Seize the Day? Maybe Tomorrow.

When I was reading the latest blog from Tierney Lab (in the Science section of the NY Times), I thought my head was going to fall off I was nodding so much. It reminded me of head banging to Enya, in a sense. The point is not that the author of this blog can combine the words "head banging" and "Enya" in a coherent sentence; rather, the point has to do with the blog post itself, titled "Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow."

I realized this really described my whole life.

The blog ultimately described why people procrastinate on pleasurable things (opening that nice bottle of wine or using the gift card) and how that can have negative impacts in our lives (the wine never gets open or the gift card expires).

Writes John Tierney:

It sounds odd, but this is actually a widespread form of procrastination — just ask the airlines and other marketers who save billions of dollars annually from gift certificates that expire unredeemed. Or the poets who have kept turning out exhortations to seize the day and gather rosebuds.

But it has taken awhile for psychologists and behavioral economists to analyze this condition. Now they have begun to explore the strange impulse to put off until tomorrow what could be enjoyed today...

When there is no immediate deadline, we’re liable to put off going to the zoo this weekend because we assume that we will be less busy next weekend — or the weekend after that, or next summer. This is the same sort of thinking that causes us to put the gift certificate in the drawer because we expect to have more time for shopping in the future.

We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time lost versus the pleasure or money to be gained, but we’re not accurate in our estimates of “resource slack,” as it is termed by Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch. These behavioral economists found that when people were 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.

Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be...

“People can become overly focused on an ideal,” Dr. Shu said. “Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one.”

...Another tactic is to give yourself deadlines. 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.

Thus ever goes my life. I've always been like this. I squirreled away all of my "good" candy at Christmas and Easter and Halloween, determined to save it for later. Then, of course, the candy went bad and I had to throw it out. I wasn't trying to avoid eating the food--I saved that fun little game for much later--but I wanted to eat the object of my desire at the "perfect" time. The night before a big test at school, say, or a windy, blustery day to brew that special cup of hot cocoa. Never mind, of course, that I'm a bit of a spaz and typically don't think of Ways to Be Nice to Carrie when I'm tremendously stressed. Or that I end up throwing the candy out because I haven't found the "perfect" occasion on which to have it.

When I have my massive to-do list, I usually try to get the dreaded jobs out of the way first. If I'm really overwhelmed, I'll start with the easy tasks (get shower, fold laundry) to get myself going, but then it's on to the icky stuff. I save the best for last. I do it when I'm eating, and always have. I don't like cherry flavored things--I have crap lungs and guzzled bottles of Robitussin as a kid as I got one bout of bronchitis/pneumonia/whatever after another--and so with a bag of Skittles, I'd separate out the red ones and eat those first. I always always ate the green ones last, because I love lime.

I have several unused gift cards in my possession- one for Coldstone Creamery from my birthday almost two years ago now. Part of the reason I haven't used it was related to the eating disorder relapse. That's not too hard to figure out. But I had the card for well over a year before I started relapsing, and even went to Coldstone during that time, gift card in wallet, and deliberately didn't use it. Why? I wanted to save it for a time when I wanted ice cream but money was tight, for a time when I deserved an extra little treat, for...sometime that wasn't now. Only, I never think I deserve an extra little treat (which is a whole issue unto itself), and now I'm left with an unused gift card that may or may not still be valid.

I like looking forward to potential pleasure in the future, but I get anxious and uncertain when I think about enjoying something nice RIGHT NOW. Which could also be one of the major themes of my eating disorder, when you get right down to it. I tortured myself on a day-to-day basis (okay, hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute basis, when you get right down to it) in the hopes that tomorrow or the next day or maybe next year, I will have what I want. Except tomorrow or the next day or the next year, I will be thinking the same damn thing and so life goes on and you approach 30 and start scratching your head and wondering what in the hell just happened with your life.


John Tierney summarized the moral of the story best:

Remember the advice offered in the movie “Sideways” to Miles, who has been holding on to a ’61 Cheval Blanc so long that it is in danger of going bad. When Miles says he is waiting for a special occasion, his friend Maya puts matters in perspective:

“The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.”

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Anonymous said...

So true. I always have that 'just in case' mentality so I save up everything- related very well about the candy...every summer when we get back from Europe we bring all our favourite British and Finnish chocolate and I always 'save it' so I can enjoy it later in the year...and it always ends up going stale. Carpe diem. My motto for the day!

