Most college students have done this. It usually happens at night, which makes sense because that’s when we’re most vulnerable. With what few hours of sleep we manage, we wonder why we did it in the morning. What were we thinking? This is where the shame sets in. On our walk to class the following morning, we resolve, “never again.”
Of course, I’m writing about procrastination. If the above describes anything else, it’s probably better suited as material for the column to the left. Procrastination is frustrating. We’ve all had that paper that got pushed to four in the morning because reruns of “The Office,” our Facebook newsfeed (read: stalking), FailBlog, CollegeHumor and FML got in the way. Yeah, FML too. In the past 30 years, the amount of people who express difficulty with procrastination has increased fourfold as shown in a study by the University of Calgary.
Procrastination has existed for quite a long time. The Ancient Greeks had a word for it: akrasia, behaving counter to our best interest. Aristotle and Socrates could not understand why anyone would bypass good judgment to harm themselves for no reason. Why would anyone spend four hours listlessly flipping through the profile pictures of someone they see on a daily basis? One explanation furthered by the Greeks was that akrasia was a function of ignorance. I procrastinate simply because I don’t know any better. I know not that I have forsaken my midterm grade. But that doesn’t seem to capture the problem. Part of the stress from procrastination comes from knowing precisely that we are putting off something that needs to get done now. Somehow, I know my paper will take five hours to complete, that it can get done between the time I get home and midnight, giving me plenty of time for sleep. But I still end up working on it at 6:30 a.m. after getting two negligible, stress-ridden hours of sleep. If ignorance is not the cause, let me present two more schools of thought.
Some social scientists describe procrastination as a “planning fallacy.” To take the previous example, I know that my paper will only take five hours, so it’s okay to go on Facebook right when I get home. You know, just for a minute to check if I have any notifications. And heck, while I have my web browser open, I might as well get on e-mail too. This process takes about five minutes, and I should get back to my paper. But it’s only 7:05 p.m. now, and I can afford to wait a little longer to start. So I go do the dishes downstairs. Suddenly, it’s 6:30 in the morning, and I’ve been repeating the five-more-minutes like a broken record for several hours. In a sense, the first step to delaying the assignment opens a Pandora’s Box. Suddenly, we’re in a world of interruptions, each one chiseling five minutes away from the inevitable mad dash at five in the morning.
Another school of thought calls for a theory of “multiple selves.” In this theory, there are lots of “Me’s” fighting for attention in my head. One Me always wants to go on Facebook to be an attention whore. Another Me really just wants to get that paper done. A third Me feels like I should do my chores and clean the kitchen. What I end up doing is decided by which Me wins control. For the first couple hours, the first Me might drag me to my computer. After it is satisfied, the third Me will go downstairs to do the dishes. Once the other Me’s are all taken care of, only then will the responsible Me buckle down and work on the paper.
By now, you might be wondering what this has to do with your health, since that’s what I normally write about. Procrastination hits all aspects of our lives, and health choices are no different. Saying you’ll make better choices tomorrow is no different from putting the paper off until the morning it’s due. If there’s a solution to both, it’s likely to be similar. In both theories described above, procrastination comes down to present indulgences beating out future rewards. Both call for evening that balance by making future rewards seem more tangible. If the benefit of bypassing procrastination seems more real, you’ll think twice about instant gratification. You can wait to open that Pandora’s Box or answer your Facebook Me later.
RAJIV NARAYAN will answer your e-mails at firstname.lastname@example.org – cross your fingers he doesn’t procrastinate a reply.