There Could Be No “Later”

In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling quite restless. There’s not enough time, too many things I just can’t seem to take care of.

You probably know that feeling – or rather, the attitude towards things.

There’s a couple of things that need to be sorted out. And there’s stuff that arrives on my desk and wants to be taken care of. Like taxes.

My insight of the past days itself isn’t anything worth sharing, really: There may be no better time later to take this on. It might just as well get more and more busy. So it’s not worth just putting stuff onto a (mental) pile. Decide to never do it, or do do it. Deferring via seemingly endless to-do lists doesn’t work for me.

From a technical, project-managing perspective, this is reflected in sentiments like “Don’t Keep a Backlog” (since chances are that other, more important stuff gets in the way before you get to it). See this sentiment reflected in e.g. “Kill Your Product Backlog”, or basically everything by DHH and Shape Up, just to name a few examples.

The danger, in principle, is quite severe. If I choose to ignore things even though these things are in plain sight, this can change my perception of the rest of reality, too. Overlook the socks on the ground often enough, and they become invisible. It’s an odd magic trick. In that case, one is basically playing a game of pretend, slipping into selective denial. The brain then does the rest to make it work. This automatism is the actual dangerous bit because blind spots can manifest.

While selective perception is a useful coping mechanism to focus on some important tasks while ignoring other things that would distract, eventually, one has to get out of that.

It feels like I let the ideal moment to stop pretending pass by – so today is the next best opportunity.

The danger of denial feels quite real, and that’s not a good feeling, and I believe that’s what contributes to the restlessness the most: the externalization of my initial decision to “do this later”, which became an auto-deferral of sorts, and then the resulting narrative shift towards one of powerlessness in face of Spirits that I’ve cited / My commands ignore1, of “I can’t do this right now”, while actually I merely won’t. The initial decision became reality, which then informs future decisions.

This personal insight that the situation requires a small amount of will and action to fix is nothing ground-breaking, per se.

I figured what might be worth sharing is the meta level:

Even though this is nothing new, and even though I’ve read about this dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the decades – it is still totally possible to fall for the trap of “later forever”, of deferring tasks day after day, of leaves in the garden nobody cleans up, or things that are broken in the house and remain unfixed for ages, of amassing long “next action” lists and huge backlogs. Unlike physical paper, a text file doesn’t push into your face how long it gets. It’s non-physicality makes deferring feel like an innocent act.

So my contribution to the internet is this: Knowing about all this helps to identify the problem, but it’s not the solution: action is. Which is also well-known. Still we can find ourselves in situations like this.

  1. Goethe’s writing is full of quips that became proverbs in German, and here I’m citing one of them. Chances are you never heard this :) This is from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The part towards the end I’m citing here (“Ah, he comes excited. Sir, my need is sore. / Spirits that I’ve cited / My commands ignore.”, in German: “Ach, da kommt der Meister! / Herr, die Not ist groß! / Die ich rief, die Geister / werd ich nun nicht los.”) is one proverbial phrase, sometimes shortened to merely “Die Geister die ich rief …”, i.e. “The spirits that I’ve cited”. The meaning is roughly: It was in one’s power, once, to conjure the spirits and start a process, which then accidentally became perpetual, but it’s not of one’s power to make this stop. It’s a moment of profund insight (I caused this!) and despair (I can’t stop it!). – If my inner apprentice brought forth this situation, who’s the master to fix everything? Why, that’s also me, of course! Merely acting on a different level. 

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