Friday, March 4, 2016

Learning to Resist Unnecessary Time Pressure and Get Cozy With Ambiguity


My wife, Frugal Croissant, is much more comfortable than I am with ambiguity, unanswered questions, and unmade decisions. Sometimes this can be frustrating, like when she lets paperwork pile up on her desk, or she puts off the decision about whether to see a movie until it's out of theaters. But the flip side is that she doesn't fall into many of the consumerist time pressure traps that I'm prey to:


  • Limited Time Offers/Limited Stock: I am very swayed by sales and deals, to the point where I've unsubscribed from all marketing emails because just knowing about a sale makes me feel Fear of Missing Out. (I don't feel FOMO from the knowledge that I'm not subscribed to an email list, oddly enough.) It's also pretty easy to manipulate me into buying things with limited stock (i.e. Amazon's "only 7 left!") Croissant doesn't seem to care about these things. If I miss an opportunity to nab something at a deal or the store runs out of something I wanted, I feel super disappointed, and will sometimes go to extreme lengths to get the item anyway, such as trawling eBay or buying it from another site at a higher cost. If she misses out, she chalks it up to not the right time, and is fine with waiting until the next opportunity, or passing altogether.
  • Sudden Revolutions: I'll decide on a new "rule" that I want to follow in my possessions,  and I'll suddenly want to get rid of all the old stuff and replace it with all new stuff. This mostly happens with my wardrobe, although I've occasionally felt the same need with other collections, like dishes or linens. The Color Revolution is an example. I stand by the "rule", but I didn't need to replace everything so immediately. Once I decided on the rule, I wanted my wardrobe to conform immediately. Croissant agrees about colors, too (she's a Soft Summer), but she was much more comfortable sticking with her current things for the time being and applying the new rule to future purchases as needed.
  • I Need to Solve the Problem Right Now: It may be a problem I didn't know I had until moments ago, but suddenly my life seems intolerable. This cannot stand! I must solve the problem NOW! Croissant is much more willing to take a "wait and see" approach and continue with life as it was before--you know, when we were perfectly content--and decide later if the problem is really big enough to bother trying to solve, and if the proposed solution is really the right one.
  • Pre-solving Future/Anticipated Problems: Why do I feel the need to finalize my summer wardrobe in February? For some reason, I find it intolerable to imagine being without something I may want or need in the future. Croissant is much more comfortable living her life and letting something become an actual need before deciding to buy or do something to solve the problem.


With the first example, marketing is purposely applying time pressure to manipulate me, but with the others, the time pressure is coming from my own head! I see myself applying unnecessary time pressure to decisions and life changes other than buying things, too.
  • In my professional life, I've taken jobs that I was unsure about or that had clear red flags, just because I didn't want to be "looking for a job." This anxiety to be employed would be understandable if I'd been out of work for a long while and money was running out, but I have done this even when I had money saved, or when I already had a job that I could have stayed at for several more months.
  • In romantic relationships, I've typically felt profoundly uncomfortable without a "label" (are we dating or friends or friends with benefits or…???) I find myself pushing to define and escalate, even when they and I would be better served by taking a see-where-things-go approach.
  • In my hobbies, I usually jump in with both feet, buying a bunch of gear and committing to a bunch of deadline-oriented responsibilities (i.e. classes, contests, paid work). I often end up resenting these commitments, seeing them through with a sort of joyless determination when this is supposed to be something I'm doing just for fun.
  • In my habits and routines, as you've probably noticed, I'm prone to making sudden, grand, sweeping pronouncements--from now on I'll only do this!--and I become impatient with myself when I don't adapt fast enough, to the point where I abandon the "new thing" altogether rather than accept incremental or uncertain progress.


It's weird to recognize this about myself, because I often think of myself as a person who doesn't like to plan. In my everyday life, I enjoy unstructured time and resist strict itineraries. But when it comes to decision making, from small purchases to big life changes, I feel profoundly uncomfortable with being in an undecided state, and will often take action (such as buying something or making a commitment) just to feel like things are resolved. I act as if there is a deadline, even when there isn't.


I'm not sure if I've internalized this deadline obsession because it's the way school and jobs work, or if I've been trained by capitalism in general to believe that life is a series of problems to solve and milestones to reach on a certain timetable, and if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward. But, I'm beginning to realize how unnecessary it is much of the time. Without illusory deadlines, I could:


  • Take my time to sit with major (and minor) life decisions--not feel pressure to make a decision just so the decision is made.
  • Do things as long as they're fun. Let my interests unfold organically, allowing my passion and curiosity to take me where it takes me. Stop when it's not fun anymore, keep going if I'm having a good time, and push forward only if I genuinely want to.
  • See my wardrobe and other collections as a journey, not a destination. Stop feeling pressure to have everything perfect right now, but be comfortable letting go of/acquiring things continually but at a slow, reasonable pace.
  • Feel comfortable answering questions with "I don't know." And feel comfortable with others answering my questions with "I don't know."
  • Be more patient with my wife and other people not conforming to my mental deadlines. Give people space to sit with their own life decisions.
  • Shrug off others' attempts to impose unnecessary deadlines on me, knowing that there will be other opportunities, other moments.
  • Be content, even with unsolved problems and unresolved questions in my life.


So I think it's worth cultivating comfort with ambiguity, with "I don't know." I'm definitely not there yet. It's a work in progress--and I'm trying to be okay with that.

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