Motivation v.s. Discipline: An Analysis of High-Performance and the Procrastinator Plague

How a strategy of speedily tackling tasks last-minute turned into a bad application of Parkinson’s Law — and why a conscious effort of re-applying this law might be the key to less stress

Carolyn Wang
ILLUMINATION

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Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Note-to-self: The first draft of this article was written in October 2023, so anecdotes pertain to the time of the initial draft, not the publication date.

It’s 9 p.m. now, and I have a deadline due in three hours: two essays I have yet to start on, and multiple short answers for an internship application that I knew about days prior to writing this, but couldn’t work up the nerve to get started on until now. (Notice how I’m still procrastinating by writing this article simultaneously.)

It’s nearly too late, but not yet. And for some reason, it’s at these moments of extreme pressure that I’m in a state of complete and utter calm.

Let me rephrase that. It’s really less-so “calm,” and more-so “cold, mechanic-like indifference suppressing all urges of panic.” Unfortunately, I’ve trained for these types of scenarios in high school way too often — enough to the point where it’s become somewhat of a bad — no, terrible — habit.

Only recently did I understand this “doing things last minute” habit as a less-than-ideal application of Parkinson’s Law, stemming from a mindset of ill-perceived efficiency and accompanied with the fine wine of procrastination.

Let me explain.

Parkinson’s Law refers to the idea that the time it take to complete a task expands or shrinks depending on the amount of time allocated to it. Based on this principle, you could, theoretically, produce the same product (i.e. research paper) given a three-week deadline OR a three-day deadline, because it’s human nature to adjust efficiency and urgency accordingly.

If you’re also one of the guilty culprits of abusing this idea, read on.

My habit of doing things last minute started out because I had no choice, actually. The rat race of maintaining a competitive-enough high school career (academics, extracurriculars, home responsibilities) meant that I was often coming home exhausted after a 7-hour long cross country meet, or arriving in the aftermath of an orchestra rehearsal that concluded around 10:30 p.m. (commutes included).

Then, I would begin my hours of homework (assigned from an unrelenting yet rewarding AP/honors-filled course load) and turn them in the night before they were due.

I managed to make every deadline, but I was always calling it close. I was scrambling, constantly, because I had so many activities and responsibilities on my plate — all the time.

Back then, I had to use every second of every minute to its full capacity — time squeezed so tightly it was like wringing an orange dry. Just think completing the entirety of my AP Chem homework the night before it was due by forcing myself to sit at my desk without moving an inch from 6:30pm to 1:30.am., or writing entire English 11H essays in three hours time (brainstorming, drafts, and revisions all incorporated at intervals), or scrambling to churn out APUSH notes at 12 a.m.

It got to the point where I managed to self-study all of AP Physics C Mechanics in a span of four days (given a year of AP Physics I knowledge under my belt). I got a 5, but to this day, I don’t quite recall what I learned from those four days of calc-based physics, unflinchingly crammed into my brain cells.

Did I once subject myself to this absurd lifestyle out of necessity?

Yes. Because there simply wasn’t. Enough. Time.

Am I proud of these moments?

Yes … and no.

Yes, because the end results, which were of high-enough quality, paid off (I managed to get A+’s and A’s in every single HS class), and because the work I produced was literally carved from my blood, sweat, tears, and occasional bouts of unavoidable sleep deprivation.

No, because it was unhealthy. Immensely stress-inducing. Unrealistic.

Back then, this lifestyle was purely of my own accord, out of necessity. I personally wanted to open up better opportunities for myself (AKA higher education, AKA college apps), and was willing to make sacrifices in order to pave an easier road for myself in the future.

I’m in college now (whew), and with that kind of pressure off my shoulders, I’ve now started to lead a more balanced life. Sleeping early, waking up early, being less stingy with time, treating myself more, going out on spontaneous trips with friends more often, and being more conscious of not subjecting myself to massive amounts of work (I psychologically refuse those seven-hour-non-stop-problem-solving sessions now).

I would think, of course, that my “former” tendency to leave things to the last-minute out of necessity, to maximize every minute within a short span of time like I had none to spare, would disappear along with this change in landscape and lifestyle, this balancing of my workload into something more…humane.

To my disdain, it did not. It has not. And I have what I now deem the Procrastinator’s Plague.

Even when I don’t have an unrealistic pile of work to tackle, I’ve noticed that I tend to leave them off until right before the deadline, and then realize—coldly, slightly-panicking, that the deadline is approaching fast. Then I’d hop instantly into my efficient, high-school overdrive mode and finish the tasks, but not before going through another wave of stress, cold-calm, scramble, and relief.

It’s become more obvious of a habit now, in college, because I’m surrounded by friends whom I live with and interact with everyday, who constantly wonder why I always say I’m behind, yet manage to miraculously wrap things up last-minute.

And as I’ve pondered the same (oftentimes by hearing myself complaining), I’ve come to realize that this kind of procrastination was a phenomenon borne out of necessity in my busiest high school years, continued out of habit because…well, because I haven’t managed to completely break it.

And I will say — I’m not completely fond of it. Not anymore. It’s one thing to be busy, but a whole other thing to leave things off because…that’s the thing. I can’t decipher a reason for doing it, other than habit.

My Procrastinator’s Plague, I say, is less-so a plague and moreso a bad application of Parkinson’s Law.

It seems as if I’ve developed the discipline—just in the wrong way.

P.S. — Did I end up submitting the application I mentioned in the beginning of this article on time? Yes, and I’m glad to say I got into the program I applied to. Do I want to do that again? No — I’m really trying to break the cycle, I promise.

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Carolyn Wang
ILLUMINATION

CS, Stats, + PPL @ UC Berkeley. Writer, musician, triathlete, & explorer. More about me: carolynwangjy.medium.com/ae3eb5de2324