Monday, December 17, 2007

Procrastination, or Throwin' it in the Dumpster

Of my many character flaws, the one that annoys me the most is my tendency to procrastinate. It's so illogical. Things that I know need to get done... things that, if not done expediently, will only get more difficult and/or expensive.

Take my latest, for example. This van being towed away is one we had for over ten years, and for much of that time, it was a good vehicle. Lots of trips to bike races, some camping trips, NorCal family visits, and uncountably many kid carpools. Last winter we upgraded to something newer. Now, a normal person would have been rid of the old van within a week via craigslist, the classifieds, or a donation. Not me. I figured I could use it as a utility-type vehicle for hauling stuff (because my little pick-up truck doesn't run right now, but that's a different procrastination story).

In actuality, the van just sat unused in front of our house and died a slow neglected death. The paint peeled, the tires rotted, the battery corroded, and all manner of insects and spiders took up residence inside. Registration came due, and it needed to be smogged. How to get to the smog station? I registered it as non-operational. Check that ...I called Gina and had her send in the registration because I was out-of-town the day it was due! sigh...

Gina gave me an ultimatum: one way or another, be rid of that van by Christmas.

So I decided the lowest hassle-factor approach was to donate it. Amazingly, places like Cars-4-Causes will haul away your vehicle, running or not, and sell it so that after their expenses you get a small charitable-donation tax write-off. In my case, I'm sure it will be very small. Or zero.

What's the point of this story? Well, this van cost around $20K new, and had I taken care of it properly and not neglected it, well then as either a donation or a sale, it would have been a useful vehicle for somebody. As it is--or was--I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up in the junkyard being scavenged for parts. It's kind of a waste.

But let me tell you my all-time most embarrassing procrastination story...

Way back in the early-to-mid 80's when I was an undergraduate Math student at UCSB, I had a part-time job as a Reader. For those that don't know, a Reader is a person who corrects homework. After years and years of teaching, the last thing a professor wants to do is correct 100 sophomore math homeworks every week. So instead they hire some poor upper-division student with good grades to do it. I fit that description, especially the poor part. As I recall, I was allocated something like five hours a week per class and was paid, oh I don't remember, maybe $8 per hour. That'll buy some beans and rice for sure.

The first class I got (Intro Differential Equations) was taught by one of my favorite professors, kooky old Dr. Rosenfeld with Albert Einstein hair and everything. Our arrangement was pretty simple: he'd put the weekly homework from his 30-40 students in my department mailbox on Friday, and I would correct them and return them by the next Friday morning. I took my responsibility very seriously, carefully correcting every problem and providing detailed comments to the students. When they were totally off base, I would do the problem for them and explain the logic. Often the problems were hard for me too. I put more time into that job than any of my own classes, by far. It meant a lot to me to do a good job for Dr. Rosenfeld and it didn't bother me that I was putting in two or three times more hours a week than what I was being paid for.

I was given Linear Algebra the next two quarters, and despite the slightly larger class size, I continued to provide detailed comments and corrections on the homeworks. Again I liked and respected the professor and cared about doing a good job. It also helped that Linear Algebra was a strong subject for me at the time.

Then, in the last quarter of my senior year, I was given a big Freshman Calculus class, maybe 100 students. I met with the instructor at the beginning of the quarter to discuss our arrangement and for some reason unknown-to-me, our meeting was awkward. He was a grad student, only a couple years older than me, and this was probably his first teaching assignment. I wished I liked him, but I didn't. But this was business and our agreed-upon arrangement was typical--weekly homework and I'd correct and return it by the time the next batch was due.

I was floored when I saw the first batch of homework in my mailbox. The stack must have been over 200 pages, sloppily bound together with a thick rubber band. Uh oh.

Side note: perhaps only fellow procrastinators will understand this, but isn't ironic how the bigger the job is, the more likely it is that you'll procrastinate on it?

