The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing by John Perry cover

The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing by John Perry

Date read: 2019-02-19.
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The art of getting a lot of things done by structuring your procrastination. We procrastinate to avoid doing something more important. Embrace and exploit this fact by making it work for you. Arrange your to-do list, so that there are always tasks at the top that both seem important (but aren't) and have a deadline (but don't). They give you a license to accomplish difficult and crucial projects by not doing something that seems even more vital.


The Paradox of Procrastination

The ideal of the rational agent is the source of lots of needless unhappiness.

Structured Procrastinator: a person who gets a lot done by not doing other things.

Structured Procrastination

All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this negative trait work for you.

The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things.

The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact.

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation.

The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics:

  1. They seem to have clear deadlines (but really don’t).

  2. They seem awfully important (but really aren’t).

Luckily, life abounds with such tasks.

Structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?

Procrastination and Perfectionism

Perfectionism leads to procrastination.

Perfectionism of the sort I am talking about is a matter of fantasy, not reality.

It’s not a matter of really ever doing anything that is perfect or that even comes close. It is a matter of using tasks you accept to feed your fantasy of doing things perfectly, or at any rate, extremely well.

Procrastinating was a way of giving myself permission to do a less-than-perfect job on a task that didn’t require a perfect job.

When the deadline was near there was no longer time to do a perfect job. I had to just sit down and do an imperfect, but adequate, job. The fantasies of perfection are replaced by the fantasies of utter failure. So I finally got to work on it.

What one needs to do to bring one’s perfectionist fantasies under control is what I call task triage - sorting according to urgency.

You have to get into the habit of forcing yourself to analyze, at the time you accept a task, the costs and benefits of doing a less-than-perfect job. You must ask yourself some questions:

  • How useful would a perfect job be here?
  • How much more useful would it be than a merely adequate job? Or even a half-assed job?
  • What is the probability that I will really do anything like a remotely perfect job on this?
  • What difference will it make to me, and to others, whether I do or not?

To-Do Lists

The main function of the daily to-do list is to give the procrastinator the experience of checking off tasks as they are finished.

The Tao Te Ching tells us to “accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”

Whether the tasks are large or small, unusual or just recurring items of everyday drudgery, break them down into smaller, less demanding, subtasks.

Practice defensive to-do list making—spend a little time thinking about how your day could get derailed in the early stages and put in safeguards to circumvent that.

Follow this advice, and to-do lists can be helpful. They won’t cure procrastination, but they are part of the strategy of self-manipulation that can help make the procrastinator into a productive human being.

I want to emphasize that one must make the to-do list in advance, preferably the night before.

Get Rhythm

The rhythm is completely infectious.

When not in the mood, get in the rhythm by listening to music.

Keep easily accessible playlists for starting or doing chores.

The Computer and the Procrastinator

Perry describes all the ways that organizing email didn’t work for him. But procrastinators have an advantage because people don’t expect a reply right away.

I try to start my session only when some natural event is sure to interrupt me. I log on when I’m already hungry.

A Plea for the Horizontally Organized

I am a horizontal organizer. I like all the things I am working on spread out on a surface in front of me.

The whole world is set up to help keep vertically organized people on top of things, through the use of filing cabinets.

Collaborating with the Enemy?

Perhaps the best way to overcome procrastination is to team up with people who aren’t procrastinators.

Like setting an alarm clock, teaming up with nonprocrastinating collaborators is a way of putting the decision to get to work out of one’s immediate control. The downside, of course, is that one ends up working pretty hard.

Make it your job to compliment your collaborators on the good work they are doing. Be sure they know you are aware of all that they accomplish while you are procrastinating. Use your skills as a structured procrastinator to do lots of relatively unimportant tasks that the nonprocrastinator might never get around to. Buy lunch. Play some music. Keep them happy.

Fringe Benefits

Better advice is, “Never do today any task that may disappear by tomorrow.” But if you are a structured procrastinator, you don’t need that advice. You will comply with it automatically. It’s like a fringe benefit.

Procrastination is a flaw, not a well-hidden virtue. The goal isn’t to find a philosophy of life that makes procrastinators into heroes (although it might be fun to try to work out the principles). I simply want to note that it’s not the worst flaw in the world; you can be a procrastinator and still get a lot of work done. Plus, with good self-deception skills and the little bit of willpower that allows you to manipulate yourself, you can become less of a procrastinator.

Do Procrastinators Have to Be Annoying?

The sort of procrastination that others find irksome is usually a way of showing that you are not controlled by others.

My advice is: Don’t confuse structured procrastination with providing proof to your spouse that he or she doesn’t control you.

Deep Concluding Thoughts

Rationality is a wonderful gift, but for most of us it’s no more than a thin veneer on top of our bundle of disparate desires, or perhaps it’s just an additional desire, comparatively weak, that competes with the rest of them. For some the wish to be rational has become such a strong, dominant desire that it guides a great proportion of their action.

But the life of a structured procrastinator has much to recommend it. The great economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek used to emphasize that in the life of society, spontaneous organization is usually more productive than central planning. He had in mind developments such as human language and the market system. These were the results of human action but not the results of some human or committee of humans deliberately designing them. Like all great political philosophers, Hayek probably pushed his insight too far; if he didn’t, his disciples surely do. But still it’s an insight.

A similar one holds for individuals. You may often be wrong about what the best way to spend your time is. Wasting your time daydreaming about an impractical radio show may in the end prove more valuable than finishing whatever articles, reviews, and memoranda—all doomed to be largely unread—you could have been working on. The structured procrastinator may not be the world’s most effective human being, but by letting her ideas and energies wander spontaneously, she may accomplish all sorts of things that she would have missed out on by adhering to a more structured regimen. Pat yourself on the back for what you do get done. Use to-do lists, alarm clocks, and other ways of booby-trapping your environment. Form collaborations that will prevent you from never accomplishing anything. Above all, enjoy life.