Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Power of Structured Procrastination

Through the core of every procrastinator runs the vein of childish rebellion. You’d rather do anything besides what you’re supposed to be doing. And you’d much rather be doing the shiny, fun thing. This happens despite your best intentions and your mostly adult brain knowing that the shiny, fun thing isn’t the smartest way to spend your time.

We all succumb to present bias, which skews our priorities so that the value of the short-term irrationally outweighs the long-term. The very origin of the word “procrastination”, from the Latin pro-, for “forward”, and crastinus, “of tomorrow”, captures that outlook. Just one more hamburger today, I’ll start my diet tomorrow!

Most suggested solutions fail to deal with the modus operandi of procrastinators, and attempt to change their ways more quickly than their deep-rooted character traits allow.

Structured procrastination, however, works with the procrastinator. It’s a paradoxical term, meaning the kind of procrastination that makes you more productive by turning your weakness into a strength and can be a “nuclear option” of sorts when all other productivity advice fails.

Here’s how it works:

There’s that one “Very Important Task” that you really should be getting done. The one that gives you that familiar feeling of resistance: No, no, please – anything but Very Important Task! Here’s the move that goes against the grain: put that task on hold. Give into your inclination to procrastinate. 

Meanwhile, consider your to-do list. There are always a number of tasks of varying importance that you should get to at some point.

Here’s the move that goes against the grain: put that task on hold. Give into your inclination to procrastinate.

Now that you’ve yielded to the urge to procrastinate, instead of turning to shiny time-wasting activities, however, start a different task from your list that needs attention.

The beauty of the structured procrastination method is that it recognizes the extreme challenge in changing that pro-tomorrow vein, and runs with it instead of against it. You can take that feeling of “I’d rather do anything than this particular thing” — which normally sends you to sort the sock drawer or go on a Netflix spree — and use it as a force for productivity. As Stanford philosophy professor, John Perry, who wrote a great essay about structured procrastination, notes, “With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” and “an effective human being.”

But wait. What about that Very Important Task? When will it ever get done? It’s still Very Important!

For some, working on the Very Important Task first can help. But remember, you are still playing the procrastinator’s game, in which the act of prioritizing something at the top saps the impetus to start working on it. So, the mental trick is to regard other tasks as more important in order to make Very Important Task an easier choice.

Rank projects that seem quite significant yet have more flexible deadlines at the top instead like reorganizing your workspace or learning a new technique. You’ll probably also find that there are newer Very Important Tasks that have joined your list, making that original one look all the more alluring.

The act of prioritizing something at the top saps the impetus to start working on it.

As Perry notes, structured procrastination requires a heavy dose of self-deception. You’re essentially tricking yourself into working while exercising doublethink regarding the priority level of any number of undertakings. That’s not a problem, though, because it turns out that procrastinators are usually great self-deceivers. Our naturally skillful mind-bending is what gets us into trouble in the first place as we convince ourselves to mix up our short-term and long-term goals.

The bonus to all this is that the usually crippling guilt that undermines your motivation is transformed into fuel for momentum. As more things start getting done, you’ll realize that the procrastinator at heart has become one those highly productive people!

How about you?

What do you do to combat procrastination?

Walter Chen

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Walter Chen is the co-founder of iDoneThis, an incredibly simple way to share your progress with your colleagues at work.  Follow him on Twitter at @smalter.
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