Contra Working

by Matt Soriano | 5/22/02 5:00am

I remember when we were kids and electronic entertainment was simple. You had a Nintendo at home. You knew the code to get 30 lives in Contra

(up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start). The little blue guy wearing no shirt leaped around carrying an infinite amount of ammunition. Shooting from the hip, he could deal death to enemies who strangely only took one shot to explode or disappear from the screen. He and his partner, the little red guy with no shirt on, could get new guns simply by running over them. There was no way to save games, so you played the whole game right through.

That was how the game manufacturers first captured the minds of little kids. Whether the goal was saving the princess, cleaning up the streets of Detroit or winning the Super Bowl, you always had to complete an increasingly difficult series of challenges that seemed much more important than doing your homework or setting the table. So what if Mom and Dad have to eat with their hands straight from the pan? This was the Super Bowl we're talking about here. Compositions on our favorite inventors didn't stop alien invasions.

Nor, as it seems, do completed seminar papers, perfect problem sets nor in-depth course reading accomplish anything against the electronic threats facing the modern college student blankly gazing at his computer screen, fingers numb with exhaustion. It's a multi-pronged attack -- you've got the increasingly complicated PlayStation 2, Snood, FreeCell and, worst of all, Shockwave games competing for the attention of a college student. The latter -- devilishly difficult little games that load into your browser -- provide world-class procrastination to anyone with a lot of bandwidth. It seems that they appeal even more as due dates approach and other duties call.

Entertainment is hard work -- there's no doubt about it. And the simplicity of the games sheds light on the paradox of procrastination. It's fun to do anything except what you have to do. The tension between what is necessary and not being done and what is being done is reconciled by the satisfaction that what you are doing is relevant. Procrastination is the ego satisfying itself -- increasing its self-importance by denying that due dates matter in the current context of tremendous challenge. The simpler the procrastination, the lesser the imminent work it's replacing seems. Having displaced the threats to its dominance, the ego inflates more and more as the importance of the task being diverted becomes.

So how do we fight procrastination? You can't simply lock yourself in the library if you have to type your paper on a computer that has BlitzMail on it. That alone can suck your time up. Worse is your dorm room with its combination of pressing tasks and roommates who can join your quest to avoid work. You have to take the indirect approach to defeating it. I, for one, believe that it can be defeated by a combination of early preparation and mentally reversing the importance levels of tasks.

For instance, I set out to work on my papers and other projects long before their due dates. As time passes and due dates approach, procrastination becomes more attractive as a function of time left and the importance of the task. Thus if you relieve the time pressure you reduce the importance of the task at hand and lower the urge to procrastinate. Yet if you do procrastinate, it's OK since you've done work ahead of time. Indeed, you may find that procrastination is best enjoyed while everyone else is working. And if everyone else is working, nobody can add to your procrastination. Starting early is a nearly bullet-proof method for reducing the damage that procrastination can do to your academic life.

You can also prepare yourself mentally for study by reversing entertainment and work. Do something incredibly difficult and time-consuming. Make your room presentable to your parents. Come up with a plan for world peace. If it's simple to do, avoid it like the plague. Cook a three-course meal if you have to. These onerous tasks make studying seem like a break. You'll find yourself doing anything to avoid it. Set your alarm clock to count down to the point where you must do something other than work and you'll find yourself frantically working to avoid diversion. Put your books where they catch your eye and you'll find it is a pleasure to avoid work by doing what seems comparatively easy.

Entertainment -- especially simple entertainment -- feeds the ego and diverts us from more pressing tasks. It is an insight into the dynamics of procrastination. Oftentimes our plans to avoid procrastination directly are fraught with imperfections. A good way to understand and defeat it is indirect -- minimize the perceived value of entertainment and divert ourselves to study. The trick is to change the mental conditions and context under which the decision to do work or procrastinate are encountered.