Worried about procrastination? RELAX

The following post is from a speech I gave at Freestate's regular Themepark event in Feburary:

Me at themepark.JPG

When I was asked to speak at Themepark about 3 weeks ago I had such lofty ideals of what I’d speak about.

All that glorious time to prepare, stretching out in front of me, to let my mind wander. Oh and wander it did: into everything, except coming up with a worthy theme to speak about.

You see, I am a procrastinator.    

It’s not that I find pointless things to do; it’s that I am busy finding new things to do, and then being distracted by other things, and so on and so on.  If you are like me and work full time, then also write a blog, speak at events, have any pastime or children or whatever then you’ll know what I mean.

I like being busy but I’ve been involved in 8 projects this week already, and there is always something else to focus on.

I realise that so far this sounds like one long excuse.  

I am tempted to stop here for artistic merit, but I’ll continue …

Douglas Adams once said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

I used to beat myself up for my procrastination, holding my ‘failure’ up to others who always seemed more on top of things. Then I read something that changed my life, an essay on positive procrastination.

Researchers have identified the phenomenon of positive procrastination, although there’s some disagreement on what to call it: “Structured procrastination” is the preferred term of John Perry, self-diagnosed procrastinator and a Professor of Philosophy at Stanford who wrote a now famous essay called "How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done." My bible.

First published in 1996 in the article established the principle of "structured procrastination," which holds that "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."Perry said: "One day I was deeply depressed about procrastinating, and I thought, It's kind of funny because everybody at Stanford thinks I'm somebody who gets a lot of stuff done," he said. "How can that be?" He realized that in the course of avoiding seemingly important duties that he'd laid out for himself, he’d diverted his energy to many other tasks, but rather than get nothing done, he’d inadvertently become more productive.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks you have to do in a way that exploits this fact. 

  • The list of tasks you have in mind are ordered by importance.
  • Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top.
  • But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list.

Doing these less important tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list.

With this sort of ‘task structure’, the procrastinator becomes more productive and like Perry – develop a reputation for getting a lot done.

"You have to have good self-deceptive skills," Perry says.

His advice is to make a list of the many things you hope to accomplish, and then place a goal like "Learn Chinese" at the top.  You’ll naturally procrastinate over this one and the other task seems smaller and more achievable, so you focus on them.  

We can all agree that achieving a goal makes you feel successful, but there are many, many reasons why achieving goals can be difficult.  The worry of procrastination is a big one. I say embrace it and stop worrying.

Perry himself set to expanding his essay into a book. "But of course I never finished it" he said. 15 Years after his original essay, in 2011, he won an Ig Nobel – the prize for "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." Last year he finally published the book. Admittedly, it’s only 92 quite small pages, and it took him 17 years to do it, but he got it done. I recommend The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing to anyone who recognises themselves as a procrastinator.

Perry is of course not the only one to have tried to sum up the art of the to-do list. Author John Tierney wrote an opinion piece in the NYTimes entitled “This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day.” It’s a defence of procrastination, and only took him 5 years to get around to writing.

I came across a wonderful analogy I want to share with you - If you pull a procrastinator off the sofa, you will discover that while he may not have achieved his stated, highly important goal, he does need to relax on that sofa, because in an effort to avoid the important goal, he has worn himself out by frantically cleaning out the cupboards, shopping, tweeting, pruning hedges, going to the gym, and any number of other tasks deemed less important (and usually themselves subjects of procrastination). But he is exhausted. He has earned his rest on the sofa.

The point is, while we procrastinators may not be doing what we know we should be doing, we are often busily taking care of other tasks that need to be done, but are less urgent, or less distressing and difficult.

Or, as another researcher put it, the strategy is to “play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”

Robert Benchley is one of my favourite bedtime reads, especially when I’m feeling particularly nervous about the many responsibilities in life that I’ve shirked.  On the subject of procrastination, he wrote, “The psychological principal is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Benchley wrote this in 1930, but most of the research into procrastination is recent and you can draw your own conclusions….  

Mine is that the folks who have been researching this have some really significant research they ought to have been doing, and I only hope I’m alive to read about it in the paper when they finally get around to it.

But is this just sophistry, am I preaching this philosophy so I feel better about my failings? Maybe.

This method of using reverse psychology as a tool runs aground on the question of how you are ever supposed to get around to doing those things that are really important, difficult, and terrifying.

If you keep putting off and putting off the thing at the top of the list, you haven’t dealt with the original task, the Prime Mover of Procrastination, if you will.  That Prime Mover got the whole to-do list rolling in the first place. My point is that when your evasion tactics have run out, and your photos are in albums and your teeth are bleached, but you still haven’t faced that big task then you have to have a solution for procrastination.

My answer to that? It’s the perfect time to start that big task, when you have nothing else left to procrastinate.