Cammy said...

I know we have traded this comment many times before, but sometimes I feel like we're these weird twins separated in time and space. I have ALWAYS, forever before time immemorial, been a "save the best for last"-er. Everything from Halloween candy to the order that I read e-mails. I used to sort all of my M&Ms by color and eat them in a specific order (yellow, orange, green, tan (remember when they had tan?) and brown. The reasoning was that darker colors would be "more chocolatey", even though they all taste the same. Just arbitrary rules, which, as we all know, are sometimes less quaint and more sinister than color-coded candy.

I read that NYT post when it came out and definitely had head-nodding moments too. It's kind of funny to read articles, etc about weird personal quirks that turn out to be so widespread.

Kim said...

Wow, I do this all the time, too. I have a difficult time with pleasure and I just chalked it up to that, but I think it's more about the cost-benefit analysis stuff, the maximizing and perfecting, waiting for that "ideal." I feel this way with recovery sometimes: "Oh, I'll just get to that 100% healthy weight tomorrow. It's not the ideal time yet." I'm not a procrastinator with work (and I sure wasn't with school), but I can put off pleasure or "good" things like nobody's business. Thanks for this!

I Hate to Weight said...

oh, i procastinate work and over-do on the pleasure. i don't even give myself time to savor the gift card before i'm off to the bookstore, Starbucks, the mani/pedi.

and sadly, i was way too eager to open that bottle of wine.

i have such a hard time delaying pleasure.

is there a happy medium -- a nice mix or work and play?

i do believe in enjoying now. it makes life much better.

Abby said...

Thus ever goes my life as well. In all honesty, this hit so close to home I almost freaked out. I won't ramble, as you said everything I would have.

ego in absentia said...

Fabulous post! Cheers to you xoxo

Lina (of Flushed) said...

Wow. This is so interesting and so me!! I am the same way! I just cleaned out my purse (NYresolution~check!) and I can't even tell you how many gift certificates have been expired and how many I still have. It's embarrassing.

Great post. Great blog. Learn something new with each post!


Tiptoe said...

I have been like this since I was younger. I'd wait and wait until the right time to do things, to eat things, to wear things, etc.

I somehow felt that pleasure should be sacred, that it should be such a special moment rather than just a moment you could enjoy. And in that, I waited and waited and waited, and it never happened. Those are the times when it can be too late and we miss out on so many joys we could have had.

Katie said...

Ooh, I get to be the odd one out. I AM like this now, but I wasn't always. I had EDNOS (my version was restricting followed by bingeing and overexercising, but at a healthy weight) for a decade before I developed anorexia. Up until three years ago I was not one to 'save the best till last' and I was not into delayed gratification. Then I became severely underweight and my personality changed in tandem. Even now that I am back at a healthy weight, my personality is still more typical of someone with anorexia than of who I was before (although a lot of the impulsivity then came from erratic eating habits and bad reactions to antidepressants, so I have no clue what my personality is really like. Sigh). I find that disturbing and interesting at the same time!

Thanks for the post Carrie, fascinating as always!!

CG said...

Hi Carrie, I think you have hit on a VERY interesting personality divide...perhaps something to be considered in the development of either anorexia or bulimia.

See, like another poster I have huge problems with pleasure delay. When I was a little kid, I aaaalways ate my favorite halloween candies first (it seemed so obvious, when we were only allowed a couple a night!) and saved the crappy ones until I eventually threw them away. On a to-do list, I will probably get everything other than the hardest thing out of the way, and put it off as long as possible. And good food? I deserve that, too. I just also deserve one of those skinny mini model bodies, thus the vomiting and over exercising ensued. Funny how the thought patterns are so different...

CG said...

p.s. I can also never hold onto airmiles long enough to get a full free trip...I end up using the miles for money exchange because I can't resist the lure of discounting each flight price. Am I weird?

Anonymous said...

I can relate a lot to the "it has to be perfect timing" scenario. I think that's a lot of the anxiety associated with my ED.

I love that quote from Sideways.

Carrie Arnold said...


I think I might have to go rent "Sideways" now. I loved that movie. And I think I have a nice bottle of wine to pop open, too!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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