Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Great Procrastinators

A chemist earlier this week called computer scientists famous procrastinators with our uncanny ability to put off to tomorrow what we could have done today. I'd feel insulted except that he's absolutely right. For those who disagree, aren't you supposed to be working on your SODA papers now?

Why is procrastination seemingly part of our culture? Much has to come from our deadline-driven conference and grant system. If deadlines motivate us highly then not having a specific deadline for a task (say writing or refereeing a journal paper) tends to push that task down to later when we'd rather be doing something else like research.

Sometimes people take it to the extreme: One time someone decided to skip a workshop months in the future because a STOC deadline was at the end of the same week. I convinced that person to sign up for the workshop by tricking them into thinking the deadline was one week earlier. Maybe I lied but wasn't everyone better off for it?

And then, of course, as computer scientists we are always on a computer with access to the web, the great distractor. It's just too easy to catch some videos, catching the latest political news, reading and writing email and blogs…OK, back to work for me.

Enjoy the 4th everyone and we'll be back on Monday.


  1. I thought this was a feature of all academics, not just CS folks.

    In a system which places so many unrelated demands on your time -- committees, sign this, sign that, NSF reports, etc -- procrastination, or rather prioritization of more important things like research and teaching, is a survival skill.

    (No, I don't consider reading blogs and writing posts to be the most important thing I have to do today, but I do put a lot of value on taking occasional breaks from work).

    Perhaps the chemist was annoyed that whatever computer scientists he interacts with just don't consider his projects all that important?

  2. True, but computer scientists are the only ones that have truly managed to turn procrastination into a science - see this paper.

  3. I thought this was a feature of all academics, not just CS folks.

    I believe it's a feature of all fields with periodic strict deadlines. Conferences make this a crucial aspect of CS research, while it's totally unknown in (for example) mathematics or physics. The net effect is that there's very little benefit to being ready early, but tremendous pressure not to miss the deadline, so many people do a lot of work right before the deadline. Eventually this becomes the norm, and a form of procrastination becomes built in to the field.

  4. In the late 1970s, when I was a graduate student at SUNYAB, Anthony Ralson, who was then Chairman of the Computer Science Department, had a large sign prominently posted in his office. It read:
    There is no task so urgent that it cannot be made yet more urgent by postponing it until tomorrow.

  5. And given that that's the way the field works, wasn't it a family-friendly decision to set the SODA deadline right before the July 4th long weekend instead of right afterwards, and to put the time in the afternoon instead of in the night?

  6. Claire,
    Yes, my family and I appreciated the timing of the deadline. I went home and shot off fireworks with the kids to celebrate getting my papers off.