Structured Procrastination

February 10, 2007

Every professional procrastinator knows that when a big project deadline looms in the near future, the time is ripe to work on some other project instead. It usually involves something at least marginally productive, such as cleaning the house, or it might involve starting some entirely new project. My bouts of procrastination usually result in the latter and then I have yet another open project that lingers unfinished.

I used to try to fight the urge to procrastinate directly, but I am beginning to believe that the key is not to combat it outright, but to harness it. I know many very bright and productive people who procrastinate just as much as anyone else. In fact, academia is rife with procrastinators yet still manages to plod along somehow. For example, a 1980 article by Gary W. Yohe figures the average time to publication of an article submitted to Econometrica, a top Economics journal, to be 25.9 months. One explanation is that top journals simply examine submitted articles more carefully. Another perhaps more likely reason is that journal referees and editors are procrastinators.

The key to harnessing one’s procrastination is to recognize it and channel it away from the marginally productive activities into more highly productive ones. This is the essence of Structured Procrastination, as described in an essay by by John Perry. His first paragraph is an excellent summary:

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.