Shirking Imaginary Duties

A lot of what people would like to accomplish in their lives isn’t laid out for them by external forces. Instead, we come up with some goal, and either find ways to self-motivate to do it, or it doesn’t get done.

There are some things that we do have imposed on us by the outside. These include finding ways to feed our families, or paying taxes, or not engaging in criminal activity. There are outside forces, whether made up of other people or just natural circumstances, that lead to these kinds of duties. We have a strong responsibility to take care of these things, or the world will take care of them for us, and not necessarily in the way we would have liked.

Then there are self-imposed duties, perhaps driven by our dreams or by what we aspire to be. A problem with these duties is that there is no external group to come knocking when they’re neglected. In some sense, the “duty” is imaginary—we’re only responsible to ourselves. If these tasks aren’t accomplished, the world might never find out.

A few solutions to this problem come in the form of turning the internal into the external. For example, if you’re struggling with finding the motivation to go to the gym every day, maybe you could find a consistent group of people to go with, or even hire a personal trainer who expects you to show up. This transforms the personal duty into one with at least a little extra pressure.

However, this doesn’t solve the problem completely. There are always escape hatches. No matter how strong your plan is, you can always fire the trainer or just walk away from your exercise group. Unless the forcing function is truly external, and not just something that eventually boils down to your willpower, there are ways for you to get out of nearly any self-imposed responsibility.

This is kind of weird though! Shouldn’t our highest aspiration be to achieve our own conscious goals? Why doesn’t our duty to ourselves come before our duty to others?

Think of something you’ve been meaning to do for a long time, but have been putting off. Not just some far-off project or pie-in-the-sky idea, but an actual project that you feel like you have a legitimate duty to complete. Isn’t it strange that we can simultaneously feel compelled to do something as though it were a duty, but also be so lazy or procrastinate so much that we fail to do that thing?

If your imaginary duties are made up by you, they should theoretically be entirely within your control. Why impose these responsibilities if we’re not going to achieve them? Yet people do this all the time. How many New Year’s Resolutions go undone? Why even make them in the first place?

I think we like to imagine ourselves as better than we really are, and since planning is so much easier than execution, we make grand plans and then fail to execute. Some level of this is good—we should be striving to be better. But on the whole, people seem to underestimate the laziness of their own future selves.

Remember that imaginary duty you have? Make a choice now. Either start working towards getting it done, or drop it as a duty. It’s only stressing you out.


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