By Vega Subramaniam
I sometimes have this sense that I, and almost everyone I meet, is walking around in some sort of fog or half-consciousness. Mala and I were bonding on this the other day. She’s got a lot happening in her life right now; no lazy days of summer for her, alas. On top of all that is her unceasing caregiving responsibilities.
Caregiving aside (you can never put caregiving aside), Mala was frustrating the living daylights out of herself by jumping out of bed and over to her desk at, like, 3:30 a.m. every morning, in an all-consuming panic about all she had to do. But then when she actually got to her desk, she’d putter (aka be pulled into the vortex of the first thing she touched and lose track of the THINGS she got up to do).
She said, and I quote, “I know what I have to do. I just don’t do it.” Which is shorthand for, “I can’t pull my attention back into focusing on the thing.” And then the next day comes and it’s still not done…which was what led to her plaintive, “when am I going to wake up?”
I think what she means by that, and certainly what I mean by that, is, “when am I going to find the discipline to focus on my priorities? and as a corollary, “when am I going to actively choose what I’m doing right now?” and as a final corollary extension, “when am I going to be right here, right now?”
Back to that half-conscious haze…you know how if you’re not paying attention, then you’re living either in the future or in the past? That thing where you stare at your computer and your brain is a million miles away, either lost in all the things ahead that you need to do, that you’re behind on, or lost in the things behind that you cringe at, that you’re annoyed with. But where your brain most definitely is not is in your chair, noticing your breath, and aware of what’s on our computer screen. That’s what I’m talking about. I mean, sure, in the most perfunctory of ways, your brain sees the unfinished report, the 136 unread emails, the benumbing spreadsheet, the pile of dishes in the sink. But none of it sticks, and the instant you look away, it’s gone.
It’s hypnotizing. We’re zoned out.
And while avoiding the present might seem counterproductive and self-sabotaging (a term which, as you might know, I frown upon), in fact, avoiding the present allows us to continue to put off the inevitable pain of facing our…I mean, “demons” might be a strong word, or maybe not.
There’s a ton of research out there that says that procrastination is “an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.” Not necessarily telling you something you don’t know, but reminding you: we procrastinate because the task we’re facing scratches at the scars of our trauma. Because our bodies instinctively shrink from the prospect of facing the task at hand. We procrastinate to get short-term relief from the sometimes overwhelmingly negative emotions that an unpleasant task elicits.
Of course, the tragic thing is that when we look to procrastination for that short-term relief from those negative emotions, then we only exacerbate those negative emotions by adding guilt and panic to what’s already there. Siiiiiiiiiiiiggghhhhh.
So I’d really like to burst out of this haze. I’d like to wake up. And to do that…how do I do that?
One thing to do is change my habits, surely. I’m used to being in a haze. It doesn’t feel unnatural or uncomfortable. In fact, it feels so comfortable that it’s…discomforting.
It’s not easy, but it’s possible, to change a habit. We know what the cycle is: cue-action-reward. We know what’s required to change a habit: when faced with the cue, substitute a new action, and then take a moment to give yourself (or notice) the reward. So what’s the cue that’s operating here? Is it sitting down at my computer? Opening email? Hell, is it just getting out of bed? I mean…maybe? Maybe, for me, I descend into haze the instant I start my day?
So when my cue (getting out of bed) happens, I need to change my action…I need to take a moment to feel my body and my breath and my location. And then, reward: I need to notice that I am not destroyed. That what lies ahead for me has not actually obliterated me. And maybe there’s even relief or contentment there that’s worth noticing.
Wow…I am just going to let that wash over me for a minute. I fall back asleep, albeit in an upright, eyes-open position, the instant I get out of bed. Wow. Is this happening for you? If so, I hope we can help each other make a shift.
I say this knowing that our changes in habits, behaviors, practices will almost definitely snap back into their old synaptic grooves if they’re done without identifying their root causes.
So, another thing is to drop into what’s underneath the avoidance. What I’m coming up against—that trauma—is no joke. But what exactly is it? What do I think will happen to me if I face the task at hand? Will I shrivel away, unable to cope with the consequences? Will I get into some kind of unbearable trouble? While the fear is amorphous and undefined, it has an absurd and truly death-defying grip on me. And yet, the moment I articulate my fear, the grip fades, and I find I can do something about it.
Sometimes, the fear more or less dissipates altogether. Not always, of course. But even when it doesn’t dissipate, just the fact of putting it into concrete words allows me access to the tools I have to self-soothe through it.
It matters to me to experience a well-lived life, one for which I am fully here. And that shows up in everyday practices—moments and rituals where I give myself the gift of presence, such as lighting a candle to set an intention, taking a breath before opening my email inbox, or pausing to marvel at the shiny counters of the kitchen I just scrubbed.
And then there’s the system we’re operating in. It’s true that I have (some) control (when my brain cooperates) over changing my habit and facing my fear, lighting a candle and scrubbing the counters. Call it my circle of control: those things are within my circle of control.
But they’re not happening in a vacuum. Our changes in habits, behaviors, practices will snap back into their old synaptic grooves not just if we don’t identify their root causes, but also if we don’t notice the systemic influences that sustain the old habits.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the circle of influence and circle of control. The larger system we’re operating in, the “matrix,” is my circle of concern. Even if I claim some control, I am also in a system that compels overwork, distractions, urgency—all things designed to thwart precisely the habit change I so desperately seek.
Today, I’m focusing on what’s in my circle of control: habit change and facing my fear.
Next week, I’ll reflect on what’s in my circle of influence and circle of concern. See you then.