Why those who don’t procrastinate have more time than those who do.
In one of the classes I am teaching this school term a three-week project was due last week. The information the students needed to do this project was provided three weeks before it was due and I did all I know to do to communicate to the students that it was a three-week project, not a one-week project with a three-week window, and that they should start soon.
Roughly a third of the students in the class contacted me within a few days of the due date (some before, some after) to request a 1–2 day extension. I generally granted these, but I also felt to sorrow that so many students had evidently failed to learn to apply a great and powerful truth:
Everything is easier if you are early.
Let’s stick with the example of this project for now; we’ll expand to a broader set later.
The project was designed to require 12–15 productive hours for the “average” student.This may not seem like three weeks until you recall that the students are in five classes each and also have quizzzes and so on to attend to. But each student moves at a different pace; those who put in 4–5 hours the first week learned, from their progress that week, if they needed to allocate more or less time during the next two weeks. Those who tried to do it all in the third week also learned this, but no longer had much schedule to rearrange: if they were slower they had to sacrifice something: this class, another class, their sleep and personal well-being, their pride by requesting an extension—something had to give. And deciding what should give and dealing with its loss itself took time and attention, adding a time surcharge on top of the project itself, a cost which those who started on time did not need to pay.
The brain does not operate at peak efficiency all day every day. Rather, it requires periods of rest to maximize its productivity. Those who procrastinated the project wasted potentially-productive time in the first weeks and then tried to be productive without adequate rest in the last week. Thus, the time they spent on the project was, on average, less productive than the time those who started earlier spent on it, meaning the later-starters needed more time on the project in total than the early-starters. I’m sure some of those procrastinators would object to this characterization, claiming they were productively engaged in school work throughout the three weeks but just focused on other courses. It may be that some of them have taken on more courses than they can healthfully manage. However, even if enough down time is never available, distributing the time there is evenly is still wise and still increases productivity and decreases time waste.
Our hormonal response to stressful circumstances is to drain blood from the brain and put it in the muscles and lungs. Our cognitive response to the pending risk of a missed deadline is to think about that failure and its consequences and who is to blame and if there’s a way to change things. When we are up against a deadline—i.e., when our estimate of the work remaining meets or exceeds our estimate of the time remaining—both of these responses are triggered, causing our brains to operate on fewer resource and split those resources between being productive and worrying. Both slow down progress, meaning yet more time is needed.
Thus, it literally takes the person who starts earlier less time to do the task than it takes the person who starts later; and it is less stressful and more pleasant for the early-starter as well.
This principle is not limited to things like school projects. When I set out to arrive early to some meeting I am calm and relaxed on the road, less distracted by the trip and more able to use that transit time to think productive thoughts or use that time to rest my mind and prepare to be productive in what follows. When I fill out a time sheet each time I work it takes less thought to recall what to enter than if I wait until it is due. If I clean the bathroom before it looks dirty I clean it more often, but each cleaning is much easier and more rapid. If I read the textbook before lecture I can skim the confusing bits and ask questions in lecture to have the teacher clarify them, which I cannot do if I wait to read until prepping for an exam. If I sleep and wake earlier, I wake on my own when my sleep is at a natural pausing point and have more of my discretionary time when my mind is fresh and rested and less when it is worn out and seeking escape. And so on.
Most people I talk with about it seem to understand that procrastination is less than ideal, but few seem to understand how it robs them of time, and many seem unable to change their habits to reduce the amount of procrastination tax they are paying
I have more hours each week than many others because I do yesterday what they do today. Everything is easier if you are early.