Productive Procrastination and Structured Procrastination
“Procrastinate now, don’t put it off.” (Ellen DeGeneres)
When we put off until tomorrow what we can do today, we are putting off our potential and growth, and we are putting off the rewards of positive action. And in their place we invite stress, needless delays, frustration, regrets, and a host of negative feelings and experiences, not to mention our health. For example, the August 23, 2003 issue of Psychology Today reported that “Just over the course of a single academic term, procrastinating college students had such evidence of compromised immune systems as more colds and flu, more gastrointestinal problems. And they had insomnia. In addition, procrastination has a high cost to others as well as oneself; it shifts the burden of responsibilities onto others, who become resentful. Procrastination destroys teamwork in the workplace and private relationships.”
Yet, procrastination is pervasive, with most of us experiencing some degree of it. In fact, psychologists report that 20% of the population suffers from chronic procrastination, which is debilitating. In other words, it is the equivalent of having a mental disability. But if we look at the problem as a bad habit or lack of discipline, we quickly realize that the good news is that, unlike true physical or mental disabilities, we can overcome it.
Productive Procrastination and Structured Procrastination
I have problems with procrastination, yet some of my friends marvel at my productivity. How can this be? Am I productive or am I a procrastinator? Well, in my view, there are two forms of procrastination, which I call “Productive Procrastination” and “Unproductive Procrastination,” and I seem to fall into the “Productive Procrastination” category.
I’d better explain what I mean. You see, like everyone else that has lots to do, I make a list of tasks and projects that I wish to accomplish. Even though some items on the list are more important that others, doing anything on the list is productive and desirable.
Now, when it is time to start work and I look at the first item on the list, I may feel resistance, dread, or discomfort. That is, I won’t want to proceed. What I do next is what defines whether I am a productive or unproductive procrastinator. If I were to play games, surf the web, go to sleep, go shopping, or any other such thing to avoid the unpleasant task, I would then be an unproductive procrastinator.
But I learned a long time ago that instead of wasting time avoiding an unpleasant task, I could easily work on other items on my list, items that caused little or no resistance, and doing so made me a productive procrastinator.
Very few procrastinators do nothing, such as go to sleep. Rather, they do something pleasant, such as surf the web in order to avoid doing an important, but unpleasant, task. This makes them unproductive.
Now, returning to me. I’m still a procrastinator because I choose to do a pleasant task to avoid doing an unpleasant one. Yet, all the tasks I choose to do need to be done, even though they may not be as important as the one I’m avoiding. So, though I’m procrastinating, I remain productive.
Imagine my surprise when I learned the philosopher John Perry has been doing the same thing. In 1995 he wrote an essay entitled Structured Procrastination, which garnered quite a bit of attention. In the essay he explained how he used the power of procrastination, as I do, to be productive. In fact, he wrote the essay (an item on his list of things to do) to avoid working on a more important project. What I call “Productive Procrastination, he calls “Structured Procrastination.”
Seventeen years later, (after a bit of procrastinating) Professor John Perry expanded his article into a book called The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing. Yes, although writing this book was on his To-Do List, he wrote it to avoid doing a more unpleasant task.
Here in his own words, John Perry describes his system, “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. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”
Another Major Contributor to the Art of Getting Things Done
Perhaps more than any other expert, Mark Foster has contributed to the fine art of getting things done. A Time Management expert and recognized by The Observer (newspaper) as one of Britain’s top ten life coaches, he has developed and constantly refines several task management systems. While other experts teach about the importance of focusing, organizing, prioritizing, planning, scheduling, and goal-setting, little or nothing is mentioned about the psychological barrier of resistance. Yet, each of Mark Forster’s systems is designed to overcome that very problem.
Here are his contributions:
Additional Anti-procrastination Tools
The following tools make use of timers and can be used in place of any of the above task management systems or combined with one of them to make an extra powerful system.
1.The Pomodoro Technique. In this method you work on a task for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break and after four sets, you take a longer (15 minute) break.
Free eBook (PDF file) on the Pomodoro Technique.
2. Procrastination Killer. Uses the “(10+2)*5” system. That is, work for ten minutes, followed by a two minute break. Repeat five times for one hour’s work.
4. The Action Machine (probably the most sophisticated and powerful timer/time-boxing software around.
The above four tools work well with the S.T.I.N.G. method:
S – Select one task.
T – Time yourself.
I – Ignore everything else (no interruptions).
N – No breaks during the work cycle.
G – Give yourself a reward.
Although Ellen DeGeneres was joking when she said “Procrastinate now, don’t put it off;” little did she realize the wisdom of her remarks, for it is a system that Professor John Perry and I employ to get things done.
Also, the smallest change can sometimes provide the biggest benefit. For example, merely by starting work at 7 am, instead of 8 or 9, I find myself amazed at how much time I have to get things done.