Deadlines: A University Survival Guide

Deadlines: A University Survival Guide

"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by,” said the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Unfortunately you are probably not yet a beloved author with forgiving publishers. You are likely a student, you have assignments to do, and you have to get them in on time. 

So, study and assignments are taking up a lot of the time you could be using to buy socks from BlueQ, download the latest episode of Broad City, or pop out to that street party all your friends say they are going to but aren’t actually there when you turn up. Deadlines are a bitch but they are all a part of life, which unfortunately we cannot avoid. It’s easy to procrastinate on doing things when we feel we have a lot of time left to do them, until suddenly the time is gone and it’s the eleventh hour, and you are thrown into a chaos fuelled panic. 

Someone once said that humans could achieve great things if they put up with slight discomfort, but we will go to huge lengths to avoid slight discomfort. But don’t worry too much - procrastinating could mean the absence of something more sinister. According to psychiatrist and author Kevin Dutton, psychopaths do not procrastinate! He believes this is one thing that can help psychopaths be some of the most assertive and optimistic leaders and/or members of our society. Amy Crawford interviewed Kevin Dutton for the Smithsonian magazine saying that these psychopathic characteristics – mental toughness, functioning well under pressure, assertiveness and positive thinking aren’t “just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.” Although these traits all appear to be positive things, they are none the less traits of a psychopath. So the next time someone tells you off for procrastinating, you can feel smug in the assumption that while you are clearly not a psychopath, they very well may be. 

Suzy Lane, a third year student at Otago University, shared their story of procrastination: “I was doing this paper in second year, Contemporary American Literature. At the time it sounded really cool … until I realised that I actually had to like, read all of these books and write about them, a lot. I had to read the Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. Wow what an acid trip that book was, it was so hard to read, and made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I stopped reading it, and just kept putting off the essay about it. One time I cleaned my entire kitchen from top to bottom including behind the fridge, under the oven and mopping the ceiling, just to avoid starting the research on this god damned book. Then, two days later I handed in a half-assed, too short mess I called an essay. I was so scared handing it in, I honestly, whole heartedly believed I was going to flunk it -- and I received 50%! I literally on just scraped through, but hey, it was a pass and that’s all I needed, so it was a success right?” 

Suzy’s story is an example of how to procrastinate productively. Sure, their final mark wasn’t great, but hey, at least the kitchen is clean! And that’s great! When else would they have gotten around to cleaning the freakin’ ceiling? The same goes for if you do something fun with a friend, cook some nice food, go for a walk, call your mum, draw a picture, practise an instrument, or read a good book. You may not be closer to finishing your assignment, but you have done something that has improved your life a little bit. The fulfillment you get from productive procrastination can give you an extra boost toward doing the actual task, while wasting time on facebook or binging TV shows will only make you feel sad and incompetent. 

Many writers have commented on what some call the art of procrastination, and how it affects us. Margaret Mitchel, author of Gone with the Wind once said that “I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.” Procrastination can be a way to allow the brain to relax and mull things over subconsciously without pressure to perform. 

Creative ideas can’t always be forced, but you can do amazing things under pressure. Have you ever written an essay in an exam in like thirty minutes and thought “wow, that was actually pretty freakin good”? That’s because you didn’t have time to dither around wondering what to do. You had to ignore the voice saying “are you sure about that?” and just plough into it. 

James Tregonning has incredible time management skills when it comes to assignments. He wrote 400 words of his dissertation every day for months for goodness sake. We asked him for advice and and he said “I thought that was going to be a pointed "Hurry the fuck up with your article" (that too, James, that too). I guess the thing is I don't procrastinate things I like doing but I'm a huuuuge procrastinator for stuff I don't want to do. If I don't want to do it, I'll usually just pretend it doesn't exist haha. I procrastinate cleaning and dishes haha basically all the boring important things.” So he just loves assignments? Vomit! But then he said, “Okay, here's something: external pressure is your best friend. I do a blog with a friend, and if I don't stay up to date, she tells me off.”

On the other end of the scale are chronic procrastinators. An anonymous source told us: “Once I had something due in that afternoon and was taking a break in the library. A stranger came up to me and asked me to help him with his assignment. English wasn’t his first language, he wasn’t very fluent, and he was having to write an essay for a compulsory paper. He had plagiarised his friend's assignment and needed help making it look original. I spent two hours sitting with him rewording his paragraphs and sentences: plagiarising for a stranger so I didn't have to do my own work.”

