Think procrastination and daydreaming seem like counterproductive study tools? Here's how they have helped me succeed in high school and college.
by Henry Greene
My hand quivers as I scroll my mouse’s cursor across the homepage's blue and white stenciled heading.
“The Columbia School of Journalism,” it reads. “The most sought after Journalism Master’s program in the country.” I see myself on stage. It's graduation and I’m displaying my Columbia diploma to an uproarious audience of editors from the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times. I am reaching out to shake their eager hands. One of them hands me a piece of paper. I feel the texture of the newly printed page. It reads “Meet Our New Arts and Entertainment Columnist: Henry Gr--.”
Bleeeep! My cell phone’s alarm -- I keep it set for these exact occasions -- forces me out of the fantasy I have been having. I should have been studying “the elements of newsworthiness” for my Journalism 101 lecture, which is -- crap! -- in 15 minutes. Good thing I set the alarm, I think, as I hurry from my dorm toward my next class.
During the lecture, at Temple University where I'm an undergrad, I squint painstakingly at today's PowerPoint lesson as I try to decipher my professor’s coded words. The vague terms -- “prominence,” “consequence,” and “proximity” -- used to describe the elements of newsworthiness dangle just outside my understanding. If only I’d read the book, I think to myself. Alas, it's to no avail: My hour-long master's-degree fantasy has robbed me once again of my precious and necessary study time. I’m hopelessly behind on my reading.
“Tomorrow,” I tell myself, “it's academic boot camp for Henry.” I prepare in my mind a militaristic schedule of homework and readings. I’ll rise at 6 a.m. to study James Joyce. By 8, I’ll master Mark Twain. I’ll have meticulously chronicled every one of those elements of newsworthiness in my notebook by 10 a.m. Come noon, I’ll exchange my lunch break for a mind-invigorating jog.
But this masochistic time frame only stresses me further. So in the next step of my own vicious cycle, I escape my anxiety by delving into daydreams. As my thoughts drift away from the professor’s lecture and back to my Columbia graduation, I realize that I'll always be beholden to my wandering mind. But when treated properly, these daydreams are my secret weapon.
In spite of being labeled “spacey” since first grade, I’ve never felt like the victim of a so-called neurological disorder. Rather, I reveled in my ADHD-driven imagination. In middle school, I delved into any history, geography, or ecology textbook I could find. This wasn’t due to a dry, geeky interest in facts. It was due to an insatiable desire to fuel my daydreams. After all, I had to do something in math class, and I needed to decide whether the interstellar explorer that I’d recently conjured up was going to land on a primitive tropical planet or an advanced but despotic metropolis situated in a bitter taiga.
I've failed many math tests. But on the upside, I've absorbed vast amounts of knowledge, much more than my peers, and fueled an imaginative impulse that has enriched my life to this day. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) for a thousand A’s in math classes. The same has been true in college. While I may have to set aside a whole day to do only a few hours worth of work, my tangential, curiosity-driven excursions have helped me gain a heck of a lot more academic knowledge than my undistracted, tightly scheduled classmates ever will.
Back in my journalism class the next day, I watch a teaching assistant pass out the day's surprise pop quiz. I don’t need to wait for a paper to slam on my desk to realize that I’m unprepared. I haven't caught up on the reading. I fail the quiz.
But what do I care? Inevitably, when finals week comes, my Columbia diploma daydreams drive me through the three all-nighters I need to pass my exams. When the exam essay comes for my journalism class, my Wikipedia-imbued knowledge of Americana sparks my memory and helps me write about America’s early newspaper, The Penny Press.
In my daydreams, when I display that diploma, the future me ponders which unique talent to attribute to my success. In my own fantasy, I always brilliantly conclude that certainly something as dry as time-management skills could never help me dream, and achieve, nearly as big.