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November 19, 2012

Losing our will to learn

Mental energy is a precious resource—U of C students must learn to use it wisely.

Piers Steel, a Canadian industrial psychologist, once said, “The U.S. gross national product would probably rise by $50 billion if the icon and sound that notifies people of new e-mail suddenly disappear.”Procrastination is a problem on the rise in the United States. In 1978, only about 5 percent of Americans called themselves procrastinators. That number is now in the high 20s. Among college students, the number is estimated to be much higher, between 80 and 95 percent. Even without facts and figures, students are well aware of the high costs of procrastination. The physical and emotional exhaustion of late nights in the Reg constantly remind me that those few hours of mindless Internet bliss are not worth it. But what make these strains especially troubling are their effects on our education.

“Dude, I don’t even want to study anymore, I gave up yesterday,” said a male classmate to his friend a couple days before our chem midterm. That statement was probably an exaggeration of his own situation, but procrastination does often cause our academic responsibilities to fall by the wayside. A Hum paper, for example, which you intended to lovingly craft into a masterpiece over three days and as many drafts, becomes words hastily thrown onto the page the night before.

So, how does procrastination happen?

Freud speculated that the ego, the reasonable and realistic part of our selves, could be depleted by a transfer of energy necessary for our mental processes. “Decision fatigue,” a recent discovery in this field of “ego depletion,” argues that the more decisions we make, the more mentally tired we become. We have a finite number of daily decisions at our disposal, and we can use them on choices as simple as chocolate or vanilla ice cream at Bartlett. Most of our decision-making power, though, is used up in choices to resist certain desires (skipping the ice cream entirely).

Willhelm Hoffman, a German psychologist, led a study in which subjects’ Blackberrys went off at random times of the day. At those times, subjects were asked to report if they were feeling desires, and if so, what kind. Based on these findings, it turns out that we spend, on average, three to four hours of a day wanting to do things other than what we’re supposed to be doing. He also found that people had the hardest time resisting the temptation to “goof off” during work.

What makes the siren song of procrastination so hard to resist? A study led by Sean McCrea in Germany found that the more abstractly we think about a process, the less likely we are to get it done. The flip side of this is that processes which can be thought of in clear steps are much more likely to get done. Students who are able to break large assignments into thirty minute to two-hour chunks are less likely to procrastinate. Allowing a small indulgence at the end of each of these invents a concrete significance for each step. Instead of thinking “I have to write this entire paper,” we should think “I am going to write a thesis, and then outline three body paragraphs, and then buy myself a cupcake.” Note: The extra glucose will also give your mental energy a boost for the next task.

So it would seem that those who exhibit good judgment do not have ridiculously large stores of will power. Instead, they merely focus on avoiding situations which may exhaust the will power they do have. To avoid procrastination, responsible students do their most challenging subjects first, instead of putting them off until late at night. Other students outline a study schedule at the beginning of the day, and then force themselves to stick with it, effectively making as many decisions as possible in the morning, when their decision-making power is refreshed.

U of C students live by a mantra of hard work. Some of us wear the phrase “where fun comes to die” as a tear-soaked badge of masochistic courage, drawing a correlation between suffering and success. Although the Admissions Office has been actively working against that label for the past 20 years, there’s no doubt that the U of C saddles its students with quite a heavy workload in the name of academic rigor, encouraging a culture that believes “more work = more learning.”

However, as we’ve seen, the science behind procrastination suggests the opposite. The moment students are forced to overstep their decision-making limits, they become mentally compromised to a damaging extent, as well as much less motivated to study and learn. There is merit in challenging students to facilitate their growth; no doubt, some students will emerge from the crucible of a tough class forged stronger and sharper than before. The importance of remembering our own psychological limits, though, is equally important, as evidenced by the many other students, who will emerge exhausted and defeated. This paradigm does not encourage the spirit of intellectual risk-taking the University would like to. Instead, it’s more likely to teach students that, in order to “succeed,” they have to play it safe; pick courses which will challenge them the least in order to protect their mental resources. We will become intellectual misers, scared to add the cost of thought-expanding critical discourse to an already overdrawn mental account. We will favor instead the thoughtless and familiar.

Eleanor Hyun is a first-year in the College majoring in English.

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