Taking the guilt out of procrastination
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Here is some good news for procrastinators. You can now stop feeling guilty. For, science has come up with a defence of your condition.
Researchers have independently identified the phenomenon of positive procrastination, although there's some disagreement on what to call it. "Structured procrastination" is the preferred term of John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford who published a book about it. Perry was a typical self-hating procrastinator until it occurred to him that he wasn't entirely lazy. When he put off grading papers, he didn't just sit around idly; he would sharpen pencils or play pingpong with students. "Procrastinators," he realised, "seldom do absolutely nothing."A modest insight, perhaps, but it disabused him of the old idea that procrastinators should limit commitments. The key to productivity, he argues in The Art of Procrastination, is to make more commitments—but to be methodical about it. At the top of your to-do list, put a couple of daunting tasks that are vaguely important-sounding and seem to have deadlines. Then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. "With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen," writes Perry.
Perry generously acknowledges that he has stood on the shoulders of giants, in particular Robert Benchley, the Algonquin Round Table member. In 1930, Benchley revealed how he mustered the willpower to pore through scientific magazines and build a bookshelf when an article was due. "The secret of my incredible energy in getting work done is a simple one," he wrote. "The principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment."
You can also call this "productive procrastination," the term used by Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary. It's his personal favourite of the dozens of techniques he catalogued while researching his 2011 book, The Procrastination Equation. Steel says it's based on sound principles of behavioural psychology: "We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse." Steel says that 95 per cent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. (You can gauge yourself by taking his survey at Procrastinus.com.) About 25 per cent of those surveyed are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s.
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