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Now is the New Later

How "death anxiety" cheats us out of life

By Jean Lang

Jihan McGainey Terry, 35, says she struggled with weight loss since high school. After she had a baby a few years later, she gained more weight. She remembers being turned away from an amusement park ride because she couldn’t fit in the seats. The humiliating experience was made worse because her then 14-year-old daughter witnessed it. But moments like that, along with wanting to get healthier, possibly have another baby, helped motivate Terry to make some changes. Now, she not only works to achieve her goals, she pushes others to do the same. “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great,” reads a tagline on the website for “A Better Me,” Terry’s fitness and lifestyle business, based in Montclair, N.J.

Psychologists say this inaction, in some cases procrastination, can be related to death anxiety, an unwillingness to acknowledge that we all will die one day.

People often say they plan to do something when the time is right — maybe when they get a new job, come into money, or retire. Psychologists say this inaction, in some cases procrastination, can be related to death anxiety, an unwillingness to acknowledge that we all will die one day. But “seize the moment” proponents say these tendencies to avoid your mortality can, and should, be overcome, for your sake and society’s.

You can’t wait for the perfect time, Terry says. You have to make the time. “I learned that in life, you’re never going to be ready,’’ she says. Terry lost weight and earlier this year rode an amusement ride that she might not have been able to before. “It’s a sense of freedom,” she says. One way she achieves her goals is to write them down in a book each December. She says they can be as simple as “smile more, cry less.” Every year, as she opens the book to document her new goals, she gets to see how she did on the previous ones.

Robert Firestone, Ph.D., author of “Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness,” says some people claim they have no fear of death, but the thought of facing the cessation of all experience is emotionally terrifying. He says people face a conflict in relation to death anxiety — go forward toward life and fulfillment or retreat and subvert your goals.


Read our interview with Robert Firestone, Ph.D.

People who choose the avoidant posture are more likely to deny themselves potential gratification and rationalize negative choices in life.

“The more defended, negative, self-denying attitude prevails in the general population there will be a corresponding effect on society,” he writes, in response to questions from The Bucket. “When people are more reliant on a defensive, somewhat negative outlook, they are generally more dissatisfied and the atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive, more intolerant and divided, and less compassionate and humane.” Meaning if we become more mean and unneighborly, so will society as a whole. Regarding those who procrastinate, he says, people who choose the avoidant posture are more likely to deny themselves potential gratification and rationalize negative choices in life.

Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario and founder of the Procrastination Research Group, says procrastination is an emotion-focused strategy. It’s a voluntary delay of an intended action. We often know the delay is not a good idea, he says, and that’s why there’s a “cognitive dissonance” leading to guilt and shame. “The thermometer for dissonance is guilt,” he says.

Since people hold reliability in esteem, not taking an action we intended, Pychyl says, can make us feel ashamed. In most religions, he says, sloth is considered a sin. But to cut procrastinators some slack, it’s not just laziness at work (or play?). Pychyl says parts of the brain, particularly the amygdala, in those who put matters off unnecessarily, even looks different, especially in younger people whose prefrontal cortexes are not fully developed. But, he says, “biology is not destiny.” People can take steps to overcome the urge to put off until tomorrow what can be done today.

“My go-to strategy is ‘what’s the next action I would need to do’?” Pychyl says. This takes attention away from emotion. The action should be so small that anyone could do it. “It primes the pump,” he says.  If it means having a phone conversation with someone, the next action would be to pick up the phone and dial the number. “Don’t think about the whole conversation,” he says. In addition, mindfulness meditation can also help combat procrastination, he says.

Pychyl, who was misdiagnosed in 2011 with cancer, has a sister battling cancer and lost his father to lung cancer two years ago. He describes his father as a wise man who often said to him, “Do it while you can.” He says his father would also say that time was a nonrenewable resource, of which we don’t even know how much of it we’re going to have. “This is not a dress rehearsal. This is your life. Better make something of it,’’ says Pychyl.

Pychyl originally set out to study goal pursuit and discovered the reason many didn’t realize their goals was procrastination. He has heard stories of people being paralyzed by procrastination. One story came in an email he received in response to one of his lectures. A 32-year-old architect said he was overweight, unable to commit long-term to his girlfriend of 10 years, was delaying buying a car he needed to help his parents, was trying to undergo a career change and often pulled all-nighters to get by. Of the advice given in Pychyl’s video lecture, the architect said, “It’s a glimmer of hope and light in what seems to be unbreakable darkness.”

Pychyl, like Terry, likes to cite mottos and mantras to follow. He says there’s a sign above his porch that sums up some of what he teaches. “Live now. Procrastinate later.”


About the Writer

Jean Lang is a freelance writer and a former Boston-based Associated Press reporter. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, AARP Bulletin, and other publications. Jean can be reached at jeanmcmillanlang@gmail.com.

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An excellent lesson to learn. A lot of high performers start out as perfectionists, but get stuck unless they also learn that, “Done and good enough is better than perfect and never done.” Learning that “What’s the next action step?” trick is a powerful tool. Great article.

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