Recommended Read: Getting Past Your When-Then Thinking Traps

A colourful graffiti'd wall that says "THEN" and "NOW" in large block letters
Photo by Gary Butterfield.

One of the blogs I follow, Rad Reads, did a post for the new year about "when - then" thinking. It's that terrible trap we all (right? All of us? Not just me? It can't be just me, this other guy wrote about it.) fall into that WHEN a certain condition is met, THEN we will be happy/free/satisfied/or some other desirable thing.

The post includes a link to a crowdsourced document where his readers have added their own when-then thoughts. Here are the ones that stuck out to me:

- When I feel spiritually anchored, then I'll share my true self.

- When I have more money, then I will pursue my passions.

- When things slow down, then I will start working fewer hours.

- When January comes, then I will sort out my life.

The one theme I realized looking at the list? With a few small exceptions, everything in the "then" column could be done NOW. The person just has to choose it.

- They could share their true self now, they just don't think it's good enough yet.

- They could pursue their passion with less money, it just might be on a slightly smaller scale. BUT THEN THEY WOULD BE DOING IT!

- They could work fewer hours now, they just have to set a limit and stick to it. (What would happen if they had a family emergency or some other event that trumps their crazy work demands? They would work fewer hours, that's what.)

- They could sort out their life now, they just have set an arbitrary rule that it should happen in January.

Just like how it's really easy to think that someone else's fear is not so scary, it's really easy to see how other people's when-then barriers are baloney.

So what about my when-thens? What conditions am I waiting for to be just right so that I can be or do what I really want?

I realized that they all seemed to fit into two categories of "then" and my "whens" were all the same.

My thens all amounted to either shaping my life into the one I truly want to be living or a glorious state of feeling secure about myself and my future.

The whens? They were predictably the same: having enough money, having enough time, and having a partner to provide emotional and practical support along the way.

Apparently, my heart believes that with more money, time, and a partner, all my problems would be solved.

It's not exactly revolutionary. All of these things can make life a lot easier. They can also create barriers all of their own or be frittered away. None of them guarantee that I will actually go forth and do anything, let alone pursue the shiny little dreams on the "then" half of my when-then statements.

That's the true value of this exercise: it reveals what we really want (our then-states) as well as our excuses or the things we think are standing in the way.

That means that, if we want to actually start pursuing those dreamy then-states, we now have what we need to make a map.

Here's how that breaks down for me:

- I know in my little, mushy heart that a partner is just something I want all on its own and not a pre-requisite to anything else in life. It's both an excuse to stand still and a then-state of its own, but one I can't really control so I make it "when" instead.

- I could always use more time, but I also spend plenty of time doing other things. I can develop systems to make it easier to set my priorities and work more effectively with what I have.

- A certain amount of money would actually help, buying meaningful chunks of time and equipment. Instead of waiting for more money to throw itself at my door, however, I need to figure out a hard number and a plan for how I can start saving towards it while I work with what I've got.

Here's the thing, though: really confronting your when-thens means facing down what you really want AND the critical voices in your brain that stand in the way. The voices that not only think you CAN'T get there, but that you don't DESERVE to get there. You deserve your then-state, my friend. You deserve it so hard.

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