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The Procrastination Cycle

The Case for Shortening Reading Period

By Nancy RAINE Reyes

I sat in my room for a complete week thinking about all the things I had to do; I had to run all sorts of annoying errands; I had to talk to my English department advisor; I had to make my annual trip to the Office of Career Services to find (finally) that elusive, high-paying summer job on Wall Street; and, of course, I had to study for finals. It was wonderful to know that I could keep a list of the things I had to do and think about when would be a good time to actually to them. The problem was that I spent all my time thinking--and never actually doing--until the last minute.

Maybe it's the whole thing about exams being after Christmas break. Maybe it's just that I and many others are serious procrastinators. But really it's that if you give a Harvard student two weeks to study for exams, a beautiful dream of actually being in this school without any work to do evolves in the hearts and minds of Harvard students. Studying and appointments with tutors are pushed behind visions of watching O.J. on trial and playing Sega all day.

Harvard students are programmed to think a certain way based on the kind of schedule we are given. There is a semester of classes. There is a two-week Winter Break. There are two weeks of reading period. Then there is exam period and down-time between exams. Our minds and bodies react to this type of schedule logically.

Thus, in the middle of the semester--as the skipped readings and the missed lectures begin to accumulate--we delude ourselves with fairly tales...

I will be sun-bathing on the beaches of Mexico over Winter Break. I will be bored just lying on the beach ordering tasty drinks with umbrellas in them. This will be a good time to catch up on all that economics reading I have missed. Therefore, I will not do any more work this semester because I will be lying on that beach for three weeks. Long time on that beach, but lots of reading. No problem.

Once at home, though, packing for the big, intellectual sun-bathing trip, the story changes...

My lugagge is too heavy, I don't want to pay for the cab to the airport-I want to take the T. I have to take out some things from this unbearably heavy suitcase. But not the steel iron. Not my boom box. Definitely not the six pairs of shoes, it's the damn economics textbook that is weighing me down. The could cause me serious back problems. With exams coming up after break. I need to be healthy. I know! I'll catch up on the reading over reading period, in between watching all those lecture videos. After all, I'll be in Cabot Library anyway. That is why they call it reading period, isn't it?

Of course, on returning from Mexico things inevitably have a way of changing again...

I have all this money my grandparents gave me for Christmas. I have two weeks to study for my exams. For my midterm, I only studied for two days and I got a B. so, I will go shopping...at the J. Crew and L.L. Bean outlets in Maine. In fact, I'll make a little trip out of it and hit Killington, Vermont, too. There is snow there, and I can ski.

This goes on-a veritable cycle of procrastination. It continues, virtually without interruption, until the day before that big economics test when it's vital to cram that semester's worth of work into 24 hours. And, with only 24 hours left, there's no room to waste time watching lecture videos, or reading The Principles of Economics. No, it's straight to last year's exam...this time with the answers already filled in by the one kid in section who everybody tooled on all year. At this point, the countless cups of coffee and pizza aren't helping. And now comes the crucial realization...

I should have done all the work during the semester, and left my bathing suit and tanning oil back home, and taken my economics textbook instead.

The problem may be one of discipline student responsibility, but Harvard's structuring of reading and exam periods doesn't help the situation any. Most Harvard students would love to be done with their exams before break, so they can go to Mexico and worry about how to fit the paperback version of The Firm into their suitcase, instead of a 1000-page book with graphs of supply and demand.

Still, if Harvard insists on holding firm on this issue, then at least administrators should focus their efforts on shortening the length of reading period. If students here are suffering from a lack of discipline in their studying and a serious procrastination dilemma, the Harvard has to step in at some point before its students add ordering the pearl necklace from the Home Shopping Network and road trips to Europe to their "must-do-because-we-have-two-weeks-of-time-at-Harvard-where-we-really-don't-have-to-do-anything" list.

Nancy Raine Reyes '97 lives in Kirkland House. Look to see more of her wit and wisdom on this page in coming weeks.

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