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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Chosen Rosen: The problem with productivity

Published: November 3, 2011
Section: Opinions

The past few weeks I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep. That’s actually putting it mildly—I’ve been going to sleep past sunrise every night (including the weekends) and I’ve had to wake up a few hours later for class. My typical night usually involves club meetings and extracurricular commitments until around 10 p.m., at which point I head down to the library or to the Shapiro Campus Center study room to start my various assignments. But by the time I leave the SCC when Einsteins is opening in the morning, I find myself in exactly the same situation as when I started.

Needless to say, this is a pretty bad habit to get into. Especially on nights when I absolutely need to get work done. Usually when I have a paper due, I am able to buckle down and get my act together. But it takes me a while. At around 3:15 a.m., I’ll come to the realization that I seriously need to get off Facebook and actually write more on my Microsoft Word document than just my name. At that point, though, not only am I feeling hopeless about the prospects of getting an A on my paper, but I am feeling the physical effects of fatigue. My neck is sore from sitting at a computer for so long, my eyes are burning with dryness, my face is thick with exhaustion and the worst part is that I have worn myself out doing absolutely nothing.

I then ask myself: I got out of class at 3:30 p.m., what in the world have I done in the last 12 hours that was more important than a paper that’s worth 35 percent of my grade? When I find myself in that position, I have a hard time remembering how I’ve wasted the entire day.

Believe it or not, I’m not the only person here insane enough to stay up all night without having completed any work. If Facebook is any indication, tons of college students suffer from the same disease. And this isn’t procrastination. This isn’t us dancing in the hallways in a blatant attempt to waste time. This is the mother of procrastination. This is out of our hands; whether it’s putting our extracurriculars (which do not get factored into our GPAs, guys!) ahead of our schoolwork or being a slave to technology, we find ourselves wasting time in ways we cannot control.

A lot of people blame their lack of productivity on the addictiveness of Facebook and Twitter.

And yes, it is true that the Internet was practically invented for putting off assignments in college.

But we are at fault in this, too. It’s one thing to take quick five-minute breaks when writing a paper but it gets out of hand. Every time we find the courage to open Microsoft Word and stare at the blank document for a moment, we reward ourselves with a Facebook break. We type in our login quickly, telling ourselves we just want to put a short status up, complaining about all the work we have yet to do. But then we get click-happy and, not long after, two hours have passed. It’s like eating potato chips—you tell yourself you’ll eat just one but, before you know it, the whole bag is gone.

The key, as with many things in life, is self-control. Do you honestly believe that you are only going to have one potato chip? In the same way, do you honestly believe you will only be on Facebook for 30 seconds to post a status? If the answer to that question is no, then don’t bother going online at all. Why not take a break and respond to a text message? Or take a walk outside and back? When you desperately need to be productive, the Internet is a mouse trap, plain and simple. And the key to avoiding mouse traps is not to go near them.

Another contribution to this dilemma is our short attention spans. As college students, we can only focus on something for so long without getting bored and disinterested. It’s for this reason that we seek out distractions. In the middle of writing a report, we will lose focus and lose interest in the topic. And that’s when we head over to YouTube Land to watch College Humor videos for the rest of the night. After all, watching College Humor is simple and doesn’t require thought or effort or anything. And, if you watch the right ones, you might even laugh. Would you rather tire yourself out writing a 10-page paper on the history of the Middle East, or watch funny videos instead? The issue is that we need to know when to stop; otherwise, by the time class rolls around, you could still have your name on the Microsoft Word document and nothing else. And then 35 percent of your grade will be a zero.

Another thing that causes this is our sociability. For me, I’ve always found it difficult to get things done when doing work with others. This is why last year, as a first-year, I would bury myself in the cave in the library to do my work alone and in silence. For the most part, I managed to get everything done. This year, though, I’ve had something of a sophomore slump. I have devoted less time to my studies and more time to, well, everything but academics. And so, in the rare occasions I do work, I find myself working next to my friends in computer labs, which are notoriously loud and not conducive to serious studying. And I can attest to the fact that I do find it difficult to be productive working in this environment, especially when compared to “The Cave” that I worked in last year.

As a result of my struggles to be productive, I have found myself staying up all night every night, and making the dreaded walk back from the SCC study room to my room with the scarlet letter U taped to my sweatshirt—U for Unproductive.

The thing is, I am perfectly willing to stay up incredibly late in order to be productive. I actually thrive in those situations; working late at night in high-pressure situations, I tend to do my best work. I tell myself that if I can maximize my time and be as productive as possible, it’s almost worth falling asleep in my classes the next day.

But in the situation I’ve described, if we are getting absolutely nothing done, is it even worth it to stay up at all? We would probably be better off going to sleep at 10 p.m. and being fully-rested for the next day, rather than spending the next 8 hours browsing through profile pictures of our ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s sister’s boyfriend.

But for many of us, there’s no time in the day to do work, and so we need to do it at night. The problem is: How do we resist the urge to screw around aimlessly on Facebook or make small-talk with everyone in sight? This urge is almost seductive—whenever you have something to do that you’re averting at all costs, it’s almost satisfying to comply. After all, as Mary Wilson Little declared, “There is no pleasure in having nothing to do. The fun is in having lots to do and not doing it.” Basically, wasting time is only fun if you’re doing it when you should be doing something else.

And whether you agree with my words or not, the idea I’m trying to convey to you is one that is implicit in our nature. It is embedded in our genes and inherent in our brain chemistry. Human beings are naturally lazy. Forcing ourselves to do work feels unnatural and compulsory because it is. Resisting our impulses to eat and sleep to stay up all night fumbling over a textbook is not natural. We have a natural tendency to be lazy, to do nothing but eat, sleep and go to the bathroom. But DNA is not destiny and we can, in fact, overcome this.

It starts with planning. If you plan your schedule out, leaving ample time for breaks in between each activity, nothing can go wrong … as long as you stick to your schedule, that is!

You also need a sound work ethic. My work ethic, as a sophomore this year, has taken a hit. As a first-year last year, I did every single one of my assignments both semesters. Granted, I did fall behind in some classes and, in one of my classes, I put off every single one of the readings in the course until the day before the final, but I did complete them. And my grades last year reflected my diligent work ethic.

This year, on the other hand, I have lost the motivation to do every assignment. I only really apply myself on the papers and just before exams. I just do not see, in the grand scheme of things, why I need to do every reading I am given if I am not being tested on them (a part of me wishes I knew this before spending $500 on textbooks that I have not yet opened).

In spite of this, I still fill up my backpack to the brim with every book I could find on my desk and head over to the SCC or the library. Deep down, I know that I will end up walking back to my room, disappointedly, at 6 or 7 a.m., having done nothing but browse through old Facebook pictures or reply to celebrity tweets. Yet I do it anyway. You can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can call it a bad habit. Whatever you call it, I’d like to stop doing it. And so, if this applies to you, plan ahead before staying up all night. And if you do choose to stay up, make sure you actually get a thing or two done.