Structured procrastination

In college it used to be that I’d go on cleaning frenzies during finals week. Not because I actually had to clean (although I probably did, and badly), but because it was a stress relief and a way to put off worrying about or even studying for finals. Does that make sense? I didn’t think it did either until I read the magnificent essay “Structured Procrastination” by John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. Mostly the essay just cracks me up—it spins what’s usually perceived as a negative character trait into a constructive one.

According to Perry, structured procrastination is “an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.”

In fact, says Perry, the tendency for procrastinators to try to clear out their To Do list just a few essentials in hopes of having more time to get things done often backfires.

“[Minimizing commitments] goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.”

Maybe that’s why I’m happiest when I have lots to do! That, and I feed off deadline pressure, which is possibly a remnant of having worked at a daily newspaper (also in college). Perhaps this is not a coincidence.

Read more on “Structured Procrastination” here.

(Periodic-table procrastination pillow by Yellow Bug Boutique)

Update: Perry just published a book based on this essay, entitled The Art of Procrastination. Here’s an excerpt.

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