For most people, procrastination is a bad word. In this article, you’ll see how the theory of structured procrastination is changing how we view procrastination
(Hint: It’s more valuable than we thought.)
Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing.
– John Perry, The Art of Procrastination
We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.
– Piers Steel, The Procrastination Equation
Matthew Shanahan was a Carleton University graduate student who wanted to understand the link between identity and procrastination.
If a person is less sure of who he or she is, is that person more likely to be a procrastinator?
Matthew conducted a survey of undergrads, many of whom were still technically teenagers. What he discovered shouldn’t surprise anyone:
Ego identity development was negatively correlated with procrastination. That means, the more achieved the identity, the more the participants knew who they were, the lower their scores on the measures of procrastination.
It makes sense. If you know who you are, what you’re about, and what your objectives are in life, you’re less likely to procrastinate.
Unproductive procrastination is a form of avoiding the work you’re supposed to do. If you don’t identify with your work i.e. it’s not your Personal Hedgehog, you are going to find ways to put off doing it.
I know that my all-nighters in school were mostly comprised of eating junk food, playing video games, and watching pirated movies with my friends. There was comparatively little time devoted to paper-writing or cramming for the test when you got right down to it.
We know that the digital natives are the most likely group to be afflicted by Peter Pan syndrome. Many Millennials won’t resolve key components of their identities until their thirties. And what about the people who struggle with these questions well into middle age?
Are we doomed to procrastinate away a major portion of our lives?
The Theory of Structured Procrastination
For University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel, it’s productive procrastination. For Stanford philosopher John Perry, structured procrastination.
Whatever you call it, the idea is simple: Make procrastination work for you instead of fighting it all the time.
From John Perry’s original essay on structured procrastination:
All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
This John Perry procrastination insight is valuable. The vague and daunting goals at the top of your to-do list can help you tackle the specific and doable tasks that populate the middle of the list.
By avoiding your top priorities in favor of other important ones, you can transform laziness into structured procrastination.
You could get a lot more done.
Here’s an example of a to-do list that is perfect for structured procrastination:
1. Write the first chapter of a new novel.
2. Get documents for filing taxes.
3. Exercise 30 minutes today.
4. Pay an extra $500 to the credit card balance with the highest interest rate.
Because #1 and #2 are so daunting, the productive procrastinator will actually get #3 and #4 done today. That’s better than most people. Of course, this assumes that #1 and #2 aren’t particularly urgent for you.
If they are, figure out some new priorities for the top of your list!
Structured procrastination is ultimately a trick that you play on yourself. If the top things on your list feel too big to tackle, you will search for other tasks to check off in order to feel good about your day.
The Art of Procrastination: John Perry Revised
The structured procrastination trick only works if the things at the top of your list aren’t really important to you.
Check out the list in the previous section. What if writing a novel is truly the most important, meaningful thing you could be doing with your life? Continuing to punt it away while you tackle trivial tasks would not be a good strategy.
The key with structured procrastination is to set smart to-do’s at the top of your list, or what the 99u calls the Very Important Task.
The Very Important Task (that you keep avoiding) has to have a few important properties to make structured procrastination work:
- It’s more vague than specific.
- It’s more future-oriented than present-oriented.
- It’s more aspirational than practical.
Ensure your top priorities follow those three guidelines and structured procrastination can work for you.
Productive Procrastination When the Herd’s Against You
The most powerful lesson you learned as a kid extends to your time management skills too. Persistent procrastination is caused by fear. The Herd demands conformity. That means the Herd disapproves of standing out, good or bad.
The projects we pursue, especially in our time off, would make us stand out if we accomplished them. What if that side business really takes off? What if your boss doesn’t approve of your unconventional approach?
Can you break out of this mindset?
3 Questions for Structured Procrastination Success
1. Who are you and what do you stand for?
Matthew Shanahan’s research into identity and procrastination provides useful insight to aspiring lifestyle designers. If procrastination is a big problem in your life, then you might need to get a handle on who you want to be first.
Are you an entrepreneur? Then clawing for that promotion at your job can take a backseat to developing your entrepreneurial ideas.
Are you an author? Then committing that next chapter to paper is a better use of your time than doing your taxes (pay someone).
Are you a Linchpin? Then it’s time to start ignoring busywork and start figuring out where your contributions can have the most impact.
I’m not saying this is easy. Figuring out who you are and what you stand for was a decade-long process for me (and I can’t say I have it all figured out either).
Understanding your objectives drives how you manage your time. Procrastination is often a symptom of underlying unease about what you spend your time doing.
2. What’s at the top of your to-do list that you can ignore?
Whether you Eat That Frog at the start of each day or use structured procrastination to get medium-sized things done while avoiding the Very Important Tasks, you have to prioritize.
Lack of prioritization is the reason most to-do lists are ineffective. We all know “pick up the milk” is less important than “pay down your student loans” but somehow they both end up in the same unorganized, neverending list of things to do.
In the book, Meier suggests you set out 3 (and only 3) positive outcomes you want for each day, week, month, and year.
As long as the outcomes you select are scaled to the timeframe (e.g. you probably can’t write a book in a month, but you can in a year), then your to-do list will always have focus.
Even if you procrastinate on your #1 priority each day, you can still make progress by completing #2 and #3.
Ruthless prioritizing is the solution for your lack of focus. A list of 20 to-do’s doesn’t get done. A list of 3 does.
3. How can you turn procrastinating into an advantage?
Given that you’re going to do it anyway, it makes sense to try and derive some benefit from procrastination.
Productive procrastination requires that you have multiple projects going for you.
You need a couple of projects going at any one time, each of which can give you tangible benefits if you complete them. If you get tired of working on one thing, you can “procrastinate” by jumping to another. This is a bit like the advice of reading multiple books in parallel to reach your reading goals.
A person with multiple interests, multiple passions can make progress in any number of ways, even if they are procrastinating on one or two areas of his or her life.
Keeping multiple pokers in the fire is also agile. When change disrupts one project, you’ll have others to fall back on. And that’s a good thing.
I highly recommend John Perry, The Art of Procrastination. It’s available from Amazon in hardcover and Kindle edition. You might also want to check out The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel for another take on this subject.
How do you deal with procrastination in your time management? Have you ever used structured procrastination? What were the results?
Image by Leon Fishman.
A version of this article originally appeared on February 20, 2013.