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The Magic of Structured Procrastination

Are you a procrastinator? We’ve got some good news: The trick to being productive is to keep putting things off.
COLLABORATORS John Perry, Walter Chen
How structured procrastination can increase productivity
photo by Florin Gorgan

Mark Twain famously said, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.”

But often there’s a price to pay for procrastinating. Suddenly, there’s too much work to get done in too little time. Or the people you’re depending on are unavailable. Or the internet connection you’re taking for granted goes on the fritz.

Yet there’s a way procrastination can work in your favor. John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University, calls it “structured procrastination.” Here, in Perry’s words, is how it works:

“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 other words, gentle procrastinator, you do not need to stop procrastinating. You just have to change what you are doing while you procrastinate. “Start a different task from your list that needs attention,” suggests Walter Chen (@smalter), cofounder of iDoneThis, in a post on 99U.com. “You can take that feeling of ‘I’d rather do anything than this particular thing’ — which normally sends you to sort the sock drawer or go on a Netflix spree — and use it as a force for productivity.”

You might think, “OK, but how does that solve the larger problem of delaying the important task?” This is where Perry’s methodology takes hold. Chen explains: “Remember, you are still playing the procrastinator’s game, in which the act of prioritizing something at the top saps the impetus to start working on it. So, the mental trick is to regard other tasks as more important in order to make the Very Important Task an easier choice.

“You’re essentially tricking yourself into working while exercising doublethink regarding the priority level of any number of undertakings. That’s not a problem, though, because it turns out that procrastinators are usually great self-deceivers. Our naturally skillful mind-bending is what gets us into trouble in the first place as we convince ourselves to mix up our short-term and long-term goals.”



Another way to help procrastination is to “reboot” your day, starting right after lunch. “What’s more irritating than witnessing your morning fly by without having dealt with your to-do list? Watching your afternoon roll right along with it. Combat this by implementing a reboot,” suggests an article called “How to Stop Procrastinating” in Real Simple. “In other words, grant yourself a second morning in the middle of the day (complete with your caffeinated beverage of choice).”

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