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July 7, 2005:

In procrastination’s service

By Jennifer Albinson ’05

Over the course of our four years at Princeton, my classmates and I have acquired many skills. The history majors among us have gotten quite adept with the microfilm machines. The chemists titrate with a newfound finesse. The English majors analyze diction and syntax even as they attempt to casually read the newspaper. Writing theses has taught us broadly the value of independent research, close interactions with a professor, and creative thinking. But the one skill that we have universally strengthened through our college experience is our ability to procrastinate.

Yes, graduates of Old Nassau, do not fret: this time-honored tradition has not died. Even in today’s high-tech world, in which the shift from procrastination to hard-at-work merely entails moving the mouse over from AOL Instant Messenger to Microsoft Word, procrastination thrives. As we learned at a presentation by local thesis binding companies, some of us will doubtlessly find ourselves saying at our 25th reunion, “I had a whole entire year to finish that project. And I perfectly timed it within 45 minutes of the deadline.” These thesis-binding companies, I might add, remain open 24-hours daily as deadlines approach, accommodating those who look up from the blue glare of the computer screen, realize it’s 5:37 a.m., and decide somewhat arbitrarily that their thesis is done.

Procrastination has many forms. True procrastination, Tim Churchill ’05 notes, entails occupying yourself with a non-work task that is not necessarily fun in an objective sense – it’s just better than the alternative of work. In the name of full disclosure, I should note that Tim and I shared a thesis carrel on the C-Floor of Firestone. Our “thesis prison,” as we lovingly named it, was decorated with a theme of Latin American history. There we spent many hours mere feet from each other, typing away and eventually producing more than 250 collective pages. We each had our own unique form of procrastination. I’d leave to go “check my e-mail” on one of Firestone’s communal computers and would come back hours later, having run into one friend, and then another, then deciding it was time to eat dinner, and then going out to ice cream, only to wander back stupefied and completely disconnected from whatever I had been writing earlier in the day. Though Tim proved to be present in the carrel more regularly, he procrastinated in his own way. Many times did I look over and see him not clickety-clacking away on thesis, but rather playing a game of computer solitaire or looking at pictures from his semester abroad.

Perhaps the great enabler of procrastination is the college schedule. Students don’t have class until 10 or 11 in the morning, and sometimes not even until after lunch. Many students lack Friday class altogether. To get their eight hours of sleep, they don’t need to go to bed until 2 or 3 a.m. Often on those nights when a test looms closely or pages of a paper remain yet unwritten, students push their bedtimes back further and further, staying up until 4, maybe 5. And at a certain point, they decide they are in it for the long haul, and they remain at the computer, waiting for the clock to turn to 7:30 so that they can refuel with a waffle at the dining hall.

The general understanding that one can always pull an all-nighter allows for this great procrastination. There is no pressure to finish one’s work by day, when the great expanse of night remains ahead. “I have two problem sets due tomorrow, but it’s all right, I am going to pull an all-nighter,” is a reassuring mantra heard around campus. With a deadline rapidly approaching, students who have made the advance decision to stay up all night enjoy a leisurely dinner, perhaps go to Frist where they buy a cup of coffee or the highly-caffeinated energy drink Red Bull. They might stop at home and watch a bit of TV with the roommates, or maybe throw in a load of laundry. Only after midnight, when the night has truly started, do these students get to work.

I came to all-nighters late in my college career. Having believed that I needed my eight-hours of sleep, I generally finished homework by 2 a.m., got in bed, and woke up early if need be. I made it through eight semesters of coursework and midterms, and even wrote my thesis without ever staying awake until breakfast. Only during my last finals period did I decide it was time. After writing a 100-page thesis, having 30-some pages due on Dean’s Date did not seem unmanageable. I did some research but waited until 48 hours before the deadline to really start writing. I pulled one all-nighter and found it to be such a pleasurable experience, that I immediately followed it with a second.

In these two nights, I learned what proves so intoxicating about the all-nighter. Not only do you feel that you have endless quantities of time, but at a certain point, you feel like you are the only person awake on campus, and therefore, the single-most productive person at that moment in time. As you walk from the computer cluster back to your dorm at 6 a.m. to pick up a book you forgot, you see the morning sun shining on McCosh and hear the birds chirping in the trees. You feel like you own the campus. And then, if you are me, you start to cry because you only saw campus at that hour a few weeks before graduation.

Jennifer Albinson ’05 graduated with high honors in history.