If you want to work out the likelihood that you will procrastinate on any given task, Canadian professor Piers Steel has worked out a formula for it (presumably while he was meant to be doing something important, like curing cancer). The formula is U=EV/ID. U is the utility, or your desire to complete the task. E is the expectation of success, V is the value of completing it, I is the task’s immediacy, and D is your sensitivity to delay. Take Jim Courgy’s stats assignment that “has no relevance, that you have to grind your way through, incredible boring.” Jim’s confidence in completing the task is low, we’ll say 2, because he’s going to have to learn what to do as he works through it. The value he holds in completing it is also low, a 3, because although he has to do it for his degree, he doesn’t see its relevance to his life. The task’s immediacy won’t kick in until right before the due date, and he’s been known to write assignments in 50 minutes, so that’s a 1. Jim’s sensitivity to delay in this task is high, 10, because he’d rather be doing “anything, looking at something that I actually like.” Do the maths: 2x3/1x10 = a desirability of 0.6. If instead Jim were to watch X-Factor highlights on Youtube, his confidence in doing that would be 100, the value to him 100, relevance to his life 100, and his sensitivity to delay around 1, so 100x100/100x1=100, meaning he is 166 times more likely to watch X-Factor highlights than do his stats assignment (although he knows enough stats to help us do this equation). 

Unfortunately for students, the tool we have to do most of our work on: the computer, is also home to the most distracting thing in the entire universe: the internet. Coupled with the most distractible organ in the human body, the brain, you are fucked. You need to find ways to stop yourself going down clickholes instead of doing your work. Apps like SelfControl and Freedom can help you limit your time on problem websites. Beware - once you have set them on a timer to block your favourite and most time-wasting page, there is no way you can reverse the block. You’ll have to wait it out and maybe even do some Uni work in the meantime. 

Why do we put things off and stress ourselves out when logically it would make more sense to work methodically and frequently rather than chaotically and at the last minute? The Oregon State University says there are six reasons for why students in particular choose to procrastinate starting their assignments. They list the reasons from the student’s point of view - I don’t know how, this stuff is boring, I don’t feel like it, I can’t do it, and you can’t make me. The sixth is the fear of doing so well that you won’t be able to top it next time. These issues with authority, skill deficits, and lack of comprehension reveal the fear involved in completing assignments and handing them in. Whether it be a fear of failure or a fear of success and not meeting future expectations of you, these are big influencers in the way we choose to approach our deadlines. 

Procrastination could be something that is learned rather than an innate trait, according to Dr. Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of Psychology at De Paul University in Chicago. Within the family milieu, procrastination is not learned through behaviour of the parent that the child picks up, but as a form of rebellion against an authoritarian and/or controlling parent. Dr. Ferrari also says that there three “flavours” of procrastination. Flavour one: The aroused procrastinator. Despite the overtly sexual name this procrastinator is a thrill seeker, and adrenaline junky who consistently waits until the last minute to feel the infamous rush of euphoria you get pulling an all-nighter trying to get things done on time. Flavour two: the avoider. This person avoids the task out of fear, lack of self-confidence and a consistent fear of judgement from others. Although the fear often arises out of fear of failure / success the fear of what people think of them is what stops them from starting the assignment as “they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.” Flavour three: the undecided. This is the person who either refuses to make a choice, or is unable to make a choice. The process of making a choice means you have a reason to get started. Choosing not to make one, or refusing to make one ultimately  “absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.”These “flavours” demonstrate the difference between procrastinating and being lazy. Procrastination is not relaxing or pleasant. The task you are putting off is probably important to you and often on your mind. 

You can, of course, get extensions on your assignments, but they shouldn’t be taken advantage of. If you ask for too many extensions, you may not be granted one when you actually need it for a serious reason. If, however, you have started to work on and write up the assignment and just need that little bit extra to make up to your own standards of acceptable then do not be afraid to ask for an extension. Your teachers want to see you succeed and they will try their hardest to help you do well.  

You know the feeling of leaving as assignment too late. You’re doomed. This is the end. How did you manage to corner yourself into this situation? The only thing you can do now is sit down, open your computer and get it done hoping that you’ve done enough to slide on by. You’re going to have to stay up all night. Because your body has a natural clock that associates darkness with being tired, you’ll probably feel like imbibing some caffeine. Unfortunately doing this will aid in you crashing and waking up to “bjkbfkjrbfj bf eb kjehg” typed consecutively over three pages because you passed out on your keyboard. Persevere through the initial phases of feeling tired, and then a few hours later when you begin to actually drift off, hype yourself back up with a medium strength coffee and stay focused and calm. 

To help avoid procrastination, break your tasks into tiny pieces. For example, instead of thinking OMG I have a 5,000 essays to write and it’s impossible, just sit down, find and bookmark three good sources, write three sentences, go back and read a source, highlight useful bits, etc. Doing even small amounts of work early will be very helpful in the future. Remember that the task won’t get any easier in the future, only more stressful. Doing ANY of your school work is better than doing nothing. If you feel like doing one task more than another, doing it is better than not doing it. If you feel yourself procrastinating, do something that will make you feel better, not worse. 

So if you’ve had one too many nights falling asleep and waking up with your keyboard imprinted on your face, try and change your habits of approaching study / assignments by understanding how procrastination works and how you can prevent it – without becoming a psychopath.

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2016.
Posted 12:03pm Saturday 1st October 2016 by Mikayla Cahill and Lucy Hunter.