel. So you construct excuses to remain the good guy or even victim in your situation – or at least not the bad guy. Now that’s a comforting thought. What would you say to make your lack of action acceptable?
- “I don’t want to miss out on that party tonight. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
- “I’m just too tired tonight. I’ll start working on that goal later.”
- “I’ll do a better job on that project when I’m in the mood to work on it.”
- “I don’t have everything I need to finish the job, so I can’t start now.”
- “I’ll do it right after I finish this other task.”
Now, if you uttered these to someone else, they might reply with a raised eyebrow and a “really ?” The problem is, these excuses are ones that you tell yourself. And you’ve probably used them so frequently in your life that the lines between your excuses and reality have blurred. You become unable to discern or tell the truth, and you unknowingly start to disempower yourself. Remember, we possess the amount of self-discipline that we believe we possess. Excuses tell you that you are easily defeated.
And while you’re busy convincing yourself that these excuses are real and legitimate, you are smoothly transitioning into the next phase in the cycle: avoidance activities.
Avoidance activities are the culmination of alleviating your discomfort and wanting to feel like you aren’t simply being lazy. The internal dialogue goes something like this: “I’m sufficiently justified in not washing the car, but why do I still feel lousy about myself? I should do something ” Excuses on their own may not be enough, so you figure some action is still needed to lessen the discomfort and tension.
And so you act, though it’s never what you should be doing in the first place. Typically, there are two types of avoidance activities. First, there are activities that simply distract you from the discomfort of choosing not to exercise your self-discipline or violate a belief or assumption. Out of sight, out of mind, and the discomfort is destroyed by going for ice cream or to a new superhero movie. This is distraction to the point of denial.
Second, there are activities that make you feel productive in some other way than the task at hand. For instance, if you work from home and are putting off a project, you will never have a cleaner bathroom than when real tasks are to be avoided. You might do an “easier” or lower-priority task. These avoidance activities allow you to say, “Well, at least I did something and wasn’t totally unproductive with my time!” A fitting term for these activities is productive procrastination.
These activities do help you feel better about yourself in the short-term, but they don’t move you any closer to where you should be, and make the cycle harder to break.
Negative and Positive Consequences
Avoiding is an art. But when you avoid responsibilities, there are always consequences. Somewhere, something is slipping through the cracks. The negative consequences are more obvious. You’ve probably experienced them all before. They can include increased discomfort, guilt, anxiety, and shame. You know you’re not achieving (or taking steps to achieve) your goal, and this just makes you feel worse.
Another negative consequence is having increased demands on you. Your work may accumulate, leaving you to have to do the original task plus the additional compensatory work. And depending on the nature of the task, avoidance may lead to a consequence of punishment or loss. That punishment/loss may be in the form of repercussions at work, a missed opportunity, or failing to meet a goal. The chores go undone, and your lawn gets so out of control that you start to find small, vicious woodland animals in it.
Other negative consequences are related to this very cycle, where your unhelpful or incorrect assumptions or beliefs remain unchallenged, you become overly effective at making excuses for yourself, and your tolerance for psychological discomfort shrinks even more. These all perpetuate the cycle even worse.
Any positive consequences are illusory. They may be positive in that they feel good in the moment, but they are temporary at best. It’s like shutting your eyes to avoid the bright headlights of a truck barreling toward you – you are just setting yourself up for failure in the long term. It’s self-sabotage.
Avoidance lets you move away from that initial discomfort you were feeling about not doing the task. You may actually feel better because you are sticking to your unhelpful assumptions. And you will probably get some enjoyment from your procrastination activities. Both of these could be considered a positive consequence of putting off the task.
Both sets of consequences contribute to furthering the cycle. Negative consequences make you want to continue avoiding certain tasks, while positive consequences inject just enough short-term pleasure to disguise what’s really happening. And they both lead you right back to the initial problem of lacking self-discipline. Whether you’re motivated by the negative consequence or the positive consequence, the outcome is the same: you are less likely to complete your task or goal.
You can now see how this can become a vicious cycle. The more you subscribe to one or more of the unhelpful assumptions, the greater your discomfort. With increasing discomfort, you start to make excuses to avoid. The more you avoid, the more you want to avoid it due to both the negative and positive consequences. And you start back in with the unhelpful assumptions – probably strengthened for the worse at this point.