Procrastinators get a bad reputation for being lazy or undisciplined. Yet John Perry, professor emeritus at Stanford University, openly admits his procrastinating tendencies — and that he’s proud of them.
In fact, Perry wrote a book called “The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing,” where he shares his insights on how to productively waste time.
“I was wondering why, since I’m such a procrastinator, I had a reputation at the university for being a guy that got a lot done,” Perry says. He realised it was because he always made better use of his time when putting off other tasks, and attributes his success to a strategy he calls “structured procrastination.”
“Procrastination means not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “Structured procrastination means you don’t waste your time. When you’re avoiding another task, you do something else instead.”
If you’re a procrastinator, you are motivated by the desire to postpone completing an assignment. You can make use of this motivation by directing it into other things.
When Perry was a Resident Fellow at Stanford, his job was to interact with students. Perry says, “I did a lot of that, because I had academic work I should have been doing instead.” Through ping-pong games and spontaneous conversations, he earned a stellar reputation for bonding with the undergraduates.
Furthermore, his work still got done, so he was able to have the best of both worlds. The key is to not worry about doing things at the last minute. “This weekend, my grades are due Tuesday. What I should be doing is grading papers, but I’m probably going to clean out the garage,” says Perry. “That means I still end up grading the papers late Tuesday afternoon, and I’ll get a major household chore done.”
Perry says you shouldn’t be concerned about compromising quality. “Most of us tend to be perfectionists. The problem is when we get a task, we want to do the best job that’s ever been done,” he says. “Procrastination is a way of giving yourself permission not to do a perfect job, because usually a perfect job isn’t required.”
Perry admits that waiting until the last minute is a funny way of working efficiently, but he thinks it is a good idea if you properly weigh your priorities. “When you get a task, you have to think about how important it is, and how good of a job you really want to do,” says Perry. “You should limit how much time you put into tasks that aren’t all that important in the long run.”
A great way to organise your priorities is by performing a task triage. “Triage is a fancy word from the battlefield. When some casualties come in, someone decides who needs to be rushed to the hospital for urgent care, who can wait a while, and who isn’t going to make it,” explains Perry. “When you get assignments, you have to do the same thing and decide which are important and deserve a lot of time and which tasks don’t need to be done right away.” The task triage is a simple strategy to use when you feel overwhelmed, so you can focus your time and attention on the stuff that’s really important.
To master the art of structured procrastination, Perry says you need to keep two to-do lists: a big one of all the tasks you want to accomplish this week or month, and a daily to-do list. The daily to-do list gives you items to cross off for the day. Perry learned this idea from Japanese culture, where people often break tasks down so they can incorporate small wins in their day.
For example, your daily to-do list could include small tasks, such as getting out of bed, turning off your alarm, making coffee, and drinking coffee. “By the time you have your first cup of coffee, you will have crossed out four things on your to-do list, and you’ll be feeling really good about this and ready to tackle other tasks,” explains Perry. “Nobody needs to see your to-do list, but you can give yourself a pat on the back.”
As for larger to-do lists, the best thing for procrastinators to do is to put something seemingly urgent — but realistically not that important — at the top. The basic idea is that instead of turning to time-wasting activities online when you don’t want to work on your top priority, you reorganize your list so you will tackle a smaller task when you are procrastinating.
“You’re embracing your love of procrastination, but remaining productive,” Perry explains.
You should shift around your to-do list and put your worthwhile tasks lower on the list, so you’ll do them instead of the things higher up. The tasks at the top of your list will bother you and motivate you to do other useful tasks.
Perry gives an example: “If you put something like learning Chinese at the top of your list, every morning you will get up and try to figure out what else you can do instead of that, and you’ll probably end up doing many productive things instead of learning Chinese.”
Counterintuitively, Perry says the biggest mistake procrastinators make is minimising their commitments in an attempt to quit procrastinating. “It destroys their most important source of motivation. If you only have one thing to do, you won’t get anything else done — you’ll probably just lie on the couch to avoid it.”
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