The Paradox of Procrastination
Humans are by nature rational animals. Our ability to reason is supposedly what sets us apart from other animals, so it seems we ought to be incredibly reasonable, basing each action on deliberation and doing the best possible thing according to those deliberations. Plato and Aristotle were so caught up in this ideal that they found a philosophical problem in our failure to live up to it: akrasia, the mystery of why people choose to do other than what they think is best for them to do.
This picture of humans as rational beings that base their actions on deliberations and calculations about what is best has stuck around since it was articulated in ancient times. The more mathematical social sciences, such as economics, are largely based on the conception of humans as rational animals that make choices on the basis of what action is most likely to promote their most important desires. This is rather odd, given that many of the other social sciences, including psychology and sociology, provide ample evidence that we don't work like that at all.
I really have nothing against rationality, or even doing what you think is best, or doing what is most likely to satisfy your desires. I have tried these strategies at various times, occasionally with good results. But I think the ideal of the rational agent is the source of lots of needless unhappiness. It's not the way many of us operate; it's certainly not the way I operate. And operating the way we do usually works just fine, and really isn't a reason to hang our heads in shame and despair.
My most prominent failing, in terms of this ideal, is procrastination. In 1995, while not working on some project I should have been working on, I began to feel rotten about myself. But then I noticed something. On the whole, I had a reputation as a person who got a lot done and made a reasonable contribution to Stanford University, where I worked, and to the discipline of philosophy, which is what I work on. A paradox. Rather than getting to work on my important projects, I began to think about this conundrum. I realized that I was what I call a structured procrastinator: a person who gets a lot done by not doing other things. I wrote the little essay that is the first chapter of this book and immediately began to feel better about myself.
This essay was subsequently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the satiric science magazine Annals of Improbable Research, and I posted it on my Stanford webpage. Now, I am a professional philosopher, strange as that may sound to most people. I've written scores of articles and half a dozen books. These articles and books, in my humble opinion, are full of deep insights, profound wisdom, and clever analyses, and they advance our understanding of all sorts of interesting things — from free will to personal identity to the nature of meaning. My parents are dead, so I may be the only one who thinks so highly of my work in philosophy. But since I got into Stanford by the back door, as a faculty member — for I never would have been admitted as an undergraduate or graduate student — my body of work has sufficed to keep me employed as a philosophy teacher. So it must not be utter drivel.
Be that as it may, nothing I have written has been read by so many, been helpful to so many — at least by their own testimony — and brightened as many days as my little essay on structured procrastination. For many years that article was the number one hit when one googled procrastination. After I moved it from my Stanford webpage to a private website (www.structuredprocrastination.com) so I could sell Structured Procrastination T-shirts, it fell in the ranking and then rose again, so now it's usually not too far below the Wikipedia article on procrastination. Each month I receive a dozen or so emails from readers. They are virtually all positive, and some say the essay has had considerable impact. Here's one example:
Your essay on structured procrastination just changed my life. Already I feel better about myself. I have accomplished thousands of tasks over the past few months, all the while feeling terrible about the fact that they weren't the really important ones that sat above them on the priority list. But now I begin to find the cumulonimbus clouds of guilt and shame above me are lifting. ... Thank you.
My favorite email was from a woman who said that she had been a procrastinator all of her life. Being a procrastinator had made her miserable, she said, in large part because her brother was constantly critical of her for having this character flaw. Reading my essay, she said, allowed her to hold her head up and realize that she is a valuable human being who accomplishes a great deal, in spite of being a procrastinator. After reading it, she said, for the first time in her life, she had the courage to tell her brother to shut up and get lost. "By the way," she added, "I am seventy-two years old."
Over the years I have intended to add to the essay, although, characteristically, I kept putting it off. Gradually, from reading the emails I've received, introspecting, doing a lot of thinking and a little reading, I have come to realize that grasping the concept of structured procrastination is only the first step in a program that I think can help the large majority of procrastinators, as it has me. Oddly enough, once we realize that we are structured procrastinators, not only do we feel better about ourselves but we also actually
improve somewhat in our ability to get things done, because, once the miasma of guilt and despair clears, we have a better understanding of what keeps us from doing those things.
So this book presents a sort of philosophical selfhelp program for depressed procrastinators. Truth be told, calling it a program is a bit generous. It starts out with a couple of helpful steps that procrastinators can take. After that it offers up some ideas, anecdotes, and suggestions that might be helpful. I also say a bit about the organizational problems that beleaguer many procrastinators.
Not all people are procrastinators, and not all procrastinators will be helped by recognizing the strategy of structured procrastination, because procrastination is sometimes a manifestation of deeper problems that require more therapy than lighthearted philosophy can provide. Still, if my email in-box is any guide, many people will find themselves in these pages and as a result will feel better about themselves. Not to mention the added bonus that they'll encounter some rather nice concepts and words to apply to themselves, such as akrasia, horizontal organization, task triage, and right-parenthesis deficit disorder. And some of these people may even get more done.
Excerpted from The Art of Procrastination by John Perry. Copyright 2012 by John Perry. Excerpted by permission of Workman Publishing Company.