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COLUMN

Putting Off Putting Off

Guest Column
by Gabe Weinberg

Procrastination is like taking candy from a stranger and a baby at the same time -- it’s stupid and easy. “But wait,” you say semi-jokingly. What about that anonymous saying, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can avoid altogether.” Well, we’re at MIT, and I have another anonymous quotation that is closer to reality: “By doing just a little every day, you can gradually let the task completely overwhelm you.”

Now, there are things that procrastination can handle, and then there are things that procrastination can’t handle. Your showering, your lawn care and your family contact fall into the former category (at least for a while), but your subpoenas, your eating, and your pet care fall into the latter.

At MIT, procrastination is a little trickier. Its value is dependent on your objectives. Take me, for example. I am here because I want to learn, and I take classes (for the most part) because I am interested in them. During my four terms of experience, I’ve found that if I study consistently throughout the term, I can learn a subject to the depth intended by the professor. On the other hand, if I procrastinate -- cram for tests, do problem sets at the last minute, pull all-nighters -- then not only don’t I learn a subject, I’m even more stressed and tired in the end.

Now don’t misunderstand me. You may be able to pull it off. You might even be able to get the same grade with or without procrastination. And if you’re just here for the diploma, then who cares? But if you want to learn, then I suggest putting procrastination aside, and doing a little studying each and every day. Guess what? There are even some often unforeseen benefits to forgoing procrastination.

First, studying for tests and final exams becomes easy. You will have been studying all term, and so by the time a test rolls around, you’ll already know what’s on it. No stress, no all-nighter -- just glance at the material for a while to refresh your memory and you’re done. For problem sets, read the set right when you get it and let the information permeate your head even if you aren’t going to start work right away. Believe it or not, this technique helps even if you do not consciously think about the material. A few days pass and now you start working on the set (by yourself). You try each problem, and lo and behold, you can’t do everything! That’s all right; it’s probably damn hard. No sweat, you have several more days to go to your professor’s or TA’s office hours. The night before the problem set is due, you sit down with a few friends (if you’re not already done) and finish it up. Sound plan.

Another reason to avoid procrastination is that procrastination leads to sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation, in turn, has harmful effects on your body. The journal Sleep (www.journalsleep.org) says that “free recall is sensitive to 24 hours” of total sleep deprivation -- an all-nighter. In other words, if your test requires you to recall anything from memory (an essay, a formula, etc.,) then you’re potentially screwed (to an extent). Moreover, while caffeine and other drugs combat some of the effects of short-term sleep deprivation, the long-term effects of these drugs are unknown. In one study, researchers subjected rats to total sleep deprivation from 5 to 14 days and found that the rats showed “a progressive increase in energy expenditure..., development of skin lesions on the paws and tail, and eventually death.” Death! I pre-regged for 8.13, not death!

Finally, ask yourself this question: “Why do I procrastinate?” If you procrastinate, you are implicitly saying that you would rather be doing something else. If you feel like procrastinating all the time, maybe you should be thinking about doing something else in the first place. Now, if the task you’re putting off is eating, or restraining murderous impulses, then you’re screwed. But if it’s coursework, then perhaps you’re in the wrong major.

A final note. For about two weeks last year I decreased my sleep to four hours a night. My plan was to “adjust,” hoping to gain four extra waking hours each day. Hey, it adds up. Needless to say, this attempt failed miserably. I was even more out of it than usual.

In a very real and twisted sense, everything you do is simply a means of putting off death -- a procrastination that I won’t argue against. Yet when it comes to MIT, I suggest putting procrastination aside and getting enough beauty sleep.

Gabe Weinberg is a junior majoring in physics and planetary science.