Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Caffeine, Alcohol and Fear

What fuels you?

Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran, British author, broadcaster, TV critic and columnist at The Times, was asked how she accomplishes so much. “Caffeine, alcohol and fear” was her immediate response. Said in jest, at least in part, I think this statement rings true for many. What does that say about motivation?

I was just listening to an interview on CBC Radio 1 where Jian Ghomeshi was interviewing Caitlin Moran. Jian was commenting on how much Caitlin accomplishes in her life, particularly as a woman who has a family role outside of her career. As I said in the introduction, her response was immediate and direct, “Caffeine, alcohol and fear!”

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Given her success, our first question might be, what brand of coffee bean and how much booze? The second question" how do you titrate each to deal with the fear?

I can see creating a mathematical formula with these variables. In fact, it would be an interesting empirical approach to determine the weighting of each of these variables in an equation predicting productivity and/or success. Yet, I doubt it would be a linear equation that typically comes out of our research. I also doubt it would help us understand why each is related to our success.

There would certainly be temporal elements to the substance use or experience of fear. From my own research, I know that minutes after many successful people wake, they’re already experiencing fear. Fear, of course, can be a trait, a chronic state for some. It’s also a state that we all experience. Fear can paralyze or motivate us—again, an individual difference. Whatever the case, we have to deal with fear. That’s where the substance use may come in.

Caffeine, well, there’s the stuff that gets us going in the morning, then more to get us “over the hump” in the afternoon, and lots more to keep our fires burning late into the next morning as required. Too much caffeine can actually add to our fear, or at least overstimulate some of us way too much. The right amount keeps us alert, particularly when the task itself isn’t helping that much at stimulating us to stay focused.

Alcohol—ah, you can fill in the blanks here. It may start the day for some, perhaps to address the fear that wakefulness brought. Perhaps it’s a combo—a stiff shot of a favorite drink along with a coffee chaser. For others, alcohol is an elixir that is consumed later in the day. Some days it’s part of the celebration of a job well done. Other days it’s a best effort to quell the negative emotions that were steadily building. For some, it’s just a habit.

So, what does this have to do with motivation and procrastination?

Fear can and does motivate us. However, we have to regulate our emotions to be successful. In fact, I would argue that it’s all about emotional regulation.

To the extent that we can successfully identify and regulate our emotions, we can successfully self-regulate ourselves in the pursuit of our goals. When we can’t regulate our own emotions, we’re more likely to “give in to feel good” with more maladaptive coping strategies—eating when we’re not hungry, spending money we don’t have, needlessly delaying important tasks. We get short-term rewards for these behaviors, and they are largely emotional fixes. Each of these behaviors can bring short-term mood repair for our "present" self.

The main issue for me is the costs for "future self." When we eat calories we don’t need, spend money we don’t have, delay tasks that need to be done now, our present self may get immediate mood repair, but future self suffers.

Although we might all recognize and find amusement in Caitlin’s response, “caffeine, alcohol and fear,” it’s not a recipe for health or well-being if it’s the only route to success. The long-term costs, or the potential costs (because predicting the future is not an exact science), are too high.

How else might we answer the question about high-performing people?

The late Stephen Covey offered his Seven Habits many years ago. As I recall, coffee and booze were not part of the seven habits (although they may each play a role, to some limited extent, in the seventh habit of “sharpening the saw” as the habit focused on self-renewal). The thing is, we can find other routes to success and well-being that don’t cost our future selves so much. 

Future self. Now there’s a person who deserves a little more attention. As you look ahead to 2013, what is your future self looking like? What can you do now to make future self smile?

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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