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The Awful Power of Putting Things Out of Your Mind

Some of the unfettered joy and extreme discomfort of parenting comes from recognizing your own traits in your child. Not only does my eldest emulate my habit of wearing a queen-sized blanket around the house—and neighborhood on occasion, if he’s engaging in a game of hide-and-seek with the neighbor kids on a nippy day—but he has also inherited my habit of trying to get done as quickly as possible with crap that he's not interested in.

I can vividly recall doing the bare minimum necessary to get a piece of boring schoolwork done so that I could continue doing stuff I liked. (I can neither confirm nor deny that there is a similar work ethic afoot with my eldest’s homeschooling. All I know is that I am a lot more sympathetic about the level of exasperation I remember my parents exhibiting throughout my childhood.)

Much as it can be frustrating to see this habit recur in the next generation (the get-through-boring-things quickly habit, not the blanket-as-daywear habit), I have realized that it is our family-specific version of a very human response: the need to put unpleasant things out of one’s mind. Hurrying our way through stuff we don’t like is just one of many methods for making our minds a place free of unpleasantness.

Unfortunately, putting things out of your mind can make life much harder than it needs to be, even though it’s sometimes necessary. Here’s what I mean:

I Am the Gatekeeper

We have all figured out our own ways of gatekeeping things we don’t want to think about, from hurrying through those we simply can’t avoid, to refusing to acknowledge those we can avoid, to finding new and exciting procrastination methods involving tweezers, Clorox bleach, and the baseboards in the living room.

And the fact of the matter is a lot of good can come from putting things out of your mind. Trying to take on all the boring, all the upsetting, all the heartbreaking, all the unjust, all the disgusting, all the overwhelming in the world would mean everyone would set up permanent residence under the covers. (Which is different from wearing blankets, which is fun and warm).

We do need to protect ourselves from the onslaught of unending tasks, misery, and ridiculous hot takes on Twitter. Keeping that kind of toxicity out is a form of self-care. My friends who have deleted social media from their phones, who take breaks from the news, and who impose strict screen limits are protecting themselves from being dangerously overwhelmed. Putting things out of your head, especially when there is little to nothing you can do about them, is the only way to effect change in your own corner of the world.

But there is such a thing as overprotecting our minds from unpleasantness. Gatekeeping the hard stuff can often cut us off from growth. While there is hard and unpleasant and heartbreaking stuff over which we have no control, there are also a lot of difficult things that we can do something about, if only we allow ourselves to engage with them.

I Just Don’t Want to Think About It

One of the most common sentiments I hear from clients in my financial coaching sideline (shameless plug!) is a heartfelt wish to ignore money. So many of my clients tell me:

“What I want most is to not think about my money.”

There are a number of excellent reasons for this attitude. Money is often stressful, and it has high stakes. Having to think about your money means having to make big decisions with it—decisions that may turn out to be mistakes. Dealing with money can also be the kind of day derailer that makes a quick peek at your bank account become a multi-hour saga of phone calls, trips to the bank with the change gathered from your couch cushions and car’s ashtray, and a tearful visit to your supercilious brother-in-law to ask to borrow some money.

Ignore your money, and you can go through your day happily unaware of the problems that would otherwise upend your plans.

Of course, the downside of ignoring the unpleasantness of money is that the nasty stuff will catch up to you eventually, and the longer you ignore it, the bigger the problems get. And it is much easier to put out a small fire than conquer a raging inferno.

This is the case with anything you don’t want to spend time on. When I rushed through my homework as a child, I just ended up having to redo it later, causing myself more work. When I ignored the grinding sound my car made, I ended up with a bigger and more expensive problem to solve than the simple brake-rotor-replacement I would have been facing. When I perpetrate wanton acts of cleaning on the shoe molding in my office in a desperate attempt to procrastinate away the other shit I need to do or think about, I end up with slightly less dusty molding and unpleasant shit that I still have to do.

What is most unfair about the very human desire to not think about these sorts of things is the fact that you’re not actually avoiding the thinking. You’re generally still aware of the crap you don’t want to think about. It’s a low-level, simmering anxiety underpinning your thoughts as you do the gatekeeper’s avoidance dance.

