University students are notorious for procrastination and it seems some professors are too. John Perry, emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University, achieved international fame in 2011 by winning the Ig Nobel prize for Literature for his Theory of Structured Procrastination.
Ig Nobel Prizes are given to ‘honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.’
John Perry’s theory
The theory that won John Perry acclaim was this: That to be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.
A classic example of this can be found on his website:
The most perfect situation for structured procrastination that I ever had was when my wife and I served as Resident Fellows in Soto House, a Stanford dormitory. In the evening, faced with papers to grade, lectures to prepare, committee work to be done, I would leave our cottage next to the dorm and go over to the lounge and play ping-pong with the residents, or talk over things with them in their rooms, or just sit there and read the paper.
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. What a set up: play ping pong as a way of not doing more important things, and get a reputation as Mr. Chips.
Why structured procrastination is so seductive
Practising structured procrastination means you get a lot of non-essential things done, but you do so at the expense of tackling more important tasks. It makes you look and feel productive, but it’s actually an avoidance. It’s also a sure-fire recipe for getting to the end of your life and realizing you never got around to doing what really mattered.
However, because you do at least get some things done, it can feel like an improvement on procrastinating about everything. You may never achieve great things in your life, but structured procrastination will enable you to do more than you would have done without it. And because life provides a never-ending stream of tasks that seem important but really aren’t, you can convince yourself that you are making progress each day.
Why successful people don’t practise structured procrastination
One of the things that is different about successful people is not just that they rarely procrastinate. It is that they don’t succumb to structured procrastination either. They ignore the more trivial tasks and do the most important ones first, whether they feel like it or not. They do this because they know how effective this strategy is.
This approach to life is very much in line with Pareto’s Principle that 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. It means that 80 percent of the results come from doing 20 percent of the tasks you do each day. In fact, when you tackle the most important 20 percent first, it often turns out that you don’t need to do most of the other 80 percent. They turn out to be unnecessary time-wasters.
In his book, Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy explains how to identify the important 20 percent:
It has been said for many years that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it now. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.
It has also been said, “If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.”
How to overcome structured procrastination
The first step to overcoming structured procrastination is to become aware that you are doing it. Procrastinators are masters of self-deception and can easily persuade themselves that all the tasks that come their way have equal value so getting anything done is a good thing.
But deep down, you do know when you are running around doing smaller tasks to avoid tackling the most important ones that can really make a difference in your life and open doors to new opportunities. Becoming more honest with yourself about this is essential.
This will free you to change your behaviour. Ruthlessly prune your To Do list down to essentials and cultivate the habit of tackling your top priorities each day before any other tasks. At first, this will feel like a battle of will, but after a while it will seem nonsensical and a waste of time to do anything else.
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Copyright © Karen Kingston 2012, updated 2019