Does procrastinating make you brilliant?

No, but knowing too much can make you stupid


 

At least one post-secondary pundit thinks that procrastinating is good for you. Carson Jerema of the Winnipeg Free Press, formerly of OnCampus, writes in his biweekly education column that procrastination can make you brilliant.

Jerema’s first point is that if you never procrastinate, you will never do anything other than schoolwork. Clearly, smart planning of when you study, socialize and do other things doesn’t consist of procrastinating. But what I really disagree with is that attempting to produce your best possible work is misguided because some writer heavyweights Jerema refers to didn’t produce their best work until they were old. With that, Jerema implies that guys like John Rawls could be lazy throughout their early lives, then one day they woke up and BING! the light turned on and brilliant work spewed forth from them with little preparation. In reality, it takes a life of working hard before you’ll have a chance at producing a great work. You may as well start now.

Alright, so I’ve made clear that I think Jerema is mostly full of bullshit—and likely was procrastinating while writing the piece—but his article hints at an important point for students: over-researching an assignment can lead to unfocused and poor writing. Trust me on this one; I know firsthand because I do it all the time when researching articles I’m writing. I often get so caught up in learning everything there is to know about the topic I’m writing about that when I sit down to write, I can’t figure out what the story is anymore. Plus, in the process of reading three books, interviewing 10 people, and sifting through dozens of articles all for one lousy 600-word article (ok, I’m exaggerating) I wasted time that could have spent on something else. Sigh.

Author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell delves into the concept of knowledge overload in his book Blink, which I recently read. His basic premise is that rapid cognition—the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye—is extremely powerful and can be of great use, if harnessed properly. To introduce his topic, he tells a story about the Getty Museum in California acquiring a statue, believed to be a rare marble kouros dating from sixth century BC. The museum went through months of research and study to ascertain the statue was indeed what they thought it was. When they were satisfied, they bought it for just under $10-million.


Enter two art experts, Federico Zeri and Evelyn Harrison. When they were invited to view the kouros, they independently had the same reaction: something just didn’t look right. Neither could explain what it was. But when the curator swished off the cloth covering the kouros, they were both immediately certain it was a fake. And they turned out to be right.

The moral of the story? “When Federico Zeri and Evelyn Harrison looked at the kouros and felt an ‘intuitive repulsion’ they were absolutely right,” Gladwell writes. “In the first two seconds of looking—in a single glance—they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team of the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months.”

But our art experts didn’t pull their intuition from nowhere. They were able to harness the power of their instincts because they are highly educated and experienced. And that is what I think going to university should be all about: exposing yourself to new things and learning deeply about a topic (or many topics) so that you become the type of thinker who can depend on her instincts and reactions. But only after years of study—and surely not excessive procrastination—can we hope to have the wisdom to see the story without having to bury ourselves in the research.

I’m interested in how you attack researching and writing assignments. Are you a procrastinator? Does it help? Do you over-research until you forget what the original assignment was?

Erin Millar and Ben Coli are writing an advice book about going to college and university in Canada. Have a question about anything to do with university? Email us at straightupguide@gmail.com


 
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Does procrastinating make you brilliant?

  1. For those who haven’t read my column, I advance four related but separate arguments for why procrastination can be useful.

    1) Many serious students are driven by ambition (or fear) to produce, for lack of a better term, Nobel Prize worthy stuff. This is a source of stress for many, and it would be better if students sometimes put the books down.

    2) Leaving work until deadline approaches can help focus the mind. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be useful to get the brain firing.

    3) Putting it off can give you time to reflect. Stepping back from your work can help you to come to conclusions, or insights, that you might not have otherwise come to.

    4) Procrastinating what you should be doing can inspire productive activity in another area, thereby increasing your accomplishments. Jeff Rybak has a good post on this website discussing how distractions can lead to careers.

    In this post Erin focuses on argument 1) and conflates it with argument 3. She concludes that I am full of something unpleasant. I did make the argument that the drive to be perfect is misguided. I did cite some “heavyweights” who accomplished their best work when they were old. I didn’t have to use “heavyweights.” I could have cited any number of more obscure academics. I chose people who would be recognizable to readers.

    Nowhere did I suggest that John Rawls spent his life being lazy and then poof he pumped out A Theory of Justice. That book took decades for him to write.

    The point I was making is that many serious students are so driven that they spend far too much time collecting data and researching. The drive to be great can be a huge source of stress and render the university experience intolerable. My argument is to relax and to procrastinate, as an antidote to this misery. This isn’t a call to be lazy, but rather to recognize that you’re just not going to be perfect. Being great at something takes time, and students could spend their time better doing something other than school work. So put it off.

    I do acknowledge in my original article that procrastination can lead to failure. But the general consensus argument that academic work has to rigidly fit within specific timelines is wrong. Of course deadlines are important, but university work is not the equivalent of producing some repetitive task to meet some quota. Most people will have their whole lives to do that.

  2. Procrastination has a bad rap. Putting off work to have a life is not necessarily a bad thing — everyone needs to take a breather and chill out. And I agree with Carson: putting it off allows me to reflect, but also freak out. I think a lot of students have trouble with getting started because they want to be perfect.

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