Putting Off Pleasure

Chapel Hill News logoJanuary 8, 2010

All my life I’ve been stalked by that puritanical, busy-beaver bromide: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you could get done today.” Sigh.

But I almost always do. The other morning, when I should have been writing, I read about a twist on the saying that goes like this: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you could enjoy today.”

Enjoy? Today? Come again?

In the New York Times article, “Carpe Diem? Maybe tomorrow …” John Tierney interviews psychologists about a phenomenon called “the procrastination of pleasure.” Turns out I have that affliction too. Here are some typical pleasures folks put off: cashing in gift certificates; visiting local landmarks, opening that bottle of good wine, using those frequent flier miles.

Why do some of us do this? One study explains that people (count me in) suffer from a warped view of time. For example, when asked “to anticipate how much extra money and time they would have in the future, they realistically assumed that money would be tight, but they expected free time to magically materialize.”

I’ll finish that book when I have more time.Or, I’ll save that gift certificate from the French restaurant for a special occasion.

Oops. It seems that particular free offer expired after a year. A good thing business was slow; the owner took pity on me and honored my wallet-worn promise of a free dinner for two.

According to research, short-term certificates of two or three weeks get used way more often than gifts with longer time frames. Why? When the pressure’s on, we act. Otherwise, it’s that same-old: I don’t have time right now to enjoy myself, but I will later. That later never comes.

Another example: many of us rarely take advantage of our local landmarks. We don’t go to our own museums and parks unless we’re entertaining out-of-town guests – or about to move away – then we cram in a bunch of local color.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but there’s a museum around here that opened several years ago. I love museums. So why am I waiting? I am a “procrastinator of pleasure,” that’s why, as well as just a regular old goof-off.

A while back I realized I’d earned a free trip on Southwest and decided to use it to visit my parents in Philadelphia. Then I talked to a Southwest agent who convinced me save the miles for a fun trip. “You have plenty of time before this expires,” she told me. “And you visit Philadelphia regularly. Plan a vacation for somewhere special.”

And that’s where I screwed up. I should have said, “Great idea,” consulted my calendar, and bought tickets for a pleasure trip then and there. I didn’t. And now? You guessed it: I’ve missed the expiration date. And don’t think airlines and marketers the world over don’t count on sloths. In truth, our deferred pleasure problems save them billions of dollars.

A trainer from my gym called the other day letting me know I had an unused appointment with her.I had no idea. “Great,” I said. “Want to set a date?” she asked. “Or you could ring me back.”

My usual synapses fired: later, of course, I thought. Then I stopped myself. “No. Wait,” I said to her. “Let’s put something on the calendar right now.”

That’s one of the techniques for overcoming the pleasure procrastination problem. Give yourself deadlines. Tierney writes, “Cash in the miles by summer, even if you can’t get a round-the-world trip out of them. Instead of waiting for a special occasion to indulge yourself, create one.”

So I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. Despite that familiar gremlin yelling in my ear, “No, not now! Later, when you have time!” I’m going to try, this decade to … oh, how to say this?

Just DO it, like, now.