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

more posts →
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.
load comments (47)
  • Meenakshi

    Great article.I keep feeling gulity of procrastinating but this article gave me great insights of few processes that I unconciously follow. Time to take these up conciously! :)

  • braincutlery

    I can’t disagree with you more. You’re giving yourself permission to abandon your productivity system, rationalising that it’s somehow ‘structured’.

    We all have our ‘kryptonite’ tasks – I wrote about this very issue on my blog recently at – but I firmly believe the answer is to identify and address the fundamental issues causing you to avoid the task, rather than to institutionalise the very act of avoiding it.

    However you have scheduled/prioritised your task in your chose productivity system, when it becomes ‘right time’ to perform the action you already need to have acted to address the obstacles that usually cause you to procrastinate.



  • Therese Kay

    Reading this blog post today, was very productive and structured procrastination! Thanks for helping me feel less guilty!

  • Michael Hamm

    To someone who doesn’t struggle with procrastination this might seem utterly pathetic and ridiculous, but I can totally vouch for it.

    I’ve been using this method for years. I get the most writing done when I have a lot of work, I get the most work done when I have a show coming up, I make the best music when I should be writing.

    Certainly not ideal, but it works in it’s own wonky way.

  • Maria Falvey

    There’s a difference between procrastination and blowing something off. Procrastination is guilt free because it will get done and you meet that deadline. Just step away for a little while, that task isn’t going anywhere. *grin*

  • mixtrak

    Glad more people are writing about this, but there’s not much here that wasn’t in Perry’s original essay. Go read that. Then read his other essays =)

  • Luke Jones

    Personally, procrastination stems from having too much stuff to do and feeling overwhelmed by the majority of the tasks. If I’m on a design project, what I tend to do is start with a design I consider ‘easier’ then do one that’s a little more difficult to get me into the rhythm of that work. Once I’ve done the difficult one I can work through the easier tasks more quickly and clear out my to-do list until I’m not feeling overwhelmed any more.

    I apply this to everything I do, whether it’s a pile of books I need to read or a few movies I want to watch. We’ve all been there with Schindler’s List, right? I think it’s the same thing.

    I wrote a blog post about it, but rather than focusing on the procrastination aspect I focussed on the stress, it’s called Clutter.

  • Calvillo

    I’ve read 99u for a year now and this is my first comment. I just had to say that this is the most incredibly stupid piece of advice I have ever read. I have been one of those procrastinators who answers every e-mail, runs every errand, and does anything else from his To Do List instead of what he really has to do. Self-deception is not the answer. Discipline is the only thing that has ever worked out for me.

  • Aaron Morton

    I can see the logic behind why you would do this and is kind of the opposite of the ‘do the big task first’ method which of course plays into the psychology of when you are at your most alert and less likely to be the victim of ego depletion.

    The problem I see with this structured procrastination (& I’ve yet to read his essay so this might be answered there) is it is not tackling the fundamental issue of why you see it as a big, daunting, very important task. From working with clients with procrastination issues what is normally the case is how they are perceiving the task in their mind. The writer is seeing a book rather than a page, the designer is seeing a whole portfolio rather than a piece, the actor is seeing the 100 potential rejections rather than 1 audition at a time.

    I would be more inclined to look at how I can chunk this important task down so the next step is ridiculously easy rather than put it off further. Yes you get other tasks done and there is a bonus to that, but ultimately you are still faced with that very important task and it is important for a reason, there is only the certain amount of ‘buy pencils, clear emails’ tasks you can do before you are faced with the task again.


    The Confidence Lounge.

  • braincutlery

    Completely disagree with this. You’re putting pseudo-science around a problem in order to excuse it.

    Read my counterpoint article, “why structured procrastination is just an excuse”, here:

  • Daniel Chinchilla

    Got to say I completely agree with you.

  • Kait

    Interesting article…if ever I find myself wanting to do some housework, that’s when I realise I‘m procrastinating!

