“Contemplation Hell,” the “Security of Familiar Miseries” the “Pretend Trap” & Other Procrastinations

One of my favorite descriptive terms for that state most of us spend too much time in is “Contemplation Hell.” That’s the purgatory we self-inflict on most of the decisions we are unwilling to convert into action.

This state is reinforced by the “Security of Familiar Miseries” which refers to our preference for predictable misery rather than take a chance on the unknown result of change – even though the odds are that change will result in a better life.

We also evade change by engaging in activities which allow us to pretend we are actually taking action when we are, really, avoiding change with pseudo-activities.

I’m sure you remember my frequent referral to the book “Changing for Good” and its Stages of Change model: “Precontemplation,” “Contemplation,” “Preparation,” “Action,” “Maintenance,” and “Recycling.”

Most of us spend much of our lives bouncing back and forth between Contemplation and Preparation. In many cases that’s all we ever do, never moving along to action and the benefits that come from change whether that’s ending our self-medication with tobacco or alcohol, food or drugs, or failing to engage with activities which would enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

Yes, failing to change is not just a matter of what we’re not going to stop, but also what we’re not going to start.

I admit that I am guilty too.

As an example, while I quit smoking long ago, managed my alcohol use even earlier, and gave up motorcycles and various other self-destructive habits, and even though I have managed to write several books, I am still “waiting” to complete several more manuscripts including a collection of previously published essays that has been in my “to do” drawer for 40 years. Then there’s the sequel to the mystery Kodiak Island, an unfinished memoir of my years in Pt. Hope, Alaska and a rewrite of my years resurrecting a one-room K-8 school in Rampart, Alaska, and so on.

Obviously I have my share of procrastination problems.

However, because I am not sitting around pretending that these things are going to fix themselves, I am free to organize, prioritize, and develop a system to increase the likelihood that these projects, current or long deferred, will get the attention I keep saying I want them to get.

Writer Stephen King (among others) has created a system where he simply writes for three hours a day every day of the year. Many other writers have noted that they commit to either a certain amount of time, or pages, a day for a certain number of days a week or whatever schedule works for them.

No, I am not immune to the “pretend” trap either – as I sit reading Stephen King’s advice to writers and I am reminded of John Steinbeck’s famous presentation at Stanford University. The University had hounded him for years to give a lecture on being a writer. At long last he gave in, the talk was scheduled, he crossed the stage and asked, “How many of you want to be writers?” The assembled audience raised their hands and prepared to listen. Steinbeck looked out on them and said, “Then why the hell aren’t you home writing instead of wasting your time here?” He then turned and left the stage.

Needless to say, Stanford didn’t bother him again, even though he had given the best possible advice.

There are clues in here which match the one I learned about going to the gym on a regular basis. Accomplishing anything most often requires making new habits – meaning we don’t have to decide whether or not we’re going to do the activity, whether weight lifting or writing, but that we schedule the activity and then adhere to the schedule until it becomes our new normal – a process that usually takes between 30 and 90 days. (This is also true of developing “bad” habits – it takes about the same amount of time to adjust to smoking or to be brainwashed into a cult as the infamous “90 meetings in 90 days” AA admonition indicates, or for military basic training to convert you into a mindless killer.)

It also means that you don’t just stop doing something but you replace it with a new habit which meets the previous habit’s use (CBT for anxiety rather than alcohol and I once replaced cigarettes with menthol flossing toothpicks).

Over the last 20 years Mary Ellen and I have lost many potential clients because we have not offered “pretend” services. Nor have we agreed to help you maintain your “familiar misery” – though a few of you could argue that my Newsletters allow readers to pretend they are doing something, or engaged in research, and so on.

We’ve also had clients who dropped out when actually doing something appeared on the horizon – even if that was something as simple as learning were they stood financially, medically and legally, the three states which we suggest are necessary to know if one is to make an informed decision about anything.

A concrete example might help to summarize: a former colleague once asked how long we usually worked with clients.

I said, “less than 12 weeks in most cases.”

Astonished, he said, “how could you possibly effect change in so short a time?

I said, “because that’s how long it takes to institute real change.”

Again he said, “But I’ve been seeing my therapist for weekly sessions for over 25 years.”

“Are you feeling better?” I said.

“No,” he said, “but my therapist assured me we are close to a break through.”

I thought, but didn’t say, “not until her last child is through college.”

Summing up – most of our “issues” could be defined and action well started in 12 weeks.

As for you, and for me, actual change means planning, scheduling, adhering to that schedule until it becomes part of your “new normal” and enlisting real short term help when needed, OR admitting you don’t really want to change and making peace with that choice.