HR Strange But True!
October 17, 2008

If you know a procrastinator (we aren't pointing any fingers), a professor has come up with a strategy that he says can help individuals earn a reputation of making great use of their time and getting a lot done.

John Perry, a professor in Stanford's philosophy department, developed the strategy, which he calls structured procrastination.

Perry says that sometimes people mistakenly think procrastinators do absolutely nothing, but in fact, procrastinators are usually doing something--it's just that something is done to avoid doing something that seems much more important. Instead of completing the presentation that must be given tomorrow, for example, a person might decide to plant a rose bush in his garden. He needs to do both tasks, but the completion of the presentation is more important, so he does the gardening instead.

One key to structured procrastination is to list the to-do items in your mind by order of importance, with the seemingly most important tasks at the top, Perry says. The other key is to have the right sorts of items at the top of the list.

Perry describes the right types of items as those with the following two characteristics:

  • "They have clear deadlines (but really don't)."
  • "They seem awfully important (but really aren't)."

Why are these two characteristics ideal? Because you aren't going to do those items right away anyway (after all, you are a procrastinator). It's an exercise in self-deception, he admits.

You put those items with quasi deadlines and inflated importance at the top of the list to trick yourself into believing they are more important. Therefore, as a procrastinator, you will pick another to-do item lower down on the list (and in reality, more important) instead of an item at the top of the list (and artificially more important).

In an essay on his website, he gives the following example:

"Take for example the item right at the top of my list right now. This is finishing an essay for a volume in the philosophy of language. It was supposed to be done eleven months ago. I have accomplished an enormous number of important things as a way of not working on it. A couple of months ago, bothered by guilt, I wrote a letter to the editor saying how sorry I was to be so late and expressing my good intentions to get to work. Writing the letter was, of course, a way of not working on the article. It turned out that I really wasn't much further behind schedule than anyone else. And how important is this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that seems more important won't come along. Then I'll get to work on it."


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