Monday, August 1, 2011

What Did I Get Myself Into?

In preparation for a talk I gave recently I came across some old notes on some really interesting data. It has to do with something psychologists call temporal distance – specifically, the fact that how we see an activity depends on how far we are from it in time.  (Stay with me, because this will begin to sound familiar.)

What that means is that the plans we make for a happy event (let's say a big party or an exotic vacation) are more exciting and appealing in proportion to the distance into the future that they are to occur. In other words, the further away in the future a good thing is, the better it will seem - and the less we will consider the practical aspects (the work!) of making it happen.

It’s also true that its appeal and the excitement lessen with its approach in time, as the practical aspects begin to take center stage. When the day is finally here, we ask ourselves, "How did I ever get myself into this?"  Have you said that? I know I have.

So what happened? Well, the closer you get to the event, the more you have to start dealing with all the hassle of pulling it off, so that’s what you are focused on. Let's take the exotic vacation. When it’s six months away, it sounds like a great idea – an amazing adventure.  But as the departure date draws near, questions pop into your mind: Does the passport need updating? How long will that take?  Will we need shots to go to this place? I hope no one has a reaction.  What kind of first aid kit should I pack?  Can we drink the water? How hot does it get? What clothes should I pack? Does it ever get cold, like at night? Should I bring food like crackers in case the offerings look suspect? Who is going to drive us to the airport?

When it’s cold and snowing, you dream of a big party in the spring in your backyard. You excitedly think of all the things you loved at other parties you went to last summer, and plan to incorporate all those ideas in yours. You will knock their socks off! This is going to be FUN!

Spring comes and the party date grows near.  You realize you really should paint the guest bathroom- it could use some freshening. The garden needs a big clean up, any volunteers? No?  What types of food should you serve?  You need to write the menu. And make a shopping list. This will take at least two carts, who can you get to help you? You need to go to the liquor store – but first, you need to figure out which mixed drinks you will make ? What is that thing Dan always asks for?  How many invitations did you send out? Who is really coming? Will you buy or borrow chairs?

You get the idea, because you have lived it. We all have. And the great party you had dreamed about giving may not feel that “great” after all.

Sadly, you cannot get rid of this bias - good things will always look better in the future, and it is human nature to dream big. There is only one thing you can do to reduce your “Why did I agree to do this?” problem:  You can force yourself to think about feasibility.

You can make yourself look at all the details, and the work it will entail, in advance – preferably when you are making your decision in the first place. After considering everything - the space and time it will take to create an event, your skill set, your finances, and your nerves under pressure – then make a decision that takes the whole picture into account, not just the fun bits.

Good luck with your goal!

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