    This method may work but as someone said below, I do think it’s a good idea to try and examine why it is that I don’t want to do a specific task, because coming to terms with the ‘why’ of it is a more effective way of removing these obstacles. For me, it’s invariably that I think I’m going to screw the task up and I’m scared of failure and time wasting. To get past this I have to tell myself it’s OK to make a mistake and I have plenty of time to correct it, and to think of it as a learning exercise. I also treat myself with ‘art playtime’ after the task is done so there’s incentive to finish it.

  • Tom McCauley

    Great advice. Sometimes, though–especially if you’re a creative professional– you have to be comfortable procrastinating to the very last possible second (as in, you’ll lose everything if you wait just a little while longer). This ability to be comfortable with maximum ambiguity and cognitive dissonance is one of the more important traits that separates the great innovators in a field (e.g. Albert Einstein, Walt freaking Whitman, etc.) from really talented people whose contributions don’t really advance the field.

  • Kevin Luxon

    The author sounds like my mom.

  • John Wheeler

    I can see fundamental differences in “personality type” in the answers here. Those who naturally want to get things done well ahead of time think this is the stupidest thing since pet rocks. (Yes, some of us enjoy such brute-force stupidity, but bear with me!) Those who naturally want to get as much input as possible, or adapt to as many changes as possible, before doing something (I am one of these) – the natural procrastinators of the world – might think this is the best thing since sliced bread, although to their credit some look at the “self-deception” part of your advice and recognize in effect that you’re asking us to hypnotize ourselves.

    Faugh. We can all meet deadlines, both the “decide-early” people and the “decide-later” people. The latter do their best when the deadline looms over them like the Pleistocene ice sheets coming down from the north. The former have been shouting “global cooling!” (as it were) long before then and have had their bunkers and parkas ready. Put another way, the “decide-later” people do best when they start with small tasks and go on to big ones. The “decide-sooner” people do best when they start with the big tasks before they fill in with small ones.

    Myself, it’s simply a matter of deciding to get off my lazy butt and do anything in that long list. Again, almost always it has to be a small task first. But when I remember to work with my ENFP-preferenced personality the way it’s actually designed to work most efficiently, I get a lot done and I get it done time on target.

    Hint for “decide-later” people in making and keeping appointments: Figure out how long it will take to get ready or get there, then simply start preparing half an hour earlier. I can practically guarantee that barring catastrophe, you’ll never miss an appointment again (I can’t remember the last time I did), because your brain will have thought through correctly what you need to meet the deadline already and about how much margin for error you can predict.

  • RobynMcIntyre

    I would be unwilling to call an idea stupid unless I’ve tried it. Then I might say that it doesn’t work for me, not that it’s unusable. At least not without a lot more data.

    • Calvillo

      Yes, it was stupid calling the idea stupid. After reading “Getting Things Done” a couple of years ago, I tried some variation of this method. It didn’t work out for me. Creating a routine and sticking to it is the only thing that has worked out for me.

      • Sam SJ

        It’s certainly not for every procrastinator, but it’s silly to call it out as useless just because something else works better for you. It’s not like you need to choose between one or the other.

  • Craig Brown

    He does mention that for some, discipline is the only failsafe. Personally, I fall victim to the avoidance, and will do completely unrelated tasks. I use the method described in this article to obtain ‘small victories’, where I’m then motivated to take on important tasks.

  • pindshav

    Here’s what I came up with to help me battle procrastination: My Cure for Procrastination

  • Paulie Brierley

    “One small thing less”.
    That’s the phrase I came up with that’s worked for me. Not always (nothing is failsafe) but often.

    The problem for me, and probably most procrastinators is this:
    I perceive a task as overwhelming because of its scope or size, so instead of starting on it I do something else. So, it’s the starting that the problem. If I can get over that ‘starting’ hump I find that I invariably finish the job. But starting it, that’s the trick.

    One day I had an epiphany. I was in the kitchen after dinner looking at the chaos around me and was just about to find an excuse to leave it all when I thought ‘baby steps’, this was a method my sister had taught me for climbing hard hills. You take smaller steps rather that big strides. Each step is easy and you just have to do one at a time. Sooner than you think, you are at the top of the hill. So, back in the kitchen, I thought, I’ll just move this one used bottle top to the bin and give myself the option to finish at that point. A small insignificant step, easy but it’s one less thing to do! Once I had done this. I thought, “ok, that was easy, I’ll just move this teaspoon to the sink”. I continued in this vain, and sooner than I thought, I only had one small thing left to do before the kitchen was sparkling and I felt really good about myself. I was amazed.

