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procrastination

In the midst of midterms here at Princeton, you have likely heard the word “procrastination” casually strewn throughout conversation with ever-increasing frequency.

Although procrastination is typically cast in a negative light, I believe its poor reputation is largely undeserved. In truth, the muddy connotation derives from an oversimplification of the term. Indeed, contrary to common belief, procrastination can act as the unsung catalyst for other outlets of productivity.

So-called “structured procrastination” could be going to the gym instead of finishing a math problem set, cleaning your room rather than studying for that COS exam, or simply taking a power nap before tackling your writing seminar essay. Whatever the case, you remain productive. And procrastination is the driving force behind that work ethic.

At its core, procrastination means delaying high-priority tasks. “Productive procrastination,” however, means not squandering time. For example, you may complete an assignment that is not particularly urgent before moving on to whatever is due tomorrow. This is a critical distinction. The term “productive procrastination” was first coined by psychologist Piers Steel, who studied productive procrastination through the lens of behavioral psychology at the University of Calgary. In his book “The Procrastination Equation,” Steel details how “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Why is this true?

We suffer from a relativistic frame of mind. The metaphorical hill of work appears insurmountable only until we place it in the context of a more daunting incline. For instance, a challenging statistics problem set becomes a desirable task in comparison to studying for that big physics midterm. Other tasks — perhaps not initially as appealing — appear more actionable in comparison to more gargantuan projects. I try to consciously engage this practice: I save all my COS lecture videos for times when I am inevitably bamboozled by some idiosyncratic math problem. Setting aside simpler tasks for times like that allows me to take “productive breaks” from more difficult assignments.

This is an easily understood concept. Behavioral psychology tells us that there is a rousing dichotomy between not wanting to do work and not wanting to feel lousy. At Princeton, between 10-page papers and obtuse math proofs, students are all too familiar with this simultaneous polar existence.

The mind compromises by doing work that is not directly impending, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. People love having choice (or at least the facade of choice). As Dr. Susan Weinschenk observes, choices are linked to control which are — in turn — linked biologically to survival. Hard deadlines and due dates run directly opposite to that; they dictate when assignments must be completed and when course material must be studied. Therefore, in a fallacious yet noble effort to escape dictation, we complete other less urgent assignments first, so that we may retain some semblance of free will.

In other words, if an assignment is due in two weeks, we can “choose” any moment during the next 14 days to complete it. However, if the work is due the following day, we are forced to complete it immediately. Behavioral psychology theories posit that we compulsively avoid such urgent tasks. Instead, we favor those less acute assignments which we feel we have more control over.

It is a savvy, self-imposed Tom Sawyering of the mind.

Professor Emeritus John Perry of Stanford University also studied this “structured procrastination.” He noted that “procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing.” By pitting one difficult task against another, it is possible to procrastinate between them, and emerge triumphantly industrious. Thus, procrastination is not the traditional nemesis of productivity that people paint it to be.

We ought to disabuse ourselves of this antiquated and colloquial definition. By understanding the psychology that underpins procrastination, we can transmute our procrastinatory tendencies into directed diligence. In any case, that’s why you’ll find me doing laundry at 3 a.m. the night before my math midterm.

Ethan Li is a first-year from Stony Brook, N.Y. He can be reached at ethanl@princeton.edu.

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