The day that my students turn in their first paper of the semester I usually bring them some kind of treats and plan to watch a movie that class period. This is not just because I’m a fun teacher (that’s indisputable) but it’s because I realize a few things about how college students work. So when they roll into class bleary-eyed and clutching the biggest cups of coffee I have ever seen, I laugh and ask them a question: “How many of you wrote this essay within the last twelve hours?”
They laugh nervously, wondering if I seriously want to know the answer. But when I smile and say, “Come on,” then the hands go up. Occasionally, there is a student or two who has planned ahead and written the paper over the weekend. But mostly, my students look at me sheepishly as they admit that they’ve done the work the night before the due date.
That’s because most human beings can find an infinite number of other things to do besides work. This is particularly true if there is a deadline looming. Suddenly, it becomes imperative to watch every YouTube video ever created or to read all those articles your Facebook friends post. Or why not catch up with all 4,000 people you follow on Twitter? Hey, it’s easy to write 140 characters! Or you might decide that now’s a good time to clean out your email inbox (it has been YEARS, after all). Or maybe you’ll watch JUST ONE MORE episode of that show you’ve missed for the past few weeks. Or hey, the bathroom sink looks pretty dirty, better clean it.
The point is, we are all experts in procrastination. We are PRO-fessionals.
When my students and I have a conversation about procrastination and how it impacts their writing, they look at me like they’ve never seen me before. I am usually the first to admit that I have the same work habits they do. And most of them have never heard a teacher admit that she was once a student like them or that she might still have some of the same habits they do. Because I teach them writing, they think I have devised some magical way to produce text painlessly and joyfully months before a project is due. So it comes as a shock to them that I don’t follow my own writing advice. (This is usually early on in the semester before we’ve really been able to have a conversation about how everyone’s process is different and no advice is a panacea.)
But the conversation that we have opens them up to thinking about their own process for writing. What is is that they do that feels most effective? Or most ineffective? As we write our second, third, fourth, and fifth essays out of the semester, the number of people who raise their hand when I ask about when they wrote their essays goes down a significant amount. There are still students who think they do their best writing under pressure the night before. Or the students who haven’t planned well and get stuck at the last minute. But a majority of my writing students begin to see that pacing themselves before the big deadline helps keep their stress levels under control.
In fact, I encourage them to write a little bit each day before the essay is due so that they can have time to procrastinate! This is another moment where they usually look at me like I have three heads. A teacher who encourages them to procrastinate? How can such a chimera exist?!
But it’s true, because I am firmly PRO procrastinating. It’s like putting a roast in the crock pot and leaving it all day. You check on it every once in awhile to see how it’s doing. You might add a thing or two here or there. But the very point of the crock pot is being able to leave it on its own and counting on it to marinate something delicious for later. The same with procrastinating. Once you have an idea and do the research for it, you should let it sit for awhile. Let it marinate around in your mind. Don’t think of it. Then when you come back to it, chances are you will have something much more delicious than when you started. And people always appreciate delicious things.
So what do you do to procrastinate? Do you think that it’s useful?