By Trevor Hedberg
Structured procrastination hasn’t gotten much discussion on this blog. In fact, Mark Alfano is the only one to mention it: he alluded to it briefly in a comment on this post from 2012. Given that I’ve found structured procrastination to be an indispensable skill in maintaining productivity over long periods of time and that I’ve encountered plenty of folks unfamiliar with the concept, it’s worth unpacking the idea and critically examining it.
Procrastination generally carries a pretty negative connotation. By definition, procrastinating means delaying what you are supposed to be doing. When you go out with friends to avoid working on a term paper, you’re procrastinating. When you go to the gym instead of tackling that stack of exams, you’re procrastinating. But here’s the twist, when you grade those exams to avoid working on that term paper, you’re structurally procrastinating. In a nutshell, structured procrastination is the art of delaying or postponing your work by completing other work.
John Perry opens his essay on the topic with a succinct illustration of the idea in practice: “I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination...”
Perry notes that procrastinators rarely do nothing when the procrastinate. Instead, they often garden, clean their apartments, mow the lawn, sort through their mail, and so on. These activities are marginally useful but do not contribute in any way to making progress on the work that needs to be done. Thus, the key to structured procrastination is accumulating other work that needs to be done -- work that you can accomplish as a means of putting off other work. In this manner, you turn your tendency to procrastinate into an incentive to accomplish things.
So how does this work in practice? Let’s suppose it’s nearing the end of the semester, and you have the following items of your agenda:
- Teaching preparation for your upcoming summer course
- 50 exams to grade
- 50 term papers to grade
- An approaching deadline for a revise-and-resubmit at a journal
- An approaching deadline for a conference where you would like to present
- Completing and submitting forms for reimbursement of travel expenses
- Once you’ve got a list of tasks to complete, you need to rank them in order of importance. Some of the items on this list may be rather comparable in importance, but suppose that you arrive at this order after careful deliberation (including the amount of time you have before the relevant deadline for each item):
- Complete revise-and-resubmit
- Grade term papers
- Grade exams
- Submit finished paper to conference
- Submit a request for travel reimbursement
- Finish preparation for teaching my summer course
So the first item is completing that revise-and-resubmit. But that’s going to be tricky: the reviewers raised some pretty good objections, and it’ll take some serious work to figure out how to address those. The next two items require grading, you’d rather not do that. (Suppose Marcus has not yet convinced you that grading is not a necessary evil.) But when you come to item #4, you recall that the paper is pretty close to finished and that the topic is pretty interesting. So you spend that evening working on that paper. In other words, you work on that paper as a way to avoid doing items 1-3 on the list.
Notice something important here: procrastinating in this way requires a large list of tasks to complete. What if you only had the top three items to do? If that were the case, then the only way to avoid doing them would be to do nothing. And if you’re a procrastinator, that’s just what you’d do.
This idea might strike some as counterintuitive. Procrastinators may think the ideal solution is to limit their commitments, so that they’ll feel less stressed and less overwhelmed by their obligations. But this is a mistake because it does not take proper account of procrastinators’ nature: procrastinators will not magically stop procrastinating just because they have fewer things to do. Instead, limiting one’s commitments undermines one of the procrastinators most important sources of motivation. As Perry puts it, “This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.”
To summarize, structured procrastination involves four steps:
- Determine what activities you need to complete, ensuring that the list is reasonably large.
- Arrange these activities in order of importance.
- When procrastinating, avoid items near the top of the list by tackling items that are lower in the list.
- Periodically update the list of activities, and then repeat steps (2) and (3).
Understood this way, structured procrastination appears to be a straightforward and effective way to turn one’s tendency to procrastinate into a means of bolstering one’s productivity, but some problems may arise if this strategy is followed rigorously. Here are some worries about structured procrastination:
- How do you accomplish the items at the top of the list? Certain projects (e.g., one’s dissertation) will always be near the top of the list, since they will always be very important. If you continuously engage in structured procrastination, won’t those projects always be neglected?
- Perry gives examples in his essay of failing to meet certain deadlines (for book order forms and for an essay for an anthology on philosophy of language) but portrays them as acceptable aspects of structured procrastination because the deadlines weren’t really that important. Is there a way to reliably engage in structured procrastination without missing deadlines, or must one accept that deadlines will occasionally be missed?
- Does structured procrastination require deceiving oneself? If so, are some folks incapable of becoming structured procrastinators because they are poor self-deceivers?
These are significant concerns, but I’ll wait until the next post in the series to address them. Until then, feel free to chime in with other concerns or comments on structured procrastination.