It’s impossible to give 100 percent to every task, 100 percent of the time. For me, this truth begins to sink in around the middle of each quarter. As a perfectionist and as someone who has a difficult time saying no (two descriptors that I suspect apply to many other Stanford students), my inability to put in a top effort, every time, for everything I do, sometimes distresses me. The math itself is distressing enough: say 65 percent of my time and energy go toward being a full-time student, but my extracurriculars would like as much as 40 percent and my friends at least 20 percent. And then factor in internships and future planning and random tasks, plus the nagging feeling that it’s never enough, that I should be doing more — wait, where does that leave any time for me? We’re already over 100 percent, and the last time I checked, no amount of idealism can counteract the fact that time machines don’t exist.
This is where, like any sane college student, I’ve learned about a handy little trick: procrastination. Now, this may seem counterintuitive: if I’m already pressed for time, why make my situation worse by putting anything off? I’m already cramming too much into my day, feeling upset that that paper didn’t reflect my best effort or that I wasn’t able to participate fully in class because I was too tired. But if I get too wrapped up in these things, if I declare that the next paper will knock my professor’s socks off even if I have to refuse food and stay up for three nights to do it, I’m only putting my life further out of balance.
Let me clarify what I mean: procrastination, when used in a healthy way, can restore some of the life balance that might be lost if we devoted ourselves wholeheartedly to any one task like our (or, at least, my) perfectionist tendencies tell us to. Face it: the expectations at Stanford can be so high that, if we take one thing too seriously, it can consume us. Establishing constraints through procrastination, paradoxically, can be a useful tool for leading those well-rounded lives we all say we’d like to have. If I give myself an entire week to work on that paper, guess what? It’ll take the entire week. I’ll get caught up in deliberating whether I’ve read enough, whether I sound smart enough, whether I really need that comma or if I should take it out. My concerns start out as valid but then spiral down to the slightly absurd. On the other hand, if I give myself a shorter time frame to work on the same paper, it’ll take a shorter amount of time — and it’ll get done regardless. Things almost always seem to, if only in a nose-under-the-wire kind of way.
The funny thing is, I wasn’t a procrastinator before Stanford. If anything, I frowned upon it. But procrastination is more complex than its reputation might suggest. It’s not just watching YouTube videos or wasting time on Facebook. It can also come in the more insidious form of lower-priority things that need to get done eventually, or that simply boost my happiness. On Saturday afternoons, I procrastinate by solving laundry crises. I clean my room. I walk the Dish. I answer emails. The ulterior motive behind all of this lovely life organization is that voice in the back of my head that moans, “I don’t want to do my homework!” but at the end of the day, I’ve put myself in a better mindset for working than if I’d chained myself in the library for eight hours. A two-hour heart-to-heart with a friend: procrastination? Yes. Necessary for being human? Also yes.
The problem, then, is not only learning how to productively procrastinate (talk about an oxymoron), but learning how much we can procrastinate and still finish everything that we need to. It’s a fine balance between giving myself so much time that I become lackadaisical (and thereby waste more time) and really putting something off until it’s too late to do it well. This is a game I play: where is the line to which I can procrastinate and still sleep a reasonable amount? To which I can procrastinate and enjoy that weekend with a friend, or also accomplish tasks xyz? Finding this balance, I think, is part of what we mean when we talk about time management.
One of my friends once joked that she’d come to Stanford to major in procrastination. In some ways, that’s not far from the truth. College, in forcing us to juggle more commitments and responsibilities than we’ve had before, also forces us to learn to compartmentalize our lives. By setting boundaries on things, by accepting that one class or activity isn’t world shattering and that our self-worth rests on the bigger picture that we forge for ourselves, we enable ourselves to attain a better sense of perspective. We might not be giving 100 percent of ourselves to any one task, but we’re preserving our priorities and making sure that the time we do give really does matter.
While Rachel doesn’t want to major in procrastination, she’s considering getting a minor in it. Send her your advice on this decision at firstname.lastname@example.org.