    I soon realised this could be applied to any task/project. At work, when I have a new design to create, and I’m staring at a blank screen hovering between The photoshop icon and facebook page, I think “I’ll just put the logo on the page for now”. Having opened up Photoshop and put the logo on a page, I find that the next ‘small thing’ readily presents itself, so I do it. Before I know it I am half way through the visual.

    I often find that simply gathering the supplied assets into a single folder is a good one to to. Then I go and make a cup of tea, come back and read open the first asset to consider it.

    So the trick is to find the smallest, easiest, most atomically small task you can identify, the real ‘no brain required’ thing to do, and do that. It’s one thing less to do, it counts, it’s valid ‘work’ (you would have to do it as part of the project anyway). And, it gets you started.

    And it works for everything:

    Can’t get to the Gym? Find your trainers and put them in your bag.
    Can’t start those shelves? Just move your toolbox into the right room and make a cup of tea.
    Can’t write that email? Start a draft and add the recipient, make a cup of tea.

    Anyone else tried something lie this? I’d be interested in some of the ‘smallest’ tasks people have ever identified to get them going in a massive project.

    • Sean Blanda

      Fantastic comment Paulie. That “One small thing less” effect actually has a name: the Zeigarnik effect. Here more about it here:

    • Sofia Ruiz

      I completely agree with you Paulie! “One small thing less” – I like it and use it. Is the only way to leave procrastinators’ lifestyle! I know if I start that task I will complete it! The problem is how to start! And I think it requires willpower and discipline. Maybe this is not a bad idea if you believe the problem is self-deception… persuade yourself the barrier is you! Get over it and just start, because YOU CAN!

    • Attila Fulop

      I do it too :)

      First I realized this working was when I wrote an E-mail for my Father about some unresolved old issues between us from my childhood. First I wrote some thoughts in a plain text editor. Afterwards I re-edited it. Then I put it in an E-mail put him in the to field. Saved to drafts. The mail sat in the Drafts folder for a couple of days, ‘suffered’ some re-edits, and then it was sent. Daddy was quite happy, thoughts changed, and actually the whole story has been finally closed.

      I’m applying this little technique ever since, even in the kitchen ;) even in business, and I can say this is an invaluable little helper.

    • Harshad Bari

      Those Sir, are some great tips you have given here. :)

    • Joanne

      Well done~your addition is much appreciated w your baby step idea. Thanks : )

  • Dangerous Meredith

    I think I do something similar to this perhaps… When I was young the concentional advice I always used to receive was to do the most difficult or important thing FIRST! But I found that I never wanted to. So now I always have a to do list and I always start the day not doing that important thing but instead I choose some other little tasks and knock them off quickly instead. This makes me feel productive – “I’m on a roll!” – and then I move onto doing the big important thing when I am in this good frame of mind.

  • Suzano

    Totally agree with you. It is also the first time I ever comment here, too bad I never bothered to praise the articles I thought were good ‘=P but yeah, this seems like a really stupid idea to me.

  • Attila Fulop

    Well, I totally agree that discipline is the proper way. However achieve that is not a short process and this trick might be a helper to get there. You don’t know until you try (or make someone to try if you’re already proper enough :) )

  • Hey

    I’m a different type of procrastinator and this method does work for me and i’m so happy I found it. Saying its stupid when it has potential to benefit SOME people other than yourself is ridiculous. Theres plenty of other suggestions tailored to many different individuals tastes/needs. Just because it doesn’t apply to you particularly or not helpful to YOU, doesnt mean its stupid, so egotistical and silly. Thank you for speaking out on behalf only a portion of all procrastinators.

    • Calvillo

      I agree. I’m sorry. I just believe this method might end up being a trap. At least, for me, it was just another way to procrastinate.

  • Calvillo

    I certainly shouldn’t have called this idea stupid for it was offensive. I apologize for that. Still, I’m not buying the notion that there are different kinds of procrastinators.

    A procrastinator