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Structured Procrastination: When All Else Fails

Read this to avoid the other stuff you should do!

This post is in response to
Procrastination Nation

I am working on this blog entry as a way of not doing other things that I should be doing - reading final papers, editing manuscripts, writing a letter of reference - at least that's what John Perry would argue. This is the essence of his concept, structured procrastination. Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, will even sell you the t-shirt!

I don't know Professor Perry personally. I know him only from his Web presence, including his essay on structured procrastination and his "Philosophy Talk" podcast - "the program that questions everything --- except your intelligence." I like this man.

Not surprisingly, this Stanford professor is a well-published thinker. Given my own interest in teaching, I really admire the advice that this award-winning teacher has for freshman. He was quoted as saying that in addition to preparing you to earn a salary in the future and to fulfill program requirements now, students really should fill a third of their credits with courses that help them find out who they are and what they really care about. He's quoted as saying, "you've got to see what you care about first, find what turns you on, and then figure out something that works for you."

Did I tell you that I like this man and his philosophy? (Note that you can read the story about his address to Stanford undergrads). I'll come back to his freshmen-student address, as his talk included an ironic piece of advice given his take on procrastination.

Quite frankly, I could stop here when it comes to a blog on procrastination. Follow Professor Perry's advice, find what you really care about, and I think there won't be too much troublesome procrastination in your life. However, I want to reflect on his essay, "structured procrastination" (it is only one of his many "light essays" or "Small discoveries"). Why would this man procrastinate? Does he? A look at his vitae and publication record would make you think he rarely sleeps! What is structured procrastination?

It is tempting just to reproduce his essay below, as it's short, well written and to the point. You can read it at

The gist of the argument goes something like this.

1. Procrastinators all have excellent self-deceptive skills. (I agree. See my blog on "Bad Faith.")

2. They need to put this skill to work for them in a subtle way to actually make their procrastination work for them. As Perry puts it, "what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?" (In this case, using self-deception to offset the sins of procrastination.)

3. Given that we each always have a long list of tasks on our to-do lists with various levels of importance, urgency and aversiveness, we need to keep what appears to be an important task at the top of our list (one we also don't want to do) which really isn't that important or urgent (this is the slight self-deception part). Perry argues that this is quite easy. Our lives are full of these tasks. They seem important and appear to have fixed, urgent deadlines, but don't really.

4. With this task at the top of our list that we want to avoid, we will now engage in other tasks instead, because, as Perry notes, "Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they reorganize their files when they get around to it." (Did I say how much like this philosopher? He's funny too.)

5. The consequence of this careful strategizing with our to-do lists, is that in order to avoid that task at the top of our list, we now engage in other worthwhile tasks lower down on our list. Doing these things is the way we avoid doing the top thing, and Perry adds, "the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done."

Ah, there's the secret to that amazing curriculum vita! ☺

Returning to Professor Perry's freshmen-student address, he explained that he had lived his life and organized his talk around four issues, one of which is, "Happiness is the product of the pursuit of your goals and not a reasonable goal in and of itself."

I couldn't agree more, and we have a great deal of research on goal pursuit in psychology to make this point empirically. Ironically, for procrastinators (perhaps as many as 25% of a graduating class fall into this category), Professor Perry should have added, pursuit of your goals will require that you trick yourself a bit.

The notion of structured procrastination has interested one of my graduate students, Matt Dann. Matt has already completed research on goal pursuit through the analysis of personal projects. Now he's set to explore how we manage our project lists daily. We agree with Perry; we always have a long list of projects, and we're always doing a sort of project triage as we decide what to do next, what to avoid, etc.

We think that Professor Perry has it right, but we do wonder if there's more to it. Is it only "procrastinators" who use this approach to get things done? Perhaps this is the whole point. Some of you may have thought this already. He's not a procrastinator! He gets it all done. Some people, "real" procrastinators, don't do anything on their lists at all, or only the most trivial of things. They flip through 100+ channels on the TV, update their Facebook page, even just sleep.

Maybe Professor Perry's task strategy is something that everyone uses to tweak motivation artfully in the pursuit of goals. It may be a natural outcome of the constant push and pull of approach and avoidance motivations in our lives. We'll come back to this when Matt finishes his research.

For now, I just want to say thanks to Professor Perry. I'll be wearing one of those t-shirts soon. Heck, I'll go buy it now. It would be better than writing the letter of reference! (and, it'll only take a minute, right?)

If you want to hear more from Professor Perry, you can listen to our interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation (How to be a productive procrastinator) or a broadcast of his popular Philosophy Talk radio program on which I was a guest.

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