The Waiting Game

Why procrastination pays off...right now

I have a problem. You probably have it too. I am totally, and utterly, addicted to the adrenaline rush of leaving everything to the last possible minute. This means that it has become a physical impossibility to do anything unless it is nudging the deadline. And we’re talking really nudging, like nudging that’s verging on a very aggressive shove. It’s called serial procrastination, and it’s a far worse habit than just about any other campus epidemic I can think of right now. Much worse than using “and by X you mean Y” jokes on a regular basis. Possibly more damaging than having a “novelty” ring tone (Justin Timberlake songs don’t count) which goes off in the middle of lecture, and then answering it. Much more heinous than deliberately avoiding the well-meaning pamphleteers outside the Science Center by taking the long route round to the side entrance. It is a crime worse than all of the above because delaying your work to the last minute is like gambling: it’s high-risk, big-stakes, but it’s like an endless game of roulette that’s impossible to win. And it’s got to stop, this reading period.

Why is it so hard to sit down and work? And can the instinct to delay everything somehow be blamed on the particular environment or configuration of circumstances we have set up for ourselves here? Certainly the complete lack of any privacy has something to do with it. Most students don’t have an actual single bedroom (without walkthrough, without doubling up as the common room) until senior year. We’re forced to adjust to studying with a constant hum of background noise, with roommates moving in and out, with a neighbor’s radio blasting loud. The library isn’t much better, and if anyone can find a seat to study at a Square cafe at a decent hour, please let me know. I think the last time a seat became vacant at the Garage Starbucks at 4pm in the afternoon was sometime during the Clinton administration.

Then there is the culture of delay that is rife amongst a certain crowd here—and by “certain crowd” I mean “just about everyone” (oops, there I go). Signs to look for include: bags under eyes as big as those Paris Hilton would amass after a particuarly extravagant shopping spree, nails bitten down to ragged stumps and a creative use of the same pair of jeans to create an infinite number of various suspiciously similar looks over a 3-week period—after all, laundry is not immune from being pushed aside and ignored until the very last possible minute. It’s sometimes scary to think about what we would talk about were it not for the mountain of work that provides a pretty much constant bantering and bickering in dining halls every night. There’s a certain cachet in leaving a ridiculous amount of work until 3 a.m. the night before and indulging in the rituals of procrastination that go along with it: cleaning obsessively because “I just can’t work at a messy desk” (that may be, but it probably wasn’t necessary to itemize every receipt, including those for coffee from a year ago, in an alphabetized filing system), discussing the social ramifications of “Newlyweds” with roommates in a highly animated and engaged way for hours on end (is Jessica Simpson just playing dumb?), taking delight in Brain Break as the unabashed highlight of an otherwise frustrating night staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor (who knew PB&J on stale white bread could taste so good, or sustain interest for so long?).

No, none of this is news—and I would know, having been refreshing the New York Times website every 4 minutes all night while avoiding a troublesome paper under the excuse of garnering “inspiration.” But somehow despite the fear and self-loathing that such a habit breeds, we keep coming back to it every time there’s a looming task. Maybe it’s because once you’ve written a paper in three hours on four bottles of Diet Coke with Lime, it’s difficult to go back to that whole “research, mull over findings for a week, write copious drafts” process that I always envisaged would constitute the life of a genuine “scholar.” Maybe it’s because getting an A is rewarding, but googling for long lost high school nemeses/the perfect pair of wear-’em-for-a-month jeans/useless and possibly untrue gossip on Nick and Jessica reap instant rewards.

That’s why, despite my protestations to the contrary, this reading period will unfold much like any other: plenty of guilt-ridden sleep-ins, somnolent afternoons spent “working” on reading just about anything else but the pile of glaring sourcebooks and evenings counted in minutes as watching time itself becomes more appealing than that video of lecture from the third week of class. If this doesn’t sound fun, it’s because it isn’t. But the alternative (prioritizing? scheduling? timetables?), much like a particularly tedious Core class, doesn’t bear thinking about. And anyway, Brain Break will be open soon enough.

Amelia E. Lester ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.