This post is a week late. I want to blame computers but the problem is my own tendency towards procrastination. Computers just changed the nature of it.
In the last couple of weeks, I've seen a few social media posts that I think of as technological nostalgia prompts. By which I mean prompts like:
What was academic life like before broad internet access?
What do you miss about the pre-smartphone era?
Someone's response to the first prompt, about running across a college campus to turn in assignments, reminded me how for all of my student years, including grad school, I inevitably found myself finishing up papers at the last minute. What computers changed was the precise timing of what the "last minute" really meant.
I am just old enough that I did all of my college writing on paper, but just young enough that I never used a typewriter. I made heavy use of printers.
Having to print your papers enforced a certain schedule. It didn't stop me from writing all night when I absolutely had to, but it did mean I had to leave enough time for after-writing activities like: printing, trying to print again, unjamming the paper feed, regretting my attempt to print double-sided, looking for a stapler, showering and getting dressed for leaving my room, going to campus, handing over the paper. I'm still surprised that I never missed a deadline.
Just a couple years later, in grad school, almost every assigment had to be turned in as a file, freeing me up to write and edit until the literal last minute. I had thought that I would develop better writing discipline because historians tend to write a lot. I was wrong. Even when I gave myself more time to finish, I just wrote more, later.
It was only in library school, which I came to after switching careers, that I started to try to work with my bad habits. I'd written so many short-to-medium length papers by then, and was confident enough that I could meet the baseline of "adequate work" required of a professional degree program, that I started to set limits on my writing time by working backwards from deadlines. I'd say, "I think I can write this in X number of hours" and then start writing X hours before it was due.1 I still couldn't avoid the occasional late night but it took a lot of the stress out of procrastination.
This is all a long way of saying that I've been trying to write my posts on Sundays without losing any sleep to the blog. If there's one thing I want to get out of doing this as a regular exercise, it's a healthier relationship to writing. But last Sunday night I drove down to southern California, arriving late, and missed my self-imposed deadline. Since I can "publish" literally any time, I kept telling myself I'd get to it "tomorrow" after work, then kept putting it off when it was clear I'd be writing too late at night.
Which is how I've ended up writing this on a Saturday afternoon, and also why I'm writing today about procrastination itself, which wasn't what I'd originally planned to do. I'll try to get back to schedule tomorrow.
I'm getting pretty tired of people engaging in what I think of as a sort of Covid-19 data arbitrage. It's come up every time there's been a surge in cases, following the original rise and decline in spring 2020. It goes like this:
- Cases are rising but hospitalizations are steady or declining, and that's what matters
- Hospitalizations are rising but serious cases remain low, and that's what matters
- Serious cases are rising, but the death rate remains low, and that's what matters
- We've reached the peak in cases, and that's what matters (; pay no attention to that high death rate, it's a lagging indicator)
I'd like to think one of the points of having data is to use it to inform policy. And some people actually do that. But there's quite a few people who look at multiple available metrics like they're a menu from which they can pick and choose whichever one supports the decisions they've already made.
The closest I came to missing a deadline in the paper-printout era was for my undergraduate history thesis. It was a small class and at the midpoint we were all supposed to read and comment on each other's papers, so I had to print one copy per person. I left myself the whole afternoon just to do the printing, but it was also the longest paper I'd ever written, and I had a rickety inkjet printer at home.
I did some math after the second copy was done and realized I wasn't going to make the deadline if I stuck with the home printer's pace. So I gathered up my two finished copies and ran to a copy shop to make the rest. When I got to the history department, my classmates were all waiting at the mailroom, also having just barely made the deadline. We tracked down a stapler, exchanged papers, and went on our ways. I don't remember cutting things so close for the final draft.
- "Generation of useless data is one of the top ways that aid groups and governments fail people in need" (link to twitter, scroll up for the whole thread)
- A helpful overview of how previous pandemics have ended (LA Times)
To be clear, I'm only talking about the writing process. I always spent quite a bit of time on reading and research, the activities I enjoy much more than writing. ↩