The Power of Procrastination

How can we use procrastination creatively?

Posted Nov 26, 2011

Stanford philosopher John Perry has just been awarded a spoof IgNobel Prize for his 1996 theory of "structured procrastination."  Perry suggests that we draw up a list of jobs in priority order, with the job at the top being one that seems terribly urgent, but actually isn't. But are there other types of job that we could use?

Perry's idea is that many procrastinators will actively pursue other jobs as a way of avoiding the one at the top. His original essay now forms the anchor for his website (appropriately called He admitted that there was a potential flaw with his idea, in that the job at the top never gets done, at least until a more important-seeming job comes along. So one answer is to search out such a job and put it at the top of the list. Another is to carefully choose the original top job as one that can be put off without damage.

To use Perry's method effectively, you need to be the right sort of procrastinator. Psychologists Angela Chu and Jin Choi distinguish between two types—passive and active. Passive procrastinators are paralysed by their indecision and fail to complete tasks on time, or indeed at all. Active procrastinators, on the other hand (including myself), put jobs off until the pressure of a deadline is upon them because they find it more fruitful to work under pressure.

Perry's method is designed for active procrastinators. But what sort of job should we put off? Perry suggests that we should put off the most important-seeming one. My own idea is to put off the one that looks as though it is going to be the most fun.

My reasoning is that, if I start off doing the fun job, I will feel guilty about all the others that I should be doing. By putting it off I assuage the feeling of guilt, get the other jobs done, and have a reward waiting for me after I have done them.

It feels like a good idea to me. Maybe one day I'll get round to trying it out. Come to think of it, I just did. I've been looking forward to writing this blog for weeks, but kept putting it off because I felt guilty that I wouldn't be doing all those other, more boring jobs. The outcome has been that most of the boring jobs are now finished, and I can take the time to have fun.

Job done.

Len Fisher (1999 IgNobel Laureate in Physics ( ))

Further reading:
John Perry "Structured Procrastination"

Angela Hsin Chun Chu & Jin Nam Choi "Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects of "Active" Procrastination Behavio on Attitudes and Performance" The Journal of Social Psychology Vol. 145 (2005), 245 - 264.