By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
Note: This article is part 2 of a series on finding the motivation to achieve success.
In the first part of this article, I wrote about a sense of urgency that has been absolutely pivotal to my academic and professional success. I described several dynamics of this general philosophy, including a competitive drive, a willingness to defy naysayers and an intense appreciation for the value of one’s own time.
These ideas seem fairly intuitive and sensical, yet many people fail to adopt them. This begs a question that I’ve discussed with many friends and colleagues: Can these perspectives truly be taught and learned?
Interestingly, I don’t have any really concrete evidence for the first part. Life coaches and self-help gurus will be happy to try to sell you on the idea that they can teach you how to change and live a better life in all kinds of different ways. And that may be true for some, but it certainly isn’t so for all people in all circumstances.
What I can say with certainty is that a sense of urgency absolutely can be learned. And I know this because I learned it during the course of my own academic career.
Finding the Motivation to Maximize Productivity
I wasn’t always motivated to maximize the productivity of my time and effort in the way that I am today. For all of high school and most of my undergraduate college years, I handled my schoolwork in exactly the same way many other high school and college students do. That is to say, I procrastinated, I waited until the last minutes to complete my assignments and then I turned in rushed work that was usually subpar quality.
But as I grew and matured, a realization manifested itself. There was no teacher for this lesson, which is why I can’t attest that it can be taught per se. Rather, the epiphany derived from my own circumstances and a reconciliation of what I wanted from myself with what I was actually getting and how I was going about it.
It struck me that the cycle of procrastination followed by panic followed by a lousy work product was a miserable ride. As deadlines for work would slowly approach, each day closer would feel more and more painful, knowing I was one day closer to having to do the thing I was avoiding and also knowing I would have one less day to do it well before I had to turn it in.
That emotional roller coaster was exhausting, and it was made worse by the fact that I usually wasn’t using the time I spent procrastinating on anything important that could justify such misprioritization anyway. Worst of all was the feeling of letting one’s self down that comes with these choices. I would have to look back on the process, recognize that I could have done better and then run myself over with the bus of shame and disappointment.
But as I mentioned in Part I, our time is precious because it is limited and finite. So each time I would let myself down and mismanage my work, it was a loss from which I could never truly recover.
In other words, I would never get a chance to rewind the tape and fix it. The best I could hope for was a better outcome the next time.
This is not unlike someone who quits smoking. If you smoke and then stop, you can certainly abate the damage to your body, improve your health and increase your longevity.
But you can’t undo the harm that you’ve already done from cigarettes you’ve already smoked. That’s a bell that can’t be unrung. And the longer you wait before kicking the habit, the worse the compounding effect is for you in the end.
Stopping the Sabotage of My Own Success
So somewhere along the way — in my final year of my first bachelor’s degree as I recall — I recognized that treating my responsibilities this way was counterproductive and self-defeating. I was literally sabotaging my own success by failing to muster the work ethic that was needed to attack these tasks aggressively and timely. It was then that I decided I wouldn’t allow it to continue.
I started small, with schoolwork. I just forced myself not to delay the inevitable and put off things that needed to be done. I started completing my homework early, with much better quality.
This tactic impressed teachers and resulted in better grades. It also gave me more confidence and pride in what I was doing.
But more importantly, it made me wonder: If I could go this far with my schoolwork, what could I accomplish if I treated all of my time — my entire waking life — with the same sense of urgency and pressure to tackle the present moment?
And so I adopted a non-negotiable policy that any new tasks — be they for school, work family, or any other sphere of my life — would be confronted and crushed as soon as they appeared on my plate. In a sense, I became an anti-procrastinator.
When I start a new college course, I do all the work that I can right away, with no mind paid to when the work is actually due down the road. If I am assigned a work project with a deadline three weeks out, I do it immediately. If my wife needs me to take care of something at our house, I jump at it with energy and finish ahead of schedule. This strategy frees up other time that I would’ve spent procrastinating to take on additional challenges and get even more done.
Sure, sometimes there are competing priorities that require me to table one task while I work on another. But the point is that idle time is minimized or eliminated altogether. No opportunity is wasted.
Maintaining a Healthy Work-Life Balance
I would be remiss if I didn’t note here that, as with most things, healthy balance is important. My sense of urgency often drives me to work unending hours.
But my loving wife, to her credit, reminds me that non-productive activity such as spending time with one’s children or just hanging out with friends to unwind is important, too. I’m very grateful for her influence in this regard; without it, I’m confident my achievement orientation would have driven me insane years ago.
But again, the lesson here is in striking the appropriate balance. And many students fall into the opposite extreme of too much time wasted, too little sense of urgency.
I want to be clear that the purpose of this article series is neither to criticize nor to cast judgment on any individual students who might one day read this. I appreciate the fact that every student is different, and I am obviously in no position to weigh in on where different students’ priorities ought to lie.
However, to the extent that students in higher education are looking for success and not finding it, my hope is that the perspectives herein might lend a helpful hand in pointing out some opportunities for self-improvement. A sense of urgency is a powerful tool for those who wield it, and I sincerely hope that it adds value to your life in some way in the future.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.