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The Toothache Principle

“One of the greatest labor-saving inventions of today is tomorrow.” — Vincent T. Foss

This certainly seems true; but experience makes it clear that it isn’t. Sooner or later, one pays the price of putting off important jobs. Why, then, do people act as if they can postpone what they know is necessary? Is it procrastination? Is it laziness? Is it irresponsibility? Is it fear? Is it indifference? It may be any or all of them but is likely none of them. Most likely, it is but a simple function of human nature. People tend to postpone unpleasant tasks as long as possible. It happens so often that it needs a cool name so everyone can remember that it is not just a bad habit or character deficit or inattention or something equally commonplace. Call it the Toothache Principle. You may have thought that TP referenced something else, but here it is the Toothache Principle.

Now anyone might get a toothache out of the blue with no warning and unrelated to past events or identifiable circumstances. That perfectly healthy tooth that has been regularly brushed, flossed, and check by a dentist every six months just starts throbbing, aching, and causing psychic chaos and physical agony. It could be one of those aberrations, just one of those things, but probably isn’t. Instead, it’s likely the same tooth that hasn’t been brushed quite as often as it should have been, wasn’t flossed daily, hasn’t been seen by a dentist for a long time, that hasn’t received the level of attention it should have gotten. It’s also the same tooth that started reacting to hot and cold a year or so ago and the same tooth that has been hurting off and on but not enough to schedule an appointment so the dentist could check it. It’s shocking. Now there is a tooth emergency and maybe the only way to deal with it is to pull the tooth.

You have likely seen this principle at work in a variety of situations from parents with their children, communities with public services, schools with the achievement of students, and on and on. It’s also nearly a business-as-usual kind of thing within many organizations. For example, it happens in relation to inadequate employee performance and managers waiting until there is an emergency situation before firmly dealing with it.

Just as the tooth emergency might have been avoided with some careful dental prevention, the employee emergency might have been avoided with some careful management prevention. Sure, it’s a good idea but does fly in the face of human nature. The Toothache Principle is operating just fine at home, at work, in most schools and communities, and most everywhere people need to deal with things they don’t like.

As you relax and hope that things take care of themselves, remember what Mignon McLaughlin had to say on the subject, “Don’t fool yourself that important things can be put off till tomorrow; they can be put off forever, or not at all.” It’s just like Karen Lamb said, “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”

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