How To Make Procrastination Work For You

Procrastination is a big problem for procrastinators, who generally would rather do anything than the thing they have to do right then. Strategies to defeat procrastination usually involve “just making yourself do it”, which also usually fails miserably. Common thinking would have procrastinators keep few things on their to-do list so that they can focus on something worthwhile. This comes from the assumption that procrastinators are lazy, which they are probably not. What they are is anti-authoritarian: they’re not avoiding taking out the trash because it’s difficult, but rather they reject the notion that they have to do anything.

Procrastinators see themselves as free people who do what they want, when they want and therefore no one tells them what to do, themselves included. So the problem is the procrastinator feeling like he has to do a particular thing, which implies he has no choice:

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. — from “Structured Procrastination“, by John Perry

The above comes from an essay written by a Stanford philosophy professor. His strategy for beating procrastination is to overwhelm himself with choices. If you keep a large to-do list, with vaguely important items at the top that have vague deadlines, followed by things that actually need to get done, then procrastinator logic will work like this: “I know I should be working on my great American novel, but instead I will do the seventh thing on my list: trimming the bushes in the front yard.”

Note that if writing the book were the only thing on the list, the procrastinator would invent another task that would likely be much less worthwhile than trimming the bushes, like reorganizing his music collection. From the essay:

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?

Incidentally, in the beginning of the essay, John Perry says that he finally got around to writing it because he had a lot of papers, dissertations and a grant review to read, and this was a way of not doing those things. He wrote it in 1996, and in 2011, it won the Ig Nobel prize for Literature. His granddaughter even made a website for the essay, “while avoiding the far more weighty assignment of her literature test.”

See also:

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

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