Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Perry, The Art of Procrastination

Soon enough it will be time to make those yearly resolutions we never keep. I somehow doubt that this odd-sounding resolution will top most lists: “Become a structured procrastinator.” But John Perry, professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford, explains in The Art of Procrastination (Workman, 2012) that structured procrastination will convert ordinary procrastinators into “effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they accomplish and the good use they make of time.” (p. 2) Still flawed, but productive.

Don’t think that Perry has strayed into snake-oil, self-help land, that he has written the kind of pretentious text that would make him a sought-after speaker at corporate retreats. No, this little book is an utterly delightful extended essay (the text is a mere 92 pages).

What is the secret to moving from being an ordinary procrastinator to being a productive procrastinator? Think of our priority lists, with tasks that seem the most urgent and important on top. The procrastinator will put these tasks off until some indefinite time in the future. “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.” And by doing the less urgent, less important tasks, “the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” who “can even acquire … a reputation for getting a lot done.” (p. 3)

Why do we procrastinate? One culprit is perfectionism. To do something “perfectly” takes a lot of time (presumably an infinite amount of time). When “the fantasies of perfection are replaced by the fantasies of utter failure,” it’s a lot easier just to “sit down and do an imperfect, but adequate, job.” (p. 18)

Perry not only endorses the common wisdom of breaking tasks down into small increments (the Kaizen way) but recommends practicing “defensive to-do list making.” That is, think about “how your day could get derailed in the early stages and put in safeguards to circumvent that.” Perry gives an example, and let me quote it at length because it’s not only humorous, it’s so me.

“Last night I saw When Harry Met Sally on TV. I knew there would be a good chance I’d want to start off this morning by googling ‘Meg Ryan,’ to see if there are some other movies of hers that I’d forgotten about and would like to see. Once I start googling, I seldom stop simply because I find what I was originally looking for: I see Meg was married to Dennis Quaid. Now which Quaid brother is that? I’ll check ‘Dennis Quaid’ on Wikipedia. Ah, the handsome one. I should have guessed. Look at that, his father was a cousin of Gene Autry! Haven’t thought about Gene Autry in a long time. Remember ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’? Great song. I wonder if I can get it on iTunes … And on and on. It’s best to short-circuit this whole waste of time by putting ‘Don’t google Meg Ryan’ on the to-do-list, along with other reminders not to be derailed.” (pp. 27-28)

The Art of Procrastination is a book that I laughed aloud over, admittedly often self-defensively. I am, at least in some ways, a structured procrastinator, though perhaps not the most productive one. I’m not sure I measure up to Perry’s standards (with a reference to Hayek, cum appropriate caveats): “You may often be wrong about what the best way to spend your time is. Wasting your time daydreaming about an impractical radio show may in the end prove more valuable than finishing whatever articles, reviews, and memoranda—all doomed to be largely unread—you could have been working on. The structured procrastinator may not be the world’s most effective human being, but by letting her ideas and energies wander spontaneously, she may accomplish all sorts of things that she would have missed out on by adhering to a more structured regimen.” (p. 83)

Now isn’t that uplifting! Yes, I think I will resolve to be a structured procrastinator in 2013. But, don’t fret, I’ll still write reviews in a timely fashion. There are always other less pleasant things ahead of reading and writing on my to-do lists.

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