October 4, 2011

Productivity for Procrastinators (or, Pro for Pros)

I am a procrastinator, always have been. In middle school, I figured out that I could procrastinate on my social studies homework by working on my English homework. So even though I successfully learned very little about social studies, the unintended by-product was that I was on top of all my English assignments and my English teachers rewarded my good work.

This is a technique I still use to get me to produce: load up on tasks that I should be working on right now, so that I can procrastinate on the one I dread the most by doing the one I dread the least. No matter what I choose, something gets done! (Guess how I maintain this blog.)

John Perry, Stanford professor of philosophy emeritus, explains the art of Structured Procrastination in this article for The Chronicle of Higher Education [excerpts below]:
All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad 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, such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they find the time. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because accomplishing these tasks is 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 to 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.

To make structured procrastination work for you, begin by establishing a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important. Even though the most-important tasks are on top, you have worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

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 approach ignores 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 the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

At this point you may be asking, "How about the important tasks at the top of the list?" Admittedly, they pose a potential problem.

The second step in the art of structured procrastination is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal projects have two characteristics -- they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't), and they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. At universities, the vast majority of tasks fall into those two categories, and I'm sure the same is true for most other institutions.

At this point, the observant reader may feel that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. 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 clears the way to accomplish several apparently less urgent, but eminently achievable, tasks. And virtually all procrastinators also have excellent skills at self-deception -- so what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the effects of another?
Perry was awarded a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for Improbable Research for his Theory of Structured Procrastination.

1 comment:

  1. I always procrastinated by cleaning my room before studying for exams...and now I procrastinate by reading blogs before completing my work ^_^