Putting it off today

Is procrastination limiting 
your career enjoyment?

Are you procrastinating about anything? The chances are that you are. We all do it. I have a small pile of rotting vegetables near my back door that needs to go onto the compost heap, yet I put off doing it (psychoanalyse that one if you dare!) and I am not entirely sure why.

This particular procrastination doesn’t have any immediately severe consequences (mild odour when open back door, possibility of attracting rats or other animals, perhaps). However, when procrastination is applied to some areas of life, there can be major consequences.

I recently met a doctor who had never enjoyed medicine, from joining as a medical student to a recent resignation from GP registrar training. This represents over ten years of:

  • Not feeling on the right track,
  • Not feeling on the right track.
  • Not having a sense of working towards something that was inspiring.
  • Feeling as if the career was a complete treadmill and/or a ball and chain.
  • Trying to do as little as possible and scraping by.

All with the resultant low performance, low self-esteem, low mood and lost confidence that goes with the above cycle; all in the face of a bright and talented person underneath the mask and cloud of disillusionment. Awareness of these issues had festered beneath the surface for years and a sense of guilt for “not fitting in“ pervaded.

The default approach that she had adopted, one that was in retrospect dysfunctional yet also understandable, was one of chronic and very resistant procrastination; she’d put off dealing with it. It is an extreme example of course, but it demonstrates what invariably happens if a person does not feel well matched in their career and then takes no action.
One has to ask why this doctor did not take action sooner? The answer to that question is surprisingly complex and I could write several articles on the reasons why doctors don’t address their career concerns. The deep reasons behind each person’s procrastination are different.

Such situations become even more complex when the career initially did in fact feel right, medical school was enjoyable yet something has happened in the intervening training or passage of time to erode that joy.

What sometimes fits both the “never enjoyed medicine” and the “did enjoy but now don’t” groups is a chronic and ingrained procrastination habit. It may have always been there or it has developed over the years.

There are books aplenty on this subject so I won’t attempt to tell you how to cure your own procrastinations (we all have them, and it is my experience that when a concerted effort is made once the diagnosis is clear and the desire to change high, that it is curable - or at least remediable).

I raise the issue of procrastination because when it revolves around career choice or reevaluating one’s career, there are some potentially serious financial, mental health and overall enjoyment-of-life consequences, so it is worth taking some time to examine why some doctors procrastinate for so long about their career concerns.

The first one has to be that ‘being’ a doctor in itself still has a certain degree of status amongst one’s relatives or friends or society. If self-image is not fully formed at age 16 when choosing A-level subjects suited to the university course one wishes to follow, making the choice of medicine kills several birds with one stone:

  • Self-image - sorted?
  • Vocational degree, so a clear route at the end of it (and thus no real career exploration or decision-making process needed, and all that uncertainty can be avoided - sorted?
  • Self esteem gained from - sorted?

So is it any wonder that some people choose medicine without having really explored other options?

I certainly didn’t explore my options. I got medicine as a bee under my bonnet at the age of 4 and no one ever questioned it, nobody said “And how have you got to this decision Sonia?” or “What other options have you researched?” How could a 4-year-old know enough about the career to make that choice? Things were no better at 16 when one might have expected to be challenged.

The second main reason for procrastinating about any possible underlying career mismatch or “failure to thrive”, or “lack of enjoyment at work”, is that a culture of questioning one’s career choices and decisions does not really exist within medicine, yet this would be a healthy thing to do, and a financially prudent one too (I am not expanding on this here as it is a complex calculation). There is a pervasive assumption that once you have made that career choice, you must either be right or somehow stick with it come what may. Other professions have this too, but medicine is particularly sticky on this. Personally I feel this is very damaging indeed and that the culture needs to be turned on its head, not because I am exhorting mass resignations throughout the NHS - far from it - but not even being allowed to feel as if it is OK to question how one is working and whether it “fits” who one is (or has become) has got to be one of the largest causes of mental health problems in the working population.

Finally there is something that compounds the procrastination behaviours - the lack of goal-setting skills. Merely tackling procrastination on its own without also addressing the effectiveness of a person’s goal-setting skills often results in little progress; the two seem to go hand in hand.

Now, about that pile of rotting vegetables, the goal is to get them to the compost heap.

Can’t be that hard, right?

This article first appeared in the December 2016 edition of The Sessional GP magazine. Next time, goal-setting skills in life and career.

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