The Case for Procrastination

(Craig Campbell)– Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow. –Mark Twain

Students often joke about the oh-so cute or funny self-destructiveness of their procrastination. It’s not cute, or funny. Because EVERYONE does it. As evidenced by posting this on Wednesday, not Monday.

We all procrastinate, especially, it seems, when the stakes are the highest. As in, finals period. In fact, you, SheBomb reader, are probably delaying studying by reading this post right now. BAM.

“I work best under stress.” This is the most common defense for procrastination I’ve heard. But I don’t think that it’s just the case that some people work better than other people under stressful situations. It’s a matter of the situation itself.

I recall a study by some psychologist (whose name I’ve forgotten since the psych exam) that analyzed the accuracy of military machine gun shooters under stress. When stressful stimuli were introduced to the situation, a shooter who had not been highly trained in M86 rifling realized understandably decreased accuracy than in controlled settings. But when the same stress was introduce to a pro shooter, his accuracy improved.

The study found that when stress is applied to an “ill-rehearsed” task, the performance markedly degrades. When stress is applied to well-rehearsed tasks, though, we perform better than we do without it. This makes sense. It’s not a character trait that determines whether you work best when the time is feverishly ticking; it’s how prepared you are for the stressful situation itself. That paper? If you’re well-rehearsed to write it, as in you’ve written 12-page comparative literature papers before, then when you’re scrambling to finish this one in the wee hours of the morning, the overall quality may be improved than if you’d finished it weeks before like a good student.

And that’s not the only conventionally accepted “good” habit that doesn’t actually really apply. According to a NYT article from last year, “Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam.”

These scientists also argue that taking small breaks between studying (aka, periodic Internet adventures) increases retention of the information. They also say it’s better to space the studying out in these chunks over the course of two weeks, not two days (or hours). But who’s counting…

But the psychological/scientific defense for procrastination isn’t what led me to write this post.

I admit that sinking into that facebook hole for hours when you’re supposed to be studying for a test adds very little value to any part of your life. (Every time you log onto facebook, your mood either stays the same or dips. There’s never any real gain.) Also, searching imgur for the cute cat pictures isn’t worth the time expended by anyone’s measure.

that warm fuzzy sentimental feeling you have right now? It’s going to disappear in the next ten seconds when you realize that deadline is getting closer.

But I’ve found that the time I’ve “wasted” on other activities when I should have been writing a paper or studying for a test has led me to some of the most rewarding discoveries that I’ve had at Amherst.

Over the course of the first all-nighter I pulled in the fall semester, when I was desperately needed to finish an econ paper, I ambled into the dazzling maze of hyperlinks we call “Wikipedia.” Even though that paper took me that much longer to finish, I don’t regret a single second of the time I spent on it.

Maybe you’ll meet your spouse on that that cigarette break you take to be more productive. Sometimes, that episode of Buffy is a valid way of increasing pop-cultural competency. Perhaps that round of COD you just played with the bros is vital to sustaining those friendships. Or maybe that random fact you learned from some discarded library book will be the Final Jeopardy answer some day. You never know.

Moral of the story: confine your procrastination to outlets that you can gain something from. Let the New York Times page be your go-to destination when you get bored with the lab report sitting on your desktop. Have a novel you like around for when you can’t bring yourself to do any more math homework. The worst thing that procrastinating can do is get you down on yourself: that’s what stunts productivity. And anyways, creativity is often more important than pure productivity anyways. (#rationalization)

And, even if it’s not productive, sometimes we just need to imbibe in the guilty pleasures we all have.