June 04, 2004

Structured Procrastination

Kieran Healy points us all to John Perry's essay on one of the key power secrets of the modern world--structured procrastination:

Structured Procrastination: I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, 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. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you.... [T]he 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. Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact.... [T]here are... worthwhile tasks... lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes 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 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.

At this point you may be asking, "How about the important tasks at the top of the list, that one never does?" Admittedly, there is a potential problem here. The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category.... [Consider] book order forms. I write this in June. In October, I will teach a class on Epistemology. The book order forms are already overdue at the book store.... This task is near the top of my list; it bothers me, and motivates me to do other useful but superficially less important things. But in fact, the book store is plenty busy with forms already filed by non-procrastinators. I can get mine in mid-Summer and things will be fine. I just need to order popular well-known books from efficient publishers. I will accept some other, apparently more important, task sometime between now and, say, August 1st. Then my psyche will feel comfortable about filling out the order forms as a way of not doing this new task.

The observant reader may feel at this point 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 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?

Posted by DeLong at June 4, 2004 04:10 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

This past spring I used structured procrastination to do my tax returns early and refinance my house at 5%. Truly a wonderful thing. And about those 'most important projects': the trick is to make them the sorts of things that you really have to do on pain of jail or unbearable shame. In this way they do, in fact, get done. And so do your taxes.

Posted by: hilzoy on June 4, 2004 05:34 PM


As the owner of a 60 year old home,there are always "projects" that need to be done. The list is very loooonnnnngggg,but I have sort-of prioritized some of it. There's a lot of pre-planning involved in these things,but they eventually get done. "Eventually" being the key word. Logistics are important.
I need another beer to think on the circular staircase,as it's due to be done in 11 months. We've been conceptualizing for 4 years now.

Posted by: Palolo lolo on June 4, 2004 05:58 PM


Brilliant. I unfortunately work in the reverse mode, for instance, deciding it was time to learn 3d modeling with a dificult 12 page essay due the following morning. Thank god for adderal.

Posted by: Andrew Cholakian on June 4, 2004 06:38 PM


That article looks interesting. I've added it to my list of things to read.

Posted by: FMguru on June 4, 2004 11:32 PM


"...I send my blessings to George and his family...." says the President, of Mr. Tenet.

I need a little help here -- English is second language to me. Does that mean the President is blessing George Tenet and his family as if the President all of sudden felt like he was the Pope or what? Or is it that it is OK in English for one secular person to send his blessings to another?

Or is it that English is sort of second language to President as well, as he also made this next statement:

"...I look forward to working with him (Mr. Tenet)until the time he leaves the agency...."

I mean doesn't one "look forward" to something that he hopes or expects to occur in the future rather than something that is (supposed to be) happening at the moment? Or was it that Mr. Tenet said to President something like "I ain't working with yuh any more..." and the President was expressing his hopes that Mr. Tenet would change his mind and bear it until whatever time?

Forgive me. Sometimes I engage in this kind of nit-picking if the opportunity occurs first thing in the morning, before my "systems" are fully on...

Posted by: Bulent on June 5, 2004 12:06 AM


Ouch! Wrong thread! Sorry -- just woke up, all systems not on yet... :-)

Posted by: Bulent on June 5, 2004 12:08 AM


Enjoyed the article. I have used structured procrastination for years. I am never more productive than when putting off something really important.

Posted by: quartz on June 5, 2004 08:53 AM


Nothing is important, neither wealth nor fame.
Only one's deeds, good and bad, follow one's
spirit on it's journey in the hereafter, whether
we're talking about lives, years, weeks or days. Then it follows, that procrastination is simple the acknowledgement of this universal truth in
a concrete and subliminal form. Deadlines say
we won't waste time, but if you don't make the
deadlines, it doesn't matter. God gave us time
so that everything wouldn't happen all at once.

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Didn't one of your colleagues get the Bates medal
for fancy models of this type of stuff?

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