Confessions of a Procrastinator

The first draft of this article was due two days ago. I initially accepted the responsibility of assembling this parting shot a month ago. That month was quickly overtaken with Halo 2, lackluster action flicks, seasonal brews, and the occasional, half-assed academic pursuit.

After ignoring several polite e-mails warning against the impending deadline, I decided to finally just sit down and write the damn thing. Open a “Document1.” Hmm. Did I even learn anything in college? Did I have an emblematic experience that shaped me? Alt-tab to Pine. Pressing “down” at the bottom of my inbox seems to do nothing. Perhaps I’ll just help it along by holding the down arow. Surely if I keep shoveling hard enough I’ll hit pay dirt, an inspiration for this column. Or maybe a particularly infuriating David Brooks op-ed or a clip that begs for repeat viewings. But it’s four in the morning, and e-mail distractions are slim pickings.

I notice that my e-mail count is approaching 300. Perhaps it’s getting a bit fleshy around its mid-section, no? I’d better perform one of my mass purgings. (Secretly I know that I let my Inbox fester with DVD requests and event reminders so that I can later spend a chunk of time on such a purging.) Alright, down to an even 100. Alt-tab to “Document1.” Rename it “Parting Shot,” and add a few nice phrases I’ve heard recently, to be included when appropriate.

Overwhelmed by my sense of accomplishment, I reward myself by opening up a Firefox window. I browse through my extensive list of favorites (15 news sites, 11 music blogs, etc.) and decided upon “Movie City News,” dependable for its regular stream of updates. Many sites offer daily diversions, but only a handful can be relied upon for distraction at all hours of night. And when those are exhausted, message boards can do the trick.

Of course this is just a short newspaper article; if this gets in too late, or never at all, a big advertisement (or The Crimson’s magnificent open letter to the readers) can take its place. It’s not as easy when you’re starting on a 20-page essay two days past its deadline.

Some people I’ve talked to share a handful of my symptoms. Minor accomplishments, say, the completion of a particularly clause-rich sentence, seem to merit, according to the dominant irrational side of my mind, an entire hour’s worth of distractions. (Pick your poison: mp3 or avi.) Constant underestimation of how long a given paper will take has led to my foolhardy belief that any paper can be tackled in 24 hours. Mentally prepared to stay up all night, I only begin real work around a bleary-eyed three a.m.

Perhaps some advice is in order. I will admit that I’ve reformed substantially since my freshman year, thanks to a decent set of tips offered by concerned friends and self-help websites. But guidance on reducing procrastination is readily available at the Bureau of Study Counsel or in a Positive Psych PowerPoint.

Instead, I’ll recommend ways to push that deadline into your comfort zone. With deadlines flying by, one needs to develop the proper skill set to keep the old GPA from flagging. Professors can be a reactionary bunch, and they need to be let down gently when they are told that the paper they planned on grading a week past the deadline will actually arrive a week past the deadline.

First, get a feel for the lay of the land. If the syllabus and reminder e-mails explicitly affirm that no extensions will be granted, it’s a good idea not to push your luck.

If late papers are threatened with penalties, but no precise grade deduction is described, a precisely worded e-mail should do the trick. Generally aim to send it out about six to twelve hours before the deadline; the closer to the dark, sweaty center of the night the better. Explain the extenuating circumstances, whether genuine or not, that led to your not having been able to “properly put in the time and effort necessary to have the paper completed by deadline.” Make sure these circumstances are purely academic, like an influx of papers or tests.

Then respectfully request an extension of a day or two. Make the time period as vague as possible to give yourself some leeway; the last thing you want is to be facing another strict deadline. Craft the tone so that it’s not overly apologetic, but simply regretful. Most importantly, close with a line asking what the penalty will be if an extension cannot be granted. Showing your teaching fellow the inevitability of the paper’s tardiness, and your willingness to pay the price for it, will lead them to believe they are facing a moral decision. Your extension is pretty much assured at this point.

In that rare case that no penalties have been discussed, period, feel free to start that essay at your leisure. Maybe save it for a rainy day or whenever that itch of guilt just needs to be scratched. But make sure you get your fill of partisan bloggery and Apple movie trailers in the meantime. Trust me: they won’t be nearly as interesting when you’re viewing them in your free time.

Ben B. Chung ’06, who was Crimson arts chair in 2005, is an anthropology concentrator in Mather House.