Now that the holidays are behind us, I can officially announce that I did not receive a single gift card. Which is probably a good thing, as currently gathering dust on my dresser are the following: a year-old gift certificate for a Thai massage at a local spa; a Nordstrom gift card so old I can’t remember its origins; and a Crate & Barrel gift certificate I recently looked at again, only to discover I received it in 2002. (To be fair, there is no Crate & Barrel in Santa Barbara.) These cards are as much a source of shame as amusement–at times, I’d swear I could hear them snickering at me–but I was comforted to learn that, apparently, I am far from alone in my tendency to procrastinate… even when it comes to matters of pleasure. As John Tierney put it in his recent NYT piece, “Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow”:
You just need the strength to cash in your gift certificates, drink that special bottle of wine, redeem your frequent flier miles and take that vacation you always promised yourself. If your resolve weakens, do not succumb to guilt or shame. Acknowledge what you are: a recovering procrastinator of pleasure.
It seems 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.
In the piece, Tierney cites a couple of studies conducted by Suzanne B. Shu and Ayelet Gneezy, professors of marketing at UCLA and UC San Diego, respectively. In one, they found that
People who have moved to Chicago, Dallas and London get to fewer local landmarks during their entire first year than the typical tourist visits during a two-week stay.
In another, Shu and Gneezy gave people gift certificates good for movie tickets and French pastries; some expired within two to three weeks; some in six to eight weeks. Of that one, Tierney writes:
The people who received the long-term certificates were more confident than the others that they would redeem the gifts–a logical enough assumption, given all the extra time they had. But they just kept putting it off, and ultimately they were more likely to let the gift go unredeemed than the people who had received the short-term certificates.
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.
All of which is interesting when it comes to using those gift cards, cashing in those frequent flier miles, and opening that killer (or so you’ve read) bottle of Syrah. Not to mention enjoying a free croissant. But what it really left me wondering was this: what does this psychological tic mean when it comes to our lives, our choices?
How often do we find ourselves putting off going after what we really want, because we’re waiting for the stars to align and offer up the perfect circumstances, assuming there will be plenty of time to Fill in the Blank? Of course, it just so damn easy, sticking to the path we’re already on, opting to postpone that trip (airfare might come down!), that move (sure, that apartment is cute, but it’s so small… what if I sign the lease and then The Perfect Place opens up?), that baby (next year, we should be making a little more money…), going back to school (I’m only going if I get into my Number One choice), starting a business (maybe it’s not the right time), changing careers altogether (maybe once the economy improves), Insert Your Dream Here (insert your excuse here), all because circumstances aren’t quite perfect yet… But really, where does that get us? With a stack of dreams, piled up on the shelf, gathering dust, and in danger of expiring, turning to vinegar? Yet another problem with perfection: the time we waste waiting for it.
Here’s what Dr. Shu has to say:
People can become overly focused on an ideal. 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 the 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.
Regret. Such a bitter pill. So: what to do? Leap now, and forever hold your peace? What’s the worst that could happen? Consider this slightly unconventional wisdom, pulled from the hedonism-hailing flick Sideways:
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 into perspective:
‘The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.’
I’ll drink to that. And I’ll drink (something good–though not ’61 Cheval Blanc good, alas) to that while cooking an epic meal using the last of those dried chiles I scored last year in Santa Fe. But first: I have a massage to book.