I really wanted to get that homework corrected, really I did, but I couldn't reconcile the amount of work with my allotted hours. Of course, the department expected you to scale down the detail of the work with the quantity, for example, only correcting every other question or something similar.

The stack sat on my desk all week and I probably started working on it Thursday night. Most likely I got about half way through and realized I couldn't finish. OK, no big deal... I'd just go explain that I had a busy week and couldn't finish it all. I'd have it done by Monday for sure.

Friday morning I walked into the Math department ready for an awkward conversation, and the first thing I saw was another huge stack of homework in my box!! I lost my nerve, scooped up the new stack, and quietly slinked on out of the building.

Now I had two piles on my desk. I don't really remember the details, but I probably made some more progress on the week-1 homework but I did not finish it. You see, not to make excuses, but I was a UCSB senior living on ocean-side Del Playa and I had just met my sweetie Gina. It was pretty easy to ignore those piles on my desk.

All week I expected a phone call from a somewhat-perturbed instructor, but it never came. When Friday rolled around I found yet another stack in my mailbox. I couldn't believe it. What could those students be thinking, and what was the instructor telling them?? Hmmmmm.

By this time I was pretty sure I wouldn't be finishing all the work, but tried to concoct a scheme to possibly save the situation... my dog ate the homework... I lost it... somebody stole it... I turned it in and you lost it. I couldn't come up with anything plausible. Needless to say, I wasn't turning in my timecard to get paid. At least I was still honest.

The next two weeks brought two more homework stacks, and still no phone call or note or any attempt at contact from the instructor. Truly bizarre! The stack of homework from 100 UCSB Freshman now exceeded 1,000 sheets of paper. God only knows how many hours of work it represented.

I stopped going into the Math department.

The mind of a pathological procrastinator is a strange place indeed. I'd see that stack of homework on my desk every single day, and it would invariably bring on a dull sense of dread and embarrassment... and then I'd ignore it and get on with my day.

And then I finally decided to deal with it...
...that's right, I threw the entire stack of homework into the dumpster outside my apartment.

Until now, the only person who knew about the Dumpster Incident was Gina. ...well, I suppose all those Freshman probably knew something was amiss too, but hey, they were just faceless names on 1,000 pieces of paper to me.

But seriously, I was (and still am) sincerely sorry for my lack of responsibility in that situation. I have no idea whether or not procrastination represents a real psychological disorder, or perhaps it's a symptom of something else, but I for one live with it as a constant challenge. Whenever I start letting something important slip too long, I think back to the Dumpster Incident, and then try to make some progress.


Anonymous said...

Ouch! In the trash!
I was a reader too. I got so embarrased about being behind on grading, I changed my major.

Chester said...

WOW, Oh man that story was a doozie. I had a nice litte chuckle. The professor or department never contacted you regarding those papers?

Marco Fanelli said...

Anony- Glad I'm not the only one! There should be a group for us like Procrastinators Anonymous but we probably couldn't ever schedule a meeting!

Chester- Amazingly I never suffered any consequence of that absurdity. Nobody ever called or said anything. The Math Dept. even accepted me into grad school a few years later!

Anonymous said...

Despair at the site of stacks of papers. I know the feeling. Could we just have a moment of silence for high school English teachers?

Anonymous said...

Small write off? Ouch. Because of a recent tax law change, its best to donate a car to an organization that will drive it, not sell it.

Marco Fanelli said...

anony1- Sorry, no sympathy for English teachers! :)

anony2- Yes, if not for the urge to just be rid of it, I should have put a bit of work into it to get it running and then donated it. As it was, it would probably be more burden than useful for anybody. Oh well, live and learn...

Kimberly (aka. DrKim) said...

Your procrastination story reminds me of last week when my hard drive died along with 110 senior Mech Eng. students first exam grades which were not backed up... Let's just say everyone got a break... :-). Sad to say, though, that my TA's DID spend the time grading was just that the computer obliterated any record of them!

Procrastination stories are awesome...I used to be a reader, too, way back when (wow, i feel old).