Last week I had a conference deadline. The last few days were busy trying to tighten or strengthen some results and tidy up some proofs. As always, there was a little bit too much to do for the time imparted. I get caught every time. Why do computer scientists always have to wait until the last minute? It seems almost impossible to avoid: a draft is prepared well ahead of time, then, when the deadline approaches, proofreading opens up new possibilities, and then there is a mad rush to explore those possibilities before the deadline.
My students are already learning the pattern, with assignments routinely submitted in the last few minutes before the deadline. I try to scold them, but to no effect: there is a culture of doing things in a rush.
The office that checks grant proposals says that computer scientists are among the worst offenders, in terms of giving them sudden spikes of workload right before a deadline. Other disciplines are not as bad.
I have often had the chance to work with mathematicians, and have seen them watch, bemused, as our work style shifts to crisis mode when a deadline comes close. What really perplexes them is that it is not an accidental occurrence but almost the norm. Mathematicians do not work in that way.
Some years ago I prepared an application for an award and discussed it with a physicist friend. He said in passing: "When my application was supposed to be about ready, as the deadline was getting close, two weeks before the due date ..." - I thought: two weeks? That's a really long amount of time in my field!
How come those last-day marathons do not happen to scientists in other fields?
One might ask: what is wrong with those projects completed at the last minute? Well, even if, with experience, one learns to (usually) submit results that are correct and readable, there are still a lot of negatives to this way of working. It disrupts the usual routine, and other things fall by the wayside: friends and family are temporarily ignored, lectures are poorly prepared, sleep and exercise take a setback, emails stay unattended, etc. It's stressful and it surely cannot be good for us.
Sometimes, if I happen to pass by the department late at night, I peek into one of the computer labs. I see young men (and women, but, really, mostly men), their faces unshaven, their unwashed bodies covered with torn jeans and stained T-shirts, either with their eyes fixated on the screen, or talking animatedly about arcane programming topics. I disapprove of the way in which they let their interest in programming take precedence over things that, in most of society, are considered basic requirements of a normal social life. But at the same time, I cannot say that I do not understand them.