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STUDYING | Tomorrow: the deadly siren song of procrastination

I have had my fair share of run-ins with that illusionary siren we call ‘tomorrow’. They are a somewhat fishy character, very good at shape-shifting (eight hours passing in the blink of an eye, anyone?), and very rarely a keeper of their promises. Usually composed of Tall Tails, they can be found sitting on Procrastination Rock singing Netflix series theme tunes or brandishing social media logos. Symptoms of encountering a ‘tomorrow siren’ include last minute panic, long library all-nighters and pleading, apologetic emails to supervisors for an extended deadline.

A sufferer usually follows this episode by proclaiming ‘never again’ and vowing to tie themselves to the mast of the HMS Degree next time they pass anywhere near the treacherous Deadline Waters where the sirens usually await unsuspecting students. While this determined approach worked for Odysseus, it is also worth noting that Odysseus’ sirens were not supported by the allures of a vaguely good Wi-Fi connection (thanks eduroam).

Even more perilous are the sirens of ‘productive procrastination’. These are the times we put off really important work in favour of smaller, less difficult tasks, or other things we want to do which seem vaguely useful at the time. We feel like we’re still achieving something, but the giant work-shaped elephant is still in the room. Where is the line between procrastination and a healthy work-life balance? We can’t be expected to be working all the time, but sometimes it gets a little blurred…

Figure A: Seven things that Emma’s brain would rather do than actual uni work:

1. Start a new series on Netflix. (Because the two I already have in progress are clearly not enough.) Bonus points if the series is in a foreign language and I can say I’m practising my listening comprehension.

2. Have a mini crisis over whether I am not passionate enough about my degree, or whether it’s just that I’m more passionate about *insert procrastination activity here*.

3. Go for a long bike ride, taking all the detours possible, and unexpectedly find a duck pond. Cue a million photos for Instagram purposes (documenting my life at uni is important, right?)

4. Fall down an internet rabbit-hole and wake up three hours later after a Wikipedia spiral, reading about the grammar of a language I’m not even studying and maybe never will.

5. Start said language on Duolingo.

6. Read about other people procrastinating. Then write an article about reading about other people procrastinating as a way to procrastinate.

7. Have a debate with a fellow student about who has the biggest workload and is better at putting it off until the last minute. Realise the aforementioned debate is a modern students’ version of the old ‘my horse is bigger than your horse’ debate, and wonder why humanity is so intent on competing for things which yield absolutely no benefits whatsoever.

But… does procrastination yield any benefits? There are different theories as to why we do it – from a failure of executive function (planning and prioritising future tasks), to simply wanting to avoid stress (interestingly, some people visualise their future selves like they are looking at a stranger, so the idea of being more stressed in the future doesn’t have the same effect), to the theory that procrastination could be genetically inherited. The obvious benefit is that by avoiding something we don’t want to do, we avoid immediate stress, and we can have a nice rush of dopamine to carry us along the path of delusion to procrastination station. Less fortunately, that benefit comes hand in hand with trying to do the same amount of work in half the time later.

I think the case for the benefits of procrastination is a tenuous one. But if procrastination has taught me one useful thing, it is that I should probably stop doing it… and I’ve learnt a few strategies which sometimes act as the rope to keep me tied securely away from the siren song of tomorrow.

Figure B: Seven things Emma’s brain does instead of procrastinating:

1. Break tasks down into smaller tasks, so I feel like I’m accomplishing things more easily.

2. Realise that the thing is going to have to be done at some point, and done by me (even if it’s just a future update of me) and get just the right amount of panic-stricken that I do it now.

3. Get a planner and make it look really nice with highlighters and sticky notes and other fun nerdy things to make organising deadlines more creative.

4. If I’m feeling overly stressed, accept and learn to manage the feeling long-term instead of trying to dissipate it with short-term distractions (still working on this one).

5. Ask questions! When I’m procrastinating, it’s usually because I think I’ll get it wrong, in which case reaching out to a classmate is probably more helpful than scrolling Facebook…

6. Give myself purposeful rest time for not doing work, and stick to that just as much as to studying.

7. Make it really hard for myself to procrastinate: block social media sites for an hour at a time, put my phone at the other side of the room and try to get the most difficult tasks done at the start of the day.

That being said, if you’re procrastinating right now, consider this your wake-up call to pay attention to the above, and go back to work immediately… You’ll thank me for it. Promise.

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