I Want It That Way

Considering the urge to put things out of your head is often counter-productive, why do we do it so much? Strictly rational creatures would recognize that taking the time to do homework right the first time would save time in the long run. Logical thinkers would understand that keeping your mind on your money and your money on your mind is the best way to grow your finances. You’d think we would have learned by now that no problem has ever gone away through the power of ignoring it.

But humans have always and will always put things they prefer not to think about out of their minds, no matter how much evidence we have collected on the relative wisdom (or lack thereof) of such gatekeeping. That’s because we want our minds to be pleasant places, and having to do boring things or make difficult decisions or deal with tough problems threatens to clutter up that lovely mind palace you’ve built for yourself.

Nice palace. Shame for anything to happen to it.

There are a number of things you can do to make sure you’re not gatekeeping yourself into bigger problems, even when you’re turned off by the idea of opening your mental portcullis to welcome the big-ass issues that you’d rather leave outside. Here are some of them:

Eat the Frog

Though Mark Twain never actually said this, he has been posthumously quoted as saying, “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.”

While I hate to contribute to the ongoing misattribution of quotations (as Marie Curie once famously exclaimed, “I never said such a thing, bitch!”), there is quite a bit of wisdom in this not-a-quote. Nasty stuff doesn’t get any easier with time. Just committing to doing the hard stuff as soon as you can means you’ve got more free time afterward. Free time that you don’t have to spend contemplating the slimy meal you can’t get out of.

Sadly, the Eat the Frog method of dealing with "stuff I’d rather not think about" is how both I and my eldest lit upon our bare minimum strategy for work. We would both prefer to have the unpleasant stuff off our plate, so we go through the motions of completing it, thereby ensuring a bigger plate of nastier stuff coming down the pike. So, this strategy does not necessarily work by itself.

Eat the Elephant

(I honestly don’t know why there are so many work metaphors that are based upon eating animals that humans are not in the habit of snacking on, but here we are).

An elephant is a ginormous animal. (They are also intelligent, majestic, emotional, and think we are as cute as puppies, so we should never eat one.) However, considering their ginormity, the question of how one would go about eating an elephant can feel a little overwhelming.

The answer, of course, is one bite at a time.

Just like consuming a pachyderm, handling big and overwhelming issues—whether you’re worried about managing your money or helping bring about social justice—can only be done a little bit at a time. Committing to taking a bite at a time allows you to break down the hard stuff into manageable pieces. Rather than keep the entire issue out of your head, you can invite these small tasks in, one at a time.

Productively Ignore Your Crap

One of the biggest benefits of living in the future is the fact that pretty much anything you can imagine can now be automated. That means you can find ways to productively ignore the stuff you would prefer not to think about. Just set up an automation once, and let that sucker take care of the decisions for you.

For instance, there are a number of financial apps that will contact you with your bank balance once a day, determine how much you can afford to save and automatically transfer it for you, and calculate how much you can safely spend and let you know your limits. Setting up these kinds of apps can help you productively ignore your money, so you can stop worrying since it’s already taken care of.

For other things you’d prefer not to think about, figuring out nudges to prompt action without thinking can ensure that you take care of what needs to be done. One of my favorite automation tools is FutureMe, a website that allows you to email yourself in the future. (I have set up a recurring FutureMe email to remind myself to send my sister money on the 1st of every month for our aunt.)

Automating a decision means you only have to think about something boring or unpleasant once, and then you can trust the automatic system to take care of it from there.

I Am the Keymaster

Striking the balance between avoiding toxicity and eating the necessary frogs and elephants can be a tough one. As with so many other issues of balance, the best way to do this is to know yourself. Because I know I tend to rush through tasks I don’t like (while clad in a comforter), I also know that I need to force myself to slow down and take my time, especially when I’m bored, aggravated, ticked off, or otherwise all up in my negative feelings.

Similarly, issues that I’m likely to ignore are the ones that I either need to schedule first thing (swallow that frog at dawn, baby!) or I need to automate so I don’t have to think about them again. Knowing who I am and how I choose to gatekeep unpleasant crap means I have a key to fixing the problem.

Now if I could just figure out how to encourage one stubborn 10-year-old….


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