Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

A Procrastinating Student Defends her Position (and My Reply)

A student defends her procrastination

Andrea Millet wrote a piece that was published in the cordweekly.com yesterday. In it, she defends the last-minute efforts of the procrastinator. She writes, "Procrastination can be a helpful tool - it's not a fault but instead a skill, a carefully perfected strategy for motivation and focus." The problem is, she couldn't be more wrong.

At this time of year, this story isn't surprising. If you've been putting off your work, you have to justify where you're at, if only to yourself. Andrea does this in a number of ways, elevating procrastination from folly to skill.

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Andrea is a student who explains that she has left her work to the last minute - lots of it. She writes:

"I watch as the work piles up, as the deadlines for four papers due within one week get closer, and yet I cannot bring myself to get started until, at most, a few nights before the work must be completed.

While many would see this as a fault and most professors, parents and even a few other students would shake their heads in disapproval and agree that the best work comes from an early start, I have to disagree.

For me, procrastination is not an act of laziness and it is not a sign that I do not care about my work; it is just that my best work is a result of last-minute pressure.

The thrill of having a tight deadline and the excitement and tension as time runs down forces me - and I'm sure it's the same for many others - to focus solely on my task in a way that I could not otherwise have done.

Charged with sleeplessness and caffeine, we procrastinators sit awake at our computers at midnight, with a term paper due by eleven o'clock that morning, and it is only then that inspiration strikes and all attention is focused towards the assignment, because there is no more time to put it off.

If I have a week to do an assignment, I will never be completely dedicated to what I'm doing early in the week, because I can always convince myself that I have more time, that tomorrow I can get it done.

But the night before an assignment is due, there is no more time and that pressure motivates me not only to get it done, but to get it done well."

Readers of this "Don't Delay" blog should know my response to this thinking:

  1. The arousal procrastinator is a myth for the most part. It's not that Andrea works better under pressure, it's that she only works under pressure. Writing takes careful editing. Anything less is substandard work. Every writer knows that revision is the secret to effective writing. When you have to do the whole paper the night before it's due, there little to no time for revision (or even editing).

    Of course, the elation of getting something on paper (and the sleep deprivation) makes just about anything look good at that point. And, oh yes, you might even get a good grade on some of these last-minute efforts as an undergrad - but that's not saying much, as a professor I know this all too well. Last-minute efforts can even be a form of self-handicapping, building in an excuse for the less-than-perfect paper.
  2. Four papers in a week?! What did the Master Shifu say to Po about goals like this? "You actually thought you could learn to do a full split in one night? It takes years to develop one's flexibility, and years longer to apply it in combat."
  3. I do agree that there is heightened focus in the last-minute effort; Well, at least for some people. Others are overwhelmed with anxiety. The thing is, it is much better to develop the real skill of the writer, to develop these "flow" experiences without the undo pressure of the deadline. Regular writing will create this (as you develop unconscious pre-writing and planning in anticipation of your writing).
  4. I think Andrea says it all with the point that it's only at the last minute that she can't convince (deceive) herself into thinking that "tomorrow I can get it done." Ah, nothing like self-deception and giving in to feel good prior to the night before to keep these last-minute efforts as a basic way of being.

I'm saddened by this defense of self-regulation failure. It reminds me of other forms of excuse making offered up by alcoholics, shopaholics, addicted gamblers, over-eaters . . . the list goes on . . . and so do the excuses.

My final more tempered comments focus on Andrea's main point. As I read it, she is arguing that procrastination isn't right for everyone, but it serves as motivation for some. While it's true that there are different routes to motivation such as defensive pessimism (imagine the worse outcome and do everything you can to avoid it) and general avoidance goals (avoiding failure as opposed to approaching success), the last-minute effort should be seen as a symptom more than a style of motivation. It's probably a symptom of being deeply disconnected from the goals in your life. Perhaps the best notion of procrastination working as a motivator is structured procrastination, but there's nothing inherently last-minute about this strategy.

As I noted above, Andrea wrote,
"While many would see this as a fault and most professors, parents and even a few other students would shake their heads in disapproval and agree that the best work comes from an early start, I have to disagree."

Of course Andrea has to disagree. The dissonance between what she was doing long prior to the deadline (nothing) and what she thinks she should have done (work on her assignments) can only be reduced now by finding some virtue in the needless delay. There isn't any.

I do agree with one point Andrea makes. Procrastination isn't laziness. It's a failure to be able to regulate your behavior in pursuit of your goals (even she writes, "I cannot bring myself to get started").

I hope Andrea wasn't writing this opinion piece instead of doing her required school work. If she did, I'll bet it provided a good excuse for another delay. I do understand the guilt she feels.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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