Tip from Laura: The Ideal Paper Law

Laura Hatt HSA Tutoring HeadshotA little bit about me: I’m a rising sophomore at Harvard College. I’m also an English concentrator, a new member of Kirkland House, and a proud Canadian. Outside of class, I write for Fifteen Minutes, the weekly magazine of the Harvard Crimson, and work at HSA Tutoring. I’m also involved in a Christian fellowship, Harvard College Faith and Action.

As someone pursuing a humanities concentration, I’ve written my fair share of papers. Accordingly, I know the paper-writer’s paradox: no matter how early you start work, it’s always a struggle to finish by the deadline.

It goes the same way every time. When you first receive an assignment, you’re optimistic. Sure, it looks like a lot of work, but the deadline is ages away. You’ll be fine! So, like the responsible young student your mother thinks you are, you start early. You brainstorm. You outline. You draft. You do everything right- and somehow the last day rolls around, and you’re racing to finish on time.

Why do some papers take so long? How do simple assignments stretch out into endless ordeals? This phenomenon has plagued hard-working students for generations. It’s called the Ideal Paper Law.

If you’ve studied chemistry, you’ll know that an ideal gas expands to fill its environment. It turns out that writing works the same way. Got three weeks to finish that essay? It’ll take you three weeks. Got three days? It’ll take you three days. An ideal paper expands to take up exactly as much time as you give it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that you procrastinate that term paper until the last half hour and still expect an A. Can you write a term paper in 30 minutes? Maybe. Can you write a decent term paper in 30 minutes? No. Part of applying the Ideal Paper Law is determining a minimum threshold- the smallest quantity of time that will allow you to produce your best work.

Looking for specifics? Here’s a four-step guide to using the Ideal Paper Law to your advantage.

1) Determine how many hours you’ll need to finish the paper. Yes, hours. Get specific.

2) Chunk those hours. Need to do 12 total hours of work? Divide those into 4 chunks of 3 hours, or 3 chunks of 4. Nobody can work (productively) for 12 straight hours.

3) Spread those chunks out over several days. If you can, leave yourself a few days as a “cushion” before the final deadline.

4) Commit. If you’ve decided to write the paper in 12 hours, do your best to write it in 12 hours. You’ll be surprised at how precisely you’ll meet your goal.

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