Distinguish “Buffering” from Procrastination and Self-Care

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Have you ever found yourself teleported to the refrigerator at the time you were supposed to be doing work? Or taken a “short” break to watch one video, then had that turn into watching an entire series? Or started to tidy your desk to settle down to work, and wound up reorganizing your office? If so, you may have been buffering.

“Buffering” is a concept I learned from Brooke Castillo. It means doing a pleasurable activity to avoid feeling negative feelings about something else. A “buffering” activity offers instant gratification, plus instant relief from unpleasantness. That can be an addictive combination, hence binge watching, binge eating, binge surfing the internet, binge Facebooking, etc.

So why do we need a new concept for this? Isn’t this just a type of procrastination, caused by a lack of self-discipline? Yes and no. What follows is my explanation for the value of this new concept.

“Buffering” conceptualizes some of the same phenomena as “procrastination,” but from a value orientation. It directs your attention to what you are trying to achieve (pleasure and avoidance of unpleasantness), as opposed to what you’re doing wrong. This value orientation makes a world of difference if you genuinely want to develop self-discipline.

If you notice you are procrastinating, what does that imply you should do? By naming it “procrastination,” you are building in an assumption that you are misbehaving. So, you should stop what you’re doing and get to work. Stop being naughty.

But if you’ve learned to manage an impulse to procrastinate, you know that scolding yourself and forcing yourself to buckle down is not a particularly effective way to get the job done. One reason it is ineffective is that you’ve just undercut your own self-respect, which is the source of willpower to do the right thing. Another is that this assumption of misbehavior blinds you to other possible explanations for why you’re not doing what you thought you should be doing.

In contrast, if you notice you are buffering, what does that imply you should do? Identify that unpleasant feeling that you are trying to avoid. That feeling has critical information buried in it, that you need to know. I say this, based on everything I’ve been teaching about focus, introspection, and motivating oneself for the last 15 years or so.

Accepting facts requires accepting any negative emotions you have about the facts. Until you let yourself feel the feelings, you won’t easily identify the losses to be mourned, the threats to be faced, the messes to be sorted out. You will not be fully aware of all of the values at stake in the situation. Emotions, by their nature, are alerts to values at stake. You need to know the values at stake.

If you are buffering, you are, in effect, shielding yourself from these unpleasant facts, typically without realizing it. The most critical thing for you to do in that moment is not to chastise yourself, or even do the task you are “supposed” to be doing. The most important thing for you to do is to embrace those negative feelings, so you can get in touch with all of the relevant facts (including the values at stake), so you can make a fully informed decision about what matters most.

For years, I have given the above advice to people who think they are procrastinating, but it is often a tough sell. The moral self-condemnation is so tightly woven with most people’s idea of procrastination, that it is difficult for them to step aside and look at their feelings. The result?

First, they don’t realize that sometimes they are delaying for a legitimate reason. I have thought I was procrastinating when I was literally too tired to do the task, when I was mistaken about what the critical task was, and when the only problem was I didn’t know the next step. All of these mistakes are caught quickly and easily by introspection.

Second, they don’t get in touch with the urgency, when the task really is time critical. Think about the last time a deadline propelled you into action. It’s the clarity about how little time there is, and how much to do, that creates that urgency. You can’t get that clarity without feeling the feelings. If you want that sharp jolt of energy to get moving on the task, you need to be willing to experience and understand your feelings. You don’t get it from chastising yourself.

In contrast, if you recognize that you are buffering, that word implies a concern for the feelings you are avoiding. The advice to find the feelings you are buffering is a much easier sell. It is an expression of self-caring, as it ought to be. And it leaves open the possibility that the “buffering” you are doing is actually serving a healthy purpose.

For example, at one point in my life, I stopped reading fiction, because I found that I could get sucked into reading fiction for hours on end. In the name of ending procrastination, I cut fiction out of my life. But that was a mistake. Fiction is a great recreational activity for me, and an important way to re-energize.

I brought fiction reading back into my life when I was flattened by Epstein-Barr over 10 years ago. I read fiction to refill my emotional reservoirs, and during that time I realized that the absence of recreational activity like fiction reading had contributed to the overwork that triggered my illness. Since then, I’ve been sensitive to distinguishing cases where I needed R&R from cases where I was avoiding something. This new term “buffering” helps me examine the situation with a caring, self-respectful mindset to identify what’s going on when it seems like I am spending a lot of time on R&R. As Brooke Castillo points out, the test of whether the activity is a problem or not is: does it create problems for you?

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I thought I’d share this concept today, as we’re in the middle of the Coronavirus crisis, because you may find that you’re doing some buffering. If so, it’s worth asking yourself, what are the negative feelings you are avoiding with this instant gratification activity? They are leads to facts that you need to know to deal safely and effectively with the present situation.

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