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Structured procrastination?

Procrastination. Such a peculiar phenomenon. It is surprising to think that so many people suffer from this (not just me?). Philosopher John Perry has proposed a way to use it to one’s advantage. Interesting:

The brainchild of Stanford University philosophy professor John Perry, structured procrastination involves doing small, low-priority tasks to build a sense of accomplishment and the energy to tackle more important jobs. Mr. Perry, a chronic procrastinator, suggests followers choose an important task, but defer work on it while tackling others. “Don’t be ashamed of self-manipulation,” he says.

Too often, Mr. Perry says, people focus on their biggest and most important duties, then waste time on unproductive tasks — like surfing the Web and watching television. His Web site, structuredprocrastination.com, features a picture of the author “jumping rope with seaweed while work awaits.” He suggests procrastinators fill their time with less formidable — and more useful — assignments, such as following up with clients, completing expense reports or catching up on industry news. He says the smart procrastinator can earn a reputation for productivity while giving in to the urge to delay.

What about the big jobs? Mr. Perry says either a non-negotiable deadline will force action, or the procrastinator will gather enough information and perspective to make them appear less daunting.

Mr. Perry’s theory, based on personal experience rather than rigorous science, comes amid growing research on the psychological roots of procrastination and its economic cost. Psychologists who study procrastination estimate that 80% to 95% of college students procrastinate, and half do so routinely; between 15% and 20% of adults are habitual procrastinators.

Piers Steel, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and author of the forthcoming book “The Procrastination Equation,” estimates that procrastination costs the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Mr. Steel says the computer games Minesweeper and Solitaire alone probably account for billions in lost time and productivity.

While there is neither a single explanation for why people procrastinate nor a single recommendation for how to overcome the behavior, suggestions include goal setting, or breaking down large tasks into a series of smaller ones, and energy regulation — that is, planning to tackle difficult tasks at the time of day when one’s energy level is highest, often around 10 a.m. Some authors promote sophisticated time-management and organizational systems. Others urge procrastinators to focus on positive goals, like professional advancement or more family time.

“There are no positives to procrastination,” says Timothy Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group at Canada’s Carleton University. Nonetheless, Mr. Pychyl enjoys Mr. Perry’s irreverent approach and suggests it may sometimes be useful. “It’s not going to solve everybody’s problems, but … some people probably can get a lot done while avoiding other things,” he says.

Ms. Wright, the Maryland lawyer, says structured procrastination has helped her focus and tackle tasks more deliberately and efficiently. “As long as I can feel like there’s something I’m avoiding, then I can get myself to work,” she says.

Temitope Koledoye, a Philadelphia marketing director, says the technique helps her create “mental space” between herself and big projects and cope with attention deficit disorder, with which she was diagnosed in 2003. “While I’m doing all of those minuscule activities, I’m still thinking about the big thing I have to do,” she says. “I’m consolidating my thoughts.”

Small accomplishments, like paying bills online or packing for a business trip, provide moments of satisfaction throughout her day, she says. “You don’t feel like a failure because you are getting things done. It makes life a lot more manageable.”

Mr. Perry says procrastinators shouldn’t waste time feeling bad about their work habits because guilt saps motivation, reinforcing the desire to delay.

Juanjo de Regules of Mexico City, who has sought therapy for his aversion to work, says he felt “a lot less guilty” after reading the Stanford professor’s essays. A former human-resources director for a Mexican construction company, Mr. de Regules says for years he relied on employees to help him tackle dreaded tasks, a strategy he playfully calls “leadership by procrastination.”

Mr. de Regules left his former employer in April to run his own software business. He credits Mr. Perry with providing him a framework for procrastinating more productively. “I feel good, I make money, and I still procrastinate,” Mr. de Regules says.


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Categories: Philosophy
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