“Once I get those new shoes then I’ll be all set to head to the gym and start working out.”
“Once I get back from vacation, then I have this whole new diet plan I’ll start.”
“Once I get through this project at work, then I’ll dial back the hours and focus more on my wife and kids”
Unfortunately that texting driver didn’t have the same longevity concerns when he blindsided your car sending you to the hospital. And suddenly, the reality takes shape that you will not complete that work project, be able to workout, or begin that new diet. Your life’s course has been permanently altered.
Of course the realization that these mini self-narratives quoted above are faulty needn’t be gained only from such an intense situation as a car crash. And, I’m not going to reprise the overworked maxim, Carpe’ Diem. Instead, I’d like to focus on the logic of time prioritization.
This recent Coronavirus pandemic can function well enough to highlight the need to contemplate, and perhaps re-evaluate, our priority of time tenses. As federal guidelines and state mandates for curtailing our behavior began rolling out we readily experienced the threat to a future time tense. What started off as a slow roll, quickly became an immediate sprint focusing on the present (and immediate future), and a lessening of attention on a more distant future.
Suddenly, often comically, what we are going to wipe our asses with became more pressing than our summer vacation plans.
But of course we cannot live life like there is no tomorrow, because the odds are overwhelmingly, in our favor, that we will be alive tomorrow, next week, and most likely years from now.
So we have to live as if we will be around and prepare accordingly.
This is an interesting little irony. We can’t keep an immediate future orientation indefinitely, just as we can’t maintain a for the moment mentality. We need to strike a balance of somewhere in between. And, as we’ve seen, this balance often shifts due to external contexts.
But, let’s focus more specifically on lifestyle changes, ones you really know to be for your betterment. We do this goofy little mind trick that is irritating as fuck. It’s this idea that IF and ONCE something is in place, THEN something else. It really doesn’t matter what we think needs to be in place or what is the expected result; it’s the structure of this thinking that is faulty.
So other than the surface-level, practical, procrastination, what’s the actual problem with this if/then thinking?
The if/then statement is a single conditional statement, creating a false dichotomy from false pretenses.
It excludes other factors, including time, to generate a scenario in which there is a yes or no response. If you don’t have those new shoes, then obviously you cannot begin your new workout. If you are on vacation, then obviously you cannot start the diet. When these narratives are run this way, they can be seen as utterly invalid.
By adding-in other conditions, including time, we can challenge these narratives. Logic provides us with handy if and only if statements (often represented as iff). So the statements now become:
Iff, I get my new shoes can I begin my new workout.
Iff I get back from vacation can my new diet start.
By changing the initial structure, and adding in the condition only if, we open the opportunity to more precisely challenge the statement. There are many aspects of the only if statement that we can challenge, but since the focus here is that of time tenses, we’ll stick with that.
Is it true that only if you (in the future) get the shoes you can then begin working out? Obviously the answer is no. Obvious when viewed in this more precisely broken down format, but not so obvious when we play it out in our minds. There it can make sense. Here it can not.
Additionally, putting something off until after some other event(s) occurs indicates an incorrect prioritization of time.
The priority is placed on a future tense rather than the present tense. So why is this incorrect? Because the future can easily be a false priority, whereas a priority on the present cannot be false. We know we have the present moment and what that present moment looks like. We do not have the same perspective on the future.
If we choose to do so, there can always be some found justification for waiting to do something, and placing priority on the future. The challenge is to choose to place priority on the present and recognize its value as the only known condition. In other words, the future is not and cannot be known, so why place priority there. The present is known, and can be known precisely, so do place priority here.
Perhaps the next time you find yourself entertaining this if/then narrative try answering the question: “Why not now?” or, “If not now, then when?” Seriously, write down some answers, then look at them. Can you honestly accept these answers as legit in preventing you from taking some action now? Again, it may not be the exact action you ultimately want in the future, but certainly something can be done now. Employ iff statements to help out: “Since it’s not the case that only if X, then what is the case?”
This placing of priority on the future offers a subtle, deceptive, shift in what we choose. It almost lets us off the hook, because we are choosing to believe in a known future, and we’re also choosing to ignore variables that would dispel that future prioritization – not a good place to be.
Take time to realize when and how you may be mis-prioritizing time, and creating false limiting conditions, preventing the change you want to make. Limiting, self-serving narratives allow the status quo to continue. Of course there may be legitimate obstacles along the way. And by working through your narratives with the iff statements, you allow for self-reflection and understanding that what you think is preventing you, actually is.