The art of procrastination

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Leave it till later
There’s an art to putting things off
Marc Abrahams
Tuesday May 15 2007
The Guardian

Critics say modern philosophy is a useless waste of time. They are wrong. At its best, modern philosophy tells us how to waste time usefully. Philosophy’s great recent achievement, in this respect and perhaps overall, is the theory of structuredprocrastination.

In a 1995 paper, Structured Procrastination, John Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, explains: “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, a National Science Foundation 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, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish, and the good use they make of time.”

Eventually, Perry comes to the point: “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 reorganise 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 … 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.”

Perry’s notion is to channel an ostensibly bad habit … “Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list.”

Perry is a major philosopher, and he can name his writings as obtusely as the profession requires. His studies include: Indexicals and Demonstratives, Fodor and Lepore on Holism, and Predelli’s Threatening Note: Contexts, Utterances and Tokens in the Philosophy of Language.

But two, at least, of his papers look like stepping stones to Structured Procrastination. Perry’s very first published philosophy paper, in 1963, was called Paradoxical Logic. And in 1994, just months before Structured Procrastinatio” appeared (and, who knows, maybe as a way of holding it at bay) came one called Intentionality and Its Puzzles.

Perry points out that “structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself … This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills . And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?”

· Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly magazine Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel Prize

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

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