Pleasure, Pride, and Procrastination
An essay on the motivational forces that pull us from and push us toward doing our best work, and how I deal with them
I have struggled with procrastination for as long as I can remember. As a kid, being asked to clean my minimally messy room turned into a day long project. I would go through many iterations and variations of avoiding the simple task that I was given. At 9 AM, my mother would ask me to pick things up. When she returned at noon, almost 0 progress would have been made. It was agonizing to both of us.
Fast forward to my time in college, and the situation was much the same. I was aware of deadlines for papers, but paid them no mind until the night before — when the panic would strike. The result was a whole lot of stress and self-flagellation as I forced myself to sit down and do the work. And yet somehow, I would even find ways to procrastinate then, up until the very final minutes.
Once I settled into a career, I was frustrated to find that this still did not change all that much. I would continue to feel a sense of being behind, and letting deadlines pass, or barely meeting them by the skin of my teeth, and with thrown-together work. For the life of me, I just couldn’t overcome this tendency to put off the hard stuff, or even the not-so-hard stuff. And all of that procrastination in order to pursue…what exactly? I put off my work so many times, and for so long, but what did I have to show for it?
As I thought more, that really was the question. What was I giving up doing the important work for? Asking that question forced me to pay more attention in real time when I found myself procrastinating. What I learned, while not an immediate cure, has helped me to stave off more and more temptations to procrastinate.
You Can’t Serve Two Masters
It’s been said that you cannot serve two masters. And nowhere is this more readily apparent than when I try to get motivated to work. It is in those moments when I feel the pull of two different masters.
On the one hand there is pleasure. Pleasure is a demanding, yet fickle master. I feel its pull when I’m trying to work on a project that requires effort. I begin to think about putting forth that effort, but then I’m reminded that it won’t give me pleasure. What will give me pleasure — and immediate pleasure — is going down a Wikipedia wormhole. Begin at SWV, and end at the entry on the Sentry Risk Table of near-earth objects. So to serve this master, I procrastinate. I put off the difficult work. Instead, I go down that wormhole.
Serving pleasure gets me a short-term reward that fades almost as quickly as it came. And because that small dose of pleasure I got by procrastinating has already faded — and it’s giving way to the guilt if still not having started working — I need an even bigger dose of pleasure. The cycle continues like that until I’m exhausted.
But there is another, more benevolent master to serve: Pride.
And I’m not talking here about shallow pride — the pride that is one of the seven deadly sins. I’m talking about feeling good about what you have done, on intellectual level. It’s the feeling that comes with self actualization. It’s using your executive function to commit to putting forth effort, and actually following through.
When pride, rather than pleasure, is my master, I usually end up just doing the work. And when I just do the work, it’s usually not as bad as I feared it would be.
But you really can’t serve both of these masters. Serving pride comes at the cost of pleasure. The immediate pleasure of distraction and avoiding difficult work needs to be sacrificed in order to appease master pride. But as this happens, I realize something funny: Once I stop trying to chase pleasure, the pursuit of pride through the hard work I had been avoiding now gives me pleasure. And that pleasure is much better than the cheap, short-lived stuff I’d been shooting up before.
Making it Happen: Asking the Simple Question
The right mindset can be achieved by asking a simple question. When you’re in the throes of procrastination, or mindless activities that threaten to derail your plans for being productive, stop and ask yourself a question.
If I keep doing what I’m doing now, will I end up being proud of what I did? Am I chasing pleasure or am I pursuing pride?
Pursuing pride works in a way that chasing pleasure simply doesn’t. Unlike chasing pleasure, when you do things you know you will be proud of, it’s not the results that matter. Yes, you can be proud of the results you achieved, but you can be equally proud of the effort you put in — even if the results don’t come.
Pleasure is entirely dependent on results. You either get what you’re after — and you’re pleased for a moment, or you don’t — and to alleviate your disappointment, you go looking for more pleasure somewhere else. And you spiral out of control.
These days, I pay attention to what’s motivating me, and when it’s not the right thing, I make an adjustment. I do find myself chasing pleasure. And I see it ramp up as I chase it at the cost of doing what I know I should. But I just ask myself that question, and bring myself back down to earth. It’s by no means fool-proof, but it’s a start.