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Is Responsibility Debt Ruining Your Progress?

The other week, I woke up to the fact that I’d run out of coffee. And as I sullenly trudged to the cafe, and berated myself because I knew this was going to happen. You see, the day before I walked past the store and told myself I’d pick up coffee on the way back from the gym. Fast forward to me walking back from the gym and I told myself I’d get more coffee tomorrow because I was hungry and tired and just wanted to get home. I knew I didn’t want to handle the responsibility right there and then, so I put it off. Even as I walked home, I knew that tomorrow would come and I’d have to get more coffee.

I call this Responsibility Debt.

Responsibility Debt is when your past/present self-abdicates responsibility to your future self. But see, there’s a problem. Your future self already has pre-existing responsibilities and now you’ve just thrown more onto them.

For example:

Let’s say you decide that you’re not going to the gym today because darn it, it’s been a long day and you’re tired. And as you snuggle up on the oh-so-warm couch while turning on Netflix you promise yourself that you’ll go to the gym tomorrow. Definitely. No doubt about it. Tomorrow, you are most definitely going to the gym.

But then tomorrow rolls around and OH DAMMIT, YOU FORGOT YOU PROMISED TO PICK UP YOUR CHILD FROM SCHOOL. Well, I guess I’ll just have to go to the gym tomorrow. And then that tomorrow comes and something else pops up. And you keep abdicating your gym-going to your future selves like a hot potato.

The reason we do this is what psychologists call an empathy gap: The inability to empathise with your future self at the moment when you’re driven by your present desires, causing you to choose immediate gratification over your long-term goal.

It’s hard to be empathetic to something like your future self – you hardly even know it.

I mean, if you were walking home and found a dude sprawled out on the street bleeding his face off because he’d been hit by a car – you’d obviously help because you can see him, the experience is palpable, and thus, it’s easy to have empathy. (Holy cow balls, this dude is dying, I should probably call an ambulance.) But, who the hell is your future self? It’s just some random you way off in the future. Fuck that person, anyway – they can handle this shit tomorrow.

Sooo…uh, Thomas, what can I do about this?

Oh, I thought you’d never ask. A few things, actually.

1) Empathise with your future self.  Remember how I said you hardly know your future self? Well, it’s because you don’t. So, before you offload responsibility to them: stop and put yourself in their shoes. Imagine your future self as a completely different person to you – perhaps a close friend? Now, would it be fair to put all your own responsibilities on this person? Or, should you handle it yourself?

Taking a second to stop and think about this removes the impulsiveness and allows you to be rational. “Oh, I have to go to that thing tomorrow which means I won’t be able to go to the gym. I should go today.”

2) Schedule the important things in your diary. There are three things, above all else, that I do not negotiate on - writing (creating), reading, and gym. I plan time for each into my day regardless of how busy I am. If you don’t schedule the important things into your day, you won’t do them – and physically putting something into your diary marks it as important and makes it palpable, in turn, you’re more likely to do it.

3) Do the hardest thing first. Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”   If you know you’re not likely to go to the gym after work; go in the morning before work. Of course, it’s hard, it’s supposed to be. Have you ever tried eating frogs? Doing this means you have it out of the way but also, it’s a ‘win’ for the day and works as a positive psychological boost.

4)“Do it now”.  This is a little something I’ve found to be super effective. Whenever I’m procrastinating or find myself abdicating responsibility to my future self, I tell myself to “do it now”. And I keep repeating this to myself until I get sick of my own bullshit and go do it. 

Word of advice: best not to do this in public unless you want people to think you’re a weirdo.

Ok, that’s all. Now please excuse me, I have some frogs in the oven that need to be eaten. And by frogs, I mean bacon…

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