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Prof finally gets around to new theory of procrastination

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To the untrained eye, this is pencil sharpening. For the structured procrastinator, it's time well spent. Not pictured: a more important task. (Photo by Amy B Wang/CNS)

What is the sound of one philosopher procrastinating?

For John Perry, it’s the whir of pencils being sharpened. The tapping of the keyboard as he works on the second edition of one of his books. His cell phone ringing twice, followed by a conversation with a reporter 3,000 miles away. Finally, he is ready to do his taxes.

It is 9:30 a.m. on April 15.

Does Perry feel bad about this? Not yet. It’s all part of what the Stanford University philosophy professor has dubbed structured procrastination, a strategy he claims “converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

Everyday procrastinators might dillydally by becoming a Wii bowling champion or watching every episode of “The Office” on Hulu.com. Structured procrastinators, on the other hand, might clean the toilet, do laundry, pay bills ahead of time or work on something due in the distant future.

“Procrastination is putting off things that you should be doing,” explains the 67-year-old Perry. “And structured procrastination is just doing something else that’s worthwhile as a way of putting off what you should be doing. It’s a way of making the bad habit work for you.”

A self-proclaimed lifelong procrastinator, Perry says he had mulled the concept for years but didn’t get around to composing his thoughts until 1995, when, as a resident fellow in a Stanford dormitory, he would regularly avoid preparing lectures or reading dissertation drafts by hanging out in the student lounge.

“I got a reputation for being a terrific resident fellow and one of the rare profs on campus who spent time with undergraduates and got to know them,” he remembers. “What a setup: play Ping-Pong as a way of not doing more important things and get a reputation as Mr. Chips.”

In lieu of grading papers, Perry cranked out an essay about his experiences, and his idea of structured procrastination was born. His granddaughter helped him upload the piece to a new Web site she created—“while avoiding the far more weighty assignment of her literature test,” the site notes—and StructuredProcrastination.com has gotten hundreds of thousands of hits since.

“It’s a big issue for people,” says Perry, whose fans now buy “I’m not wasting time. I’m a structured procrastinator” T-shirts and sing his praises on at least four Facebook fan groups (two categorized under “Beliefs & Causes,” one in “Philosophy” and the last in “Outlandish Statements”). More than 25 percent of the U.S. population consider themselves “chronic procrastinators,” according to a study by Piers Steel, an associate professor of human resources at the University of Calgary, who studied procrastination for a decade and estimates that dawdling workers could be costing the U.S. economy billions each year. Self-help shelves are stuffed with thick tomes on the topic, usually about “overcoming” or “conquering” procrastination; it’s a safe bet the word ‘Now’ in a bold font is also included in the title.

These books will rarely work for true procrastinators, Perry says, speaking from personal experience: “I’ve bought several of them but never got around to reading them.” He says that paring down a task list too drastically is often a mistake, because it removes the many dangling carrots that procrastinators require to motivate themselves to do anything.

If you think that the solution to procrastination is just to have only one thing to do, “that’s not gonna work,” he says. That, his essay notes, is the fast track to becoming a couch potato. “You have to have something useful to do as a way of not doing it.”

“It’s a way of tricking your mind, a way to fool yourself, and that way you can have fun,” says Valerie Carruthers, 60, a yoga teacher in Palm Coast, Fla., whose husband is so attuned to her structured procrastinating ways that whenever he sees her cleaning, he asks, “OK, what are you avoiding now?”

“If the thing at the top of the list is ‘Clean the oven,’” she says, “and the third thing is ‘Do your taxes,’ you’ll say, ‘Well, I hate cleaning my oven,’ and then go and do your taxes.”

Therein lies the crux of structured procrastination: self-awareness coupled with a healthy dose of self-deception. For those pressing tasks at the top, hard deadlines become the mother of productivity. Perry ultimately filed his taxes on time.

Renee Spence, 22, a fifth-grade teacher in Chicago, embraced her procrastinating tendencies in high school, when she caught herself telling a classmate her New Year’s resolution was to stop putting things off—but that she couldn’t start until two weeks later. Her habits followed her to college, where “there were a lot of papers handed in in a sprinting fashion.” When she discovered Perry’s site two years ago, her outlook changed.

“I read the essay, and I was like, Oh, this is exactly what I do,” she says. “This makes me feel better about myself.” Spence no longer feels guilty watching “60 Minutes” as work awaits; she tells herself she’s keeping up with current events. For her, browsing Facebook equals time spent establishing connections and extending her social network. “They’re not the most important things, but they’re still important,” she says, “which makes me a productive member of society and not lazy.”

Perry wants to make it clear that he’s not necessarily recommending his approach—by all means, he says, those who take care of business right away should not start putting things off. “I’m just saying that if you do, you may be a structured procrastinator, and you might not be such a compete slob that you think you are.” Perry says the essay gets two or three positive e-mails a day.

“One lady wrote and said that it changed her life, that her brother had always criticized her, but now she could hold her head up and feel good about herself,” he says. “She was 72 years old.”

Recently, Perry uploaded an essay considering the link between perfectionism and procrastination, the first bit of new writing to hit the site since his original piece. “Every 12 years I get around to it again and add a little bit,” he says. Under a tab called “Share Your Stories” is a place where, eventually, fellow structured procrastinators will be able to post their experiences.

For now, the page is blank.

E-mail: abw2124@columbia.edu