The Illusion of Stasis, Mortality and Procrastination

I was having a discussion with a friend over lunch, and we turned to the heady topic of The Illusion of Stasis. The basic concept - that people believe the world isn't changing - isn't novel, but it was nice to have a name put to it. At a basic level, this phenomena is more shorthand than it is illusion. The use of symbols and words makes this illusion a near certainty, although perhaps this is why some good lessons in wisdom suggest being wary of symbols. Regardless, I feel its psychological persistence and effects can be significant, and surprising…

Stasis Thrives on Symbols

It is difficult (in English, at least) to have nouns that acknowledges constant change. The word "home", for example, inherently implies a static thing; even though since the last time the same thing was referred to many things may have come to pass. Meals will have been made and consumed, activities done, the structure heated and cooled, imperceptible wear and tear, perhaps even people being born or dying within it. Despite all these changes, the correct symbol to use again later is also "home". All the change is left to other words, assumed shared understanding, or the listener's imagination - which is another way of saying "forgotten".

It gets interesting when you realize that the illusion of stasis is probably killing you.

Attempting to slice the world into static things and then specific, enumerated verbs that happen to or because of those nouns engenders this illusion, but saves us from the difficulty of attempting to communicate constant all-encompassing change. While an important idea, most people have the understanding that everything is changing when pressed with some Socratic questioning. If most people understand this, is the illusion of change anything beyond a cute philosophical reminder of the difference between the symbol and the actual? I think so, especially in some specific cases.

More Than a Cunning Linguist

Where I believe this illusion tends to alter behavior is in concert with the mother of all human fears; mortality. The illusion of stasis becomes not just a linguistic convenience, but a very comforting construct. This moment extends forever, as long as I don't look behind the curtain of the noun life and see constant change.

I have seen this part of the illusion become expressed as procrastination. Had that bug-fix sitting at the top of your to-do list for a while now? Sure, it might be there because it is a hairy problem, or you need more information, or it just isn't fun. Or, maybe it is still there because you know after that bug is another bug, and then some refactoring, and perhaps a new library, a new program, maybe a new career and eventually . . .the grave. If you just leave it there in stasis at the top of the to-do list, the other things aren't coming yet. It works as a cognitive shield. It obscures what would come after and so keeps the world still for a little longer.

Of course, this doesn't have to be about bug-fixes, any area where you have more resistance to change is more likely to produce this illusion. Perhaps it is your home repairs, your family, or any arena where the implied finality of change is particularly scary. Rather famously people invoke the illusion of stasis with car repairs - if they don't take the car in to the shop, they won't find out what is wrong with it. If they don't know what is wrong with it aside from that wobble in the brakes, they can just keep driving it as though nothing else can go wrong.

This illusion can even be institutional rather than personal - astute minds have already identified it in the release cycle of software.

Gut Check

I doubt this all goes roaring through your head (or, I hope not) when you check your to-do list. However, you can just do a gut check to see if it might have an influence. Imagine that task was, poof, done. Are you excited or just weary about what comes next? If weary, it may be worth spending some time seeing if those lingering tasks are cognitive shields instead of just delayed.

Well, That Was Demoralizing - Now What?

Unfortunately I don't have a cheery resolution to the fact that human lifespan is finite - except to repeat the wisdom: this constraint imbues life with sublime meaning, once you can look past the existential terror. <blockquote>"Time is the fire in which we burn."
-Delmore Schwartz</blockquote> More practically, I think there are good ways to prevent this illusion from clogging your to-do lists and making you hesitate instead of emboldening you.

1. Gordian Knot Approach. Just take it off your list. Time will progress and something else will surely come along. If the original to-do was critical, it will find its way back on to your to-do list. This approach isn't always applicable, but it will work more often than you might expect.

  1. Deep Breath Approach. Just start on the task despite your resistance - preferably with a technique like timeboxing. This approach can work for smaller tasks, especially when realizing the cause of the resistance alone helps you re-frame your attitude to it some.

  2. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ Approach. Sometimes (but not too often) calling out the illusion of stasis for what it is may lead to you reevaluating the way the item got on your to-do list, or even your career or life. If what you reasonably foresee as your future "hidden" behind that item is making you cringe, it might be time for some bigger changes than just sorting the list.

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