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, Ive found that
procrastination more frequently is simply a bad
habit caused by teachers.
Heres the typical situation. At some point
in school or college, the student, for the first
time, falls behind and doesnt 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 studentlike the student who gets
drunk for the first time and has a horrible
hangover--swears, I wont 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 upkind
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, Ill 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:
Theres this great TV show or
Ill 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
By the time such students finish school,
theyve become full-blown adrenaline junkies:
Procrastination is now their normal response to an
Alas, in the real world, there is no grade
inflation. Especially in todays bad economy,
to survive, most employers insist that even to get
a mere passing grade, projects be completed to high
standards. Unless youre exceptionally bright,
that last-minute crap wont cut it.
Youll 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
If your procrastination is truly caused by those
deep-seated fears that shrinks specialize in, the
following cure wont help. But if you suspect
your procrastination habit was largely caused by
schools 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
theyre already living with a
non-procrastinating partner, that partner often
tires of the procrastinators 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
Step 4. Be ever vigilant for moments of truth.
When youre first assigned an odious task,
youre 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 deferafter all, thats
the only way to get your adrenaline fix. At that
moment of truth, make yourself start the project
immediately, even if its only to complete a
one-minute bit of the task. Often you find that
having started, youll keep going.
Step 5. The other moment of truth occurs when
you reach a hard part. Then, it will be tempting to
think, Maybe Ill do better on it
later. You must finish that hard part before
taking a break. If you cant 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
© 2007, Marty
* * *
Nemko holds a PhD from the University of
California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in
Berkeleys 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
Careers for Dummies.
and author of The All-in-One College Guide.
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