The Perils of Procrastination

Voter registration in the UK showed just how many people are good at procrastination, with nearly half a million people registering on the last possible day. My email inbox is also a good indicator of people’s expectation that we are all procrastinators. How many emails do you get a day headed ‘Last chance – fantastic offers end tomorrow’ or ‘Final Days to Register for…’. We are presumed to respond to these last minute opportunities, rather than opt for something in a stately and timely manner well before the deadline.

Does this matter? We’ve all been guilty of engaging in some variation of this from time to time. Students turning up with a piece of coursework 24 hours after a deadline is a familiar occurrence which, not even 5% automatic mark loss per day late seems able to counteract. Or academics who put pressure on institutional administrators to process major grant applications within a day of a funder’s deadline; we don’t take kindly to being reminded that the organisation’s rules require a week’s notice particularly if, as a consequence, the institution refuses to sign the grant off. (Although I suspect many administrators would not actually feel empowered to throw a hot-shot professor’s application back in their face in that way, however reasonable such behaviour might be.)

But what if the only person who gains or loses by the procrastination is oneself – what are the pros and cons then? It seems to me that there are times when a task is so tedious the only way that one can motivate oneself to do it at all is to leave it to the last minute. That can apply to writing numerous letters of reference for students you don’t know very well; or reading the paperwork for some committee that merely feels like an exercise in drudgery and pointlessness, or that you feel you have been stuck on as a makeweight and you actually have little you feel qualified (or interested in sufficiently) to offer.

The other group of tasks that, it seems to me, we are prone to put off and put off are the ones that are the complete opposite. These are the tasks that are so important they feel horrifyingly daunting. Challenges such as the big talk you’ve got to give at an international conference for which simply recycling a previous one with some tweaks and updates will not suffice; or the new lecture course that has to be delivered to 400 keen (or not so keen) first years. Some of these tasks you know about so far in advance that they seem remote so that it is easy to put off week after week. Until suddenly, the talk is only next week, or the 24 lecture course next month. Then, perhaps, the adrenalin will surge and fear will prompt a sudden flurry of activity. The danger is that time will still run out. A talk (or lecture course) will be written, but it won’t be honed and polished to perfection. At that late moment it may remain rough around the edges. Afterwards you will curse yourself for not devoting the tender loving care to your thoughts and slides that you know they deserved.

I well recall when I was invited to give a big lecture, on a topic of my choosing but specifically not simply about my research and for a general university audience. I had around a year to think about this and I read extensively, broadened my range of reading material significantly, thought about all kinds of topics that I had barely considered before and had a huge amount of fun and stimulation. But did I write the talk? No of course I didn’t. The ideas were floating around in a vague amorphous mess but not a slide did I construct. I had files of useful articles and quotes but they were all jumbled up metaphorically and literally. A couple of weeks before the talk my husband asked how it was going. That gave me a jolt! I hope I did the topic justice; I do know that I had more questions (about half an hour’s worth) than on any previous talk I had ever given and they only stopped because everyone’s tongue was hanging out waiting for the drinks reception. Nor were these hostile questions but searching, deep ones which made me believe (wishful thinking perhaps) that I had got through to the general listener. But it doesn’t alter my perception I could have done better if I had started the actual talk construction (rather than merely thinking about the ingredients) further in advance.

Nevertheless, the real problem arises when you leave things to the last moment and then something goes wrong. Not quite along the lines of ‘the dog ate my homework’, more typically that you have flu or your computer crashes. That I suppose is what has prompted this post. Trying to tidy things up in advance of going off to a conference for a few days, I was copying what I needed off my desktop computer so that I could take material with me. I just had a brief interval before rushing off to a student event in College and that, of course, was when my computer crashed. It just sat there blinking forlornly at me refusing either to reopen programmes or shut down. Fury, despair and panic ensued. Luckily I extricated myself (and it) after only about 10 minutes, but it reminded me of the dangers of not being well prepared. Had I allowed a proper amount of time to accomplish the needful, I would have expended less nervous energy on the trivial task.

Reader, beware of putting yourself in this same position. Regularly. Do not procrastinate as no doubt you, like all of us, do.

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2 Responses to The Perils of Procrastination

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    On late coursework, King’s College London policy is as follows:
    Up to 12 hours after deadline – marked and capped at pass level (40%)
    More than 12 hours after deadline – not marked (0%).

    It concentrates the mind wonderfully, and encourages students to submit work before the deadline. Oh, and computer failure is not an extenuating circumstance, only the failure of KCL’s system counts.

  2. Dan M says:

    Thanks Athene. Nice to read a simple account of the continual dance we all do.