Did School Teach You to Procrastinate?

Shrinks have a variety of explanations for why people procrastinate: fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of success, etc., etc., etc.

With my clients, I’ve found that procrastination more frequently is simply a bad habit caused by teachers.

Here’s the typical situation. At some point in school or college, the student, for the first time, falls behind and doesn’t get started on a paper or studying for a test until the last minute. Pumped by adrenaline, he manages to cram it all in. And lo and behold, he gets a decent grade. The typical student—like the student who gets drunk for the first time and has a horrible hangover--swears, “I won’t do that again. It was too stressful.” But unconsciously, a little voice within the person says, “Hmm., that was kind of cool: I got to avoid that big ugly project until the last minute, and then the adrenaline of the deadline pumped me up—kind of a fun drug--and I did okay!”

From then on, when an unpleasant assignment comes along, the student wonders if he could get away with cramming. And at some point, when an assignment feels especially odious or there is a competing activity such as a needy friend, the student figures, “Well, okay, I’ll take the risk. It worked before; maybe it will work again.” So, the student delays working on the task until the adrenaline rush of the fast-approaching deadline kicks in, and miracle of miracles, again, another decent grade! Slowly, like the budding alcoholic or drug addict who comes up with ever more flimsy reasons to get high, the nascent procrastinator comes up with ever feebler rationalizations for taking the adrenaline drug: “There’s this great TV show” or “I’ll be more in the mood tomorrow.” And thanks to rampant grade inflation (Almost 40% of college students had an A average in high school, double the rate of just 20 years ago), a reasonably bright student can get good grades with last-minute work.

By the time such students finish school, they’ve become full-blown adrenaline junkies: Procrastination is now their normal response to an assignment.

Alas, in the real world, there is no grade inflation. Especially in today’s bad economy, to survive, most employers insist that even to get a mere passing grade, projects be completed to high standards. Unless you’re exceptionally bright, that last-minute crap won’t cut it. You’ll probably be the one who gets cut.

Many of my clients come to me un- or underemployed, at least in part, because they are procrastinators. I call it career cancer. And I gotta tell you, all but the brightest procrastinators have a tough time in the job market. Resumes, references, and interviews are impressive only when the candidate provides examples of having done an excellent job on their projects. Most procrastinators are lucky to complete the projects at all, let alone excellently.

The Cure

If your procrastination is truly caused by those deep-seated fears that shrinks specialize in, the following cure won’t help. But if you suspect your procrastination habit was largely caused by school’s allowing you to get away with it, this should help:

Step 1. Recognize you are a drug addict. Your drug of choice is adrenaline.

Step 2. Recognize that this addiction is career cancer, indeed life cancer. For example, most procrastinators have a hard time impressing high-quality dating partners. They end up remaining single or paired up with other losers. If they’re already living with a non-procrastinating partner, that partner often tires of the procrastinator’s devastation of their lives, and leaves.

Step 3. Know that if you just follow the next two steps, you can cure your procrastination and your life will be infinitely happier and more successful.

Step 4. Be ever vigilant for moments of truth. When you’re first assigned an odious task, you’re faced with a choice: start it now or think you can get away with starting it later. You must recognize, as a junkie, that you will be sorely tempted to defer—after all, that’s the only way to get your adrenaline fix. At that moment of truth, make yourself start the project immediately, even if it’s only to complete a one-minute bit of the task. Often you find that having started, you’ll keep going.

Step 5. The other moment of truth occurs when you reach a hard part. Then, it will be tempting to think, “Maybe I’ll do better on it later.” You must finish that hard part before taking a break. If you can’t do the hard part by yourself, get help.

Step 6. After completing the task early, savor the joy, and perhaps give yourself a reward.

Okay, what big task are you procrastinating? Are you going to start it now or later?

Note: September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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