By Trevor Hedberg
In the last post in this series (which was all too long ago), I gave an overview of structured procrastination based significantly on John Perry’s essay on the topic. Structured procrastination attempts to solve (or at least ameliorate) the problem of procrastinating by transforming one’s procrastination into motivation to get work done (so long as it is not the work that one is supposed to be doing at the time).
I concluded that prior post by gesturing at some problems with structured procrastination. Readers also raised some other concerns. This post is an attempt to address those issues.
Issue #1: How do structured procrastinators accomplish the items at the very top of their to-do lists?
Since the item at the top of the list is always what you are most prone to avoid doing, it’s easy to fear that the top item will be postponed indefinitely and never completed. There are three ways that an item at the top of the list gets completed. First, if enough time passes, there’s a good chance that some new task will appear that is even more important than the top item on your original to-do list. At that point, the previous task you were avoiding gets replaced by something more significant, and now your no-longer-top item becomes a means of procrastinating: you can complete that task as a way of avoiding work that's even more undesirable!
A second means of accomplishing the tasks near the top of the list is to have a different criteria for how the list is ordered. Perry orders the items in terms of importance. I order my own in terms of a combination of enjoyment and importance, with importance serving as a tiebreaker between two items of comparable enjoyment. Personally, the extent to which I want to perform particular tasks varies widely each day. For instance, if I spent the prior day prepping my teaching, then I want to spend the next day doing research. This degree of variability ensures that the list is shuffled frequently enough to prevent one item from staying at the top of the list for too long.
The third means of accomplishing tasks at the top of the list is just getting them done. Period. Sometimes, structured procrastination is not enough to get everything done. Items that are very important but stressful or unenjoyable (e.g., grading exams, writing a dissertation) may sit at the top of the list for a very long time. At a certain point, you just have to suck it up and finish them. That shouldn’t be surprising: it would be naive to think that structured procrastination would be an effective means of handling all of your work-related tasks.
Issue #2: Must structured procrastinators occasionally fail to meet deadlines?
No. This can happen if one is too committed to structured procrastination, but it can be avoided.
If you use structured procrastination as the primary method of accomplishing all your major tasks, then you may indeed fail to meet deadlines from time to time. However, it is important to remember that academia often involves soft deadlines. These deadlines are usually characterized by some combination of the following features: a vague or merely suggested time of completion, a minor or nonexistent penalty for failing to meet the deadline, or the opportunity to request an extension. Term papers for graduate courses, for instance, almost always have soft deadlines: even if there is a due date listed on the course syllabus, one can always take an incomplete and finish the paper after the term is over with no penalty. There’s no reason to fret if structured procrastination is causing you to miss the occasional soft deadline.
Matters are different when it comes to hard deadlines – those that have significant penalties for a failure to complete a task by the specified due date. The most common cases might be job applications or fellowship applications that simply will not be reviewed if they are incomplete when the deadline date passes. But there are also cases where missing a deadline could demonstrate a failure to fulfill important professional obligations (e.g., taking too long to grade and return exams to students). If you’re starting to miss these deadlines, then you’re relying on structured procrastination too much: it’s time to change your habits.
As I mentioned in response to issue #1, sometimes you really may just have to do something you don’t want to do. Structured procrastination operates on the premise that you can sometimes (perhaps often) trick yourself into wanting to do certain work because doing that work involves avoiding other work, but his tactic will not always be available. There may not be any way to make the processes of writing your dissertation or filling out yet another job application more appealing to you. At some point, you’ve just got to buckle down and get the work done the old-fashioned way.
Issue #3: Does structured procrastination require self-deception? If so, does that mean that some people will not be able to use it effectively?
There’s no doubt that structured procrastination is in a sense like “pretend” procrastination: it’s not in the same category as types of procrastination that involve avoiding work altogether. An inability to create the illusion that one is genuinely procrastinating could certainly be an impediment to using it effectively.
But structured procrastination is not a panacea for academic work: it’s not meant to be used in all circumstances and is not likely to be effective for everyone. It’s one of many strategies for getting things done, and while there are features of academic life that may make it more effective in that context than others, you won’t really know whether it works for you until you adopt the strategy yourself and see how it affects your productivity.