This morning I am thinking about procrastinating.
Not for myself — though I’m not entirely against procrastinating — but because my students were assigned an essay about challenges they’ve faced, problems they’ve solved, and several of them wrote about their struggle with procrastination. My seniors are far worse about it: they take pride in their refusal to get anything done in any kind of timely manner. “Senioritis!” they cry.
Bullshit, I say.
Sure, seniors suddenly get several notches lazier in the second semester. They’ve gotten into college, they know they won’t fail their classes — they’re not that lazy — and so they will definitely graduate and go on to the next stage of their lives. That being the case, it’s hard to see the need to complete vocabulary assignments just like the ones they’ve been doing for years, now, and which, in a few months, they’ll never have to do again. (Not that they like thinking about graduating in a few months and being done with high school forever. It’s a tempting prospect, but also terrifying, because that, they know, is when they get sent out into the Real World, which they have been taught to fear throughout their time in high school.) And sure, I get that. But “senioritis” implies first that it is something out of their control, an inevitability, a condition that afflicts people in their situation; and second that they haven’t been pulling the same crap for years now.
There are exceptions, of course. A few students get all their work done on time regardless of the relative value of the work; in fact, they take pride in completing both the large difficult assignments and the measly, mindless ones, because that way they show that their work ethic knows no bounds, that no grade is too big, and no grade is too small. There are students who were slackers, but who pick it up in their senior year, though even they tend to fall back into old habits as graduation day approaches. There are, of course, seniors who really do get lazy only at this final stage of their high school career, who go from diligent to dilettante once February rolls around.
But for the most part, it’s not senioritis, it’s studentitis. And it’s not that: it’s just procrastination. But here’s the thing: procrastination doesn’t have to be bad. It usually isn’t. It can be, of course, but for the most part, it’s simply — prioritizing. A student has an assignment due on Friday, and that student knows they can get it done in two hours; there’s no particular reason to do it Wednesday night instead of Thursday night. They may get a surprise assignment on Thursday and have to do two things Thursday night, but usually not, and if they do, they simply give up some sleep, which they don’t mind at all. (Students are divided into two groups: those who do nothing but sleep — the sloths — and those who only sleep a few hours a night — the squirrels. Sloths mind giving up sleep, but they make up for it by sleeping 18 hours the next day; squirrels are already awake until two or three in the morning every night.) The assignment that isn’t due tomorrow is a low priority, so it doesn’t get done until it is a high priority; it’s not lazy, not irrational, it’s nothing more than what we all do all the time. This last Sunday I had time for one chore, and I had to pick between cleaning out the birdcage or vacuuming the floors; I cleaned the birdcage because the floors weren’t that dirty. Because unlike the bird, we don’t crap on the floor. Priorities.
It’s more troubling when the work is daunting, and they have time to do it, but they put it off anyway because they’d rather not do it. Not managing their time, perhaps short-sightedly but reasonably; this procrastination just keeps going, past when they have a reasonable chance of doing the work, sometimes past the due date entirely. This is the kind of procrastination my students wrote about in their essays, as a problem to be overcome, a challenge they have to face. Because now the procrastination causes stress, and makes them miss out on things they don’t want to miss out on, things they care about more than sleep. This procrastination is especially troubling because often, the activity they choose over completing their work is — nothing. Watching Netflix or YouTube. Laying on their bed and staring at the wall. Saying to themselves, “Wow, I really should do that thing I have to do.” And then not doing it. Over and over.
But even this, I would argue, is prioritizing: something in that lack of activity, that laying on the bed, that video watching, is more important than getting their work done at that moment when they make that choice. I think the two best possibilities for their reasons are, one, that they are so completely stressed and anxious that they are desperate for anything that can help them calm down — more common among today’s youth than you would like to think, but if you knew how many of my students are in therapy and on mood-altering drugs to handle their anxiety, you would know this is not an unlikely reason for procrastination — and two, the work is so unimportant that they refuse to do it, because doing it feels almost demeaning, almost insulting.
This is how I felt about high school when I was in it. It was beneath me. It was a waste of my time. I thought the teachers, who weren’t any smarter than me, were giving me homework just to push me around, and by God, I wasn’t going to let them get away with that. I would show them: I wouldn’t do the work! I’d take that F! That’s right, teacher, I’ve called your bluff: what are you going to do now? Huh?
Nothing. That’s what I thought.
Exactly what I do when my students don’t do the work. Because I don’t actually assign work to push my students around. And if they don’t want to do the work I assign, that’s their choice. Hell, if they don’t do it, that’s one less paper for me to grade. Win-win.
In either of those cases, crippling anxiety or petulant rebellion, procrastination is not laziness. It’s prioritizing. They may not be doing a good job of making those decisions, but they are making decisions, not just blowing things off for no reason. Because of that, I think that a student who procrastinates should be allowed to make that choice, and then face the consequences of that choice, of their own free will, which is why I don’t hound them, asking if they finished their work yet. They’ll finish it eventually, or they won’t; either way is their choice.
Just so long as they don’t call it senioritis.