Procrastinators: Read this later…

You have that term paper due, and you’ve only pecked out three sentences and a pile of sources with questionable merit. The thought of completing the paper is nigh unbearable, so you decide to distract yourself with something, anything to take your mind off of the task at hand. Perhaps you play a game or read a book, or pick up a newspaper, like this one… or perhaps you’re writing a column for your local school paper to avoid finishing a research essay. You lament over your prodigious procrastination and raise your fists aloft to the heavens, asking “Is there no way to overcome this lack of productivity?!” Fear not, for one man has stepped up to show us the way, and that man is Stanford philosopher John Perry.

Perry was among this year’s recipients of the coveted Ig Nobel prize. “What is an Ig Nobel prize”, you may ask, “and what qualifies someone for consideration?” The official site for the Ig Nobel presents the purpose of the award thusly: “The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

So,what made Perry worthy of this prize, and how does all of this tie in to saving all of us world-weary procrastinators? For Perry, it was an article he had written fifteen years ago on the art of structured procrastination that put him in the running and ultimately won him the prize. What is structured procrastination? The broad strokes are that we, as procrastinators, often take on only a few weighty tasks that are of momentous importance, and we end up frittering our time away “sharpening pencils” (or, rather more likely, playing video games), with nothing to show for our procrastinatory efforts. The trick is to load up with many fruitful tasks that vary in import. By doing this, we can use the tasks that feel less pressing in order to avoid those that are at the top of the list and still remain productive. In short, the impulse to distraction becomes constructive. The most pressing concerns (or at least those that feel the most pressing) are picked up as even more important concerns invariably present themselves.

Dear reader, on seeing this strategy spelled out you may detect an ominous issue lurking in the wings, an issue that John Perry was well aware of: “…you may be asking, ‘How about the important tasks at the top of the list, that one never does?’ Admittedly, there is a potential problem here. The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don’t). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren’t). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks.”

This productivity mind-hack requires a bit of ingenuity and self-deception; you have to find something that you know, in the back of your mind, is not actually so pressing that disastrous consequences will not ensue should you fail to meet the original deadline. You also must be able to keep this fact in the back of your mind by picking out possible disastrous scenarios after the fact, in order to feel as though it should be at the top of your list. The task also must be relatively long term, so that you can back fill your list with seemingly less important short term tasks that you can use them (in lieu of sharpening your pencils or playing that new video game) to distract yourself while maintaining the facade (and the reality) of being highly productive.

On this, Perry notes “One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?”

So there you have it; a nice heuristic for us chronic procrastinators to become productive members of society. Fight that urge to accept only those tasks you’re saddled with, and volunteer for enough tasks to distract yourself with, that people marvel at your productivity. Sure, you might not get everything done, but since those around you likely already lament your inconsistency, this strategy should prove to be a net gain.