The procrastination game

So, I’ve graduated from university, but my job keeps me lingering around my former campus (hopefully in a more graceful manner than some other local lingerers).  As such, this exposes me to the “December rush” with a sense of nostalgia at my old life, but also gratitude that I’ll never again have to desperately scramble to meet a deadline as a student.  Man, people are stressed.

I cheerfully admit that I’m no stranger to procrastination.  My university degree was a textbook case of putting everything off until the last possible minute, and then aggressively pushing through to completion only when I was forced by a deadline.  In fact, right about exactly a year ago I was doing just that, with a single project whose scale made me the biggest idiot ever for leaving it so late.  I got that done in time by only the razor-thinnest of margins, and it took some significant outside moral support to get me through it.  I’d really like to think I’ve learned my lesson.  But, reasonably speaking, I haven’t.

So, I definitely recognise that drive to delay.  Sometimes, though.  I wonder what people are thinking.  Just this week, I worked with two people who had very high hopes, and were pretty much counting on something, and yet still left things until the last possible moment.  Part of what I do to pay the rent is assisting applicants to graduate schools with their app materials, and in particular the essays.  Having a consultant look over and edit an important application can have a pretty significant influence on the outcome of the application — sometimes, people just don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to completing these things, and it can be a pretty big deal to have someone step in and help with the process.  So, if someone takes an application seriously, hiring a consultant seems like a  natural move.  On the other hand, if you take something seriously, shouldn’t you give yourself plenty of time to do it well?  The application deadline for a prominent MBA program was midnight a few days ago.  I’m familiar with this particular application because I assisted several of my regular clients when they prepared this application, months ago.  And yet, there I was, juggling two perfectly competent, functioning adults who desperately needed assistance with the application, because they were writing the app essays the afternoon before the midnight deadline.  If you want something (and these people wanted it), why the hell would you leave it until the application due-date to start?

Now, I’m writing this with a tone of incredulity, but the simple fact is that this is hardly uncommon behaviour.  I’ve seen this sort of thing lots of times; I’ve done this sort of thing, lots of times.  These last-minute applicants, whose entire careers ride on being accepted into an MBA program, probably know better than to leave such important stuff until the last minute.  I certainly knew better.  All those students who are watching TV all day instead of studying for their exam tomorrow, they certainly know better.  I think everyone is familiar with that terrible gnawing in your stomach, that horrible ache of regret and shame that prevents you from enjoying whatever distractions are drawing you away from work but somehow are still better than doing that work.

So, why the hell do we still do it?  I have a theory.

I think, we do it because we haven’t failed miserably yet.

Now, the immediate response to that is probably something to the effect of, “That was the worst night/week/month of my life!  It was terrible!  How could I ever want to do that again?”

And, yeah, that’s true.  Oh man, is it true.  And, that’s exactly what everyone says after the absurd last-minute drive is finally over.  But, unpleasantness, no matter how extreme, still isn’t failure.  It’s always worked so far, so no matter how unpleasant, embarrassing, or painful the process of desperate last-minute productivity can be, we don’t learn a lesson from it because ultimately the effort was still successful.  Our terrible habits haven’t yet truly punished us.  In fact, it’s just the opposite: we’re being rewarded for our idiotic behaviour, validated by the fact that every time we do it, we still manage to pull it off.

Those desperate MBA applicants?  They might actually get in.  They have very strong written application materials (thanks to me, mind, but they still get the credit), and their backgrounds are strong enough for them to at least have a decent shot.  They apparently don’t have much of a work ethic, but that obviously hasn’t stopped them so far.

It hasn’t stopped me, either.  I got an entire university degree by not doing anything until I absolutely had to.  I did it badly, but I still did it.

And, it’s still not stopping me.  Those guys turned in good MBA apps.  And, what did I spend most of that day doing, when I should have been frantically editing and polishing their application materials?  I was playing the new Legend of Zelda game.

(It’s good, by the way)

I knew (or hoped I knew) how long it would take me to prep their applications, and I knew when the deadline was, and I knew how much time it should take them to add the material I improved to the rest of the application.  So, I spent all day playing Nintendo.  At the last minute, I worked on their applications.  That was stupid of me, and stressful, and didn’t even get me more time with my game because I just as easily could have done the apps earlier and then played all I wanted without guilt.  But, no, I had to leave everything until the last minute, so that I didn’t even have time to eat or shower.  I wore dirty underwear.  But, it got done.

(And, really, even if I had screwed up and missed the deadline, how angry could they have got when they were the ones who looked at the MBA application requirements for the first time the night before the deadline?  Not a lot of moral high ground, there.)

So, I didn’t learn my lesson, and they didn’t learn theirs.  All the students out there right now who are playing Rock Band with their flatmates instead of studying for their 8am exam tomorrow, they won’t learn either.  Because, in the end, we always pull it off.  Simply put, we leave things until the last minute because we know we can.

Does that make us brilliant, or retarded?

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