Displacement activities are, in psychological terms, what we do when we’re faced with decisions we don’t really want to have to deal with, or things we’re not sure we have to think about quite yet. So, if we’re hit with two contradictory instincts, instead of picking one to follow, we tend to end up doing something completely different – a quirk of being members of the animal kingdom.
Although this topic has been pondered by many a psychologist over the last century, it was probably first brought to the attention of science by Julian Huxley (brother to Aldous, the author of Brave New World…they were spawn of a family of overachievers) although he didn’t give it such a catch name as “Displacement Activity.”
Or, as yours truly likes to think of it, Procrastinaction. This is not to be confused with other types of decision avoidance, like a couple in a car at a T-junction arguing over whether they need to go right or left. Their screaming, map brandishing and sat-nav-implorations do not qualify as a displacement activity. But, a monkey grooming itself in front of a hungry tiger rather than dealing with fight or flight – these being the two contradictory instincts – is an excellent example as he decides that his ablutions are what really need his attention in this life and death situation.
Say you’ve got a load of work to be getting on with as part of a long term project, as well as a deadline coming up on Monday. It’s now Sunday afternoon, you’re home alone, and you should definitely be doing one of these things. Doing either of them seems like such a mission, but you’re restless and you know that when your cohabitants come back home from walking the dog they’ll get very judge-y if you haven’t done anything. So, instead you decide to do something else. For women, this will probably be baking a cake or hoovering. For men, this might be something like cleaning the car or changing a light bulb. These things are helpful (well, not the cake so much, but well-received nonetheless), true, but considering they’ve needed doing for the past three weeks and your deadline is tomorrow, they’re not really priorities. And it’s amazing how their importance has suddenly increased when you’re hypothetically faced with a work-based dilemma. A friend of mine always uses the cleaning the car excuse when she hasn’t done anything all weekend. Her mother’ll come back from cycling or walking and find her car, spick and span, parked at a jaunty angle in the drive. My friend feels like she’s achieved something, even though all her job applications forms remain on the kitchen table untouched, and can spend the rest of the evening happily watching Lewis.
Even though you know you haven’t got everything done you need to, your mind is put at ease and you can comfort yourself that you have actually achieved something today, and you aren’t plagued by the same guilt you would have been if you had just stayed under the duvet. Another favourite which is used both at home and in the workplace is the vague activity of admin, or general tidying up. Guilt at turning into a couch potato can be effectively assuaged by organising all old receipts and bank statements, or throwing out gunky nail varnishes that you last used in 2004, or putting a month’s worth of newspapers and magazines in a pile by the front door ready to be recycled. And we don’t even see this as procrastinaction – our brains are genuinely convinced that this time in six months we are going to be oh-so-grateful we dealt with these urgent matters now. Furthermore, as we have the whole of Sunday to go through a single bathroom cabinet, a task which should really only take about 8 minutes can be stretched out to consume a couple of hours. Even that most organised breed of humans, that Guild of Listmakers (no, not Germans), are at fault. By exaggerating their To-Do List with items such as “Take Shower”, “Charge Phone”, “Empty Dishwasher”, they can kid themselves that they’ve had a superlatively productive day as they cross off these mundane tasks with a smug smile.
Nor is displacement activity limited to the daily routines of the individual. The business world is just as blameworthy when it comes to filling precious time with unnecessary, but seemingly vital, things. Meetings are especially procrastinactive. If the amount of effort devoted to coffee orders was proportionately replicated in other areas of decision-making, then we may well have hauled ourselves out of a recession by now. It’s gobsmacking how efficiency can apparently be equated to eight men wearing ties and security passes around their necks, sitting around a table with a plate of biscuits on it. Incroyable. Of course, this is a generalisation and there are plenty of places which have instigated new policies like chairless meetings. People don’t like to stand for too long, so if the meeting isn’t for something life-changing which requires much deliberation, then it can be a very effective way of quickly reaching a practical solution. But in the workplace the displacement mentality prevails because employees and managers egg each other on, each assuring the other that they are actually doing something worthwhile when in fact upgrading the staplers shouldn’t really be their primary goal this month.
What to do? How to break this natural reaction to contradictory impulses? How to avoid procrastinaction? Maybe we should just all make an extra effort to be active, competent and efficient. Maybe we should all use our time more productively and efficiently, and allow ourselves the time off when we really need it. Maybe the best plan is…oh wait. sorry, I have to go. I mentioned to my housemate I was thinking of making flapjacks this weekend and it really wouldn’t be right to let her down. Better dash.