Of all the tools in my student toolkit, the ability to procrastinate effectively is undoubtedly the most valuable. It is certainly the most finely honed. As a mature student, I can claim to have raised procrastination to a fine art. And seldom is this art more in evidence than when I set out to write an essay.
My primary task when confronted with an essay is to establish when to begin preparing it. Not today, certainly, oh no! I must have a block of uninterrupted time, with no other commitments or deadlines. It will not do to peck at it an hour here, four hours there. I want days. Having established a suitable span of days (consecutive, of course), I can avoid doing much about the essay until the appointed time.
Oh, I’ll make a show of preparatory progress. I’ll select a topic and arrange for research materials to arrive well in advance. I may even think about it from time to time (especially about how grand it’s going to be.) But I’ll resist any temptation to begin working on it until the allotted time.
My resolve may weaken when, finding myself with unexpected free time, I feel compelled to engage in some productive activity. I can usually overcome those weak moments by substituting another occupation of great import, such as sifting through my digital photos, or adding dozens of books I’ll never read to my Amazon wish list. The important thing is not to commence work on the essay a moment before I said I would. A procrastinator must exercise tremendous self-control.
Eventually, that glorious day arrives when I begin the essay. I have set aside ample time. I have all the materials I need. I am ready to research, and then to write. “It will be so easy,” I think, “I’m so well organized!”
This is where technique separates the novice from the pro. A novice, finding the research and outlining stages tedious, may decide that there is an urgent need to houseclean. I have heard that there are no homes so clean as those in which reside a student at essay time. A pro, however, is as skilled at procrastinating around the house as at school. I’ve been keeping house for decades and I know there is simply no need to raise domestic standards above the established minimum just because an essay is waiting. No, instead, I find myself called away by an abundance of accumulated five-minute jobs that have suddenly assumed an unnatural urgency.
All those tedious to-do tasks which I’ve been avoiding since, well, the last essay, now magically appear more compelling than the essay itself. It is for just such occasions that I’ve found it pays to keep a handy list of all the chores I’ve been putting off. Now that I’m essay-writing (or essay-avoiding, which is confusingly similar), I have the opportunity to update my vehicle maintenance log, empty the compost bucket, recharge the camera batteries, trim my nails, and check the online real estate listings to see what my neighbour’s house is going for. In fact, with an internet connection, procrastination opportunities are virtually limitless.
Despite the precious time I’ve frittered away, the first draft of my essay is written, rough though it may be. And it really is rough. I’m unconcerned though, because I’m right on schedule. There’s still plenty of time to finesse those random citations and not-quite relevant facts into a cohesive piece.
Inevitably, that’s the moment that the external factor kicks in. The urgent phone call. The forgotten appointment. The power outage. Somehow, it’s all gone off the rails. The essay deadline looms and I’m hundreds of words and a bibliography away from a final draft. I’m almost tempted to regret the time spent in procrastination—almost. Now it’s nose-to-the-grindstone, pull-a-rabbit-out-of-the-hat time! The energy formerly devoted to putting off writing the essay is now focused on getting the dratted thing done in time.
Like a late-riser skidding triumphantly into his parking space at work with moments to spare, my essay, still smoking, screeches into the drop-box. For a few moments, I feel chastened. I really could have prepared the essay in less time and it certainly could have been more polished. But, by the time I finish my post-essay glass of wine, I am over such destructive sentiments. After all, procrastination is an art. And you should never mess with art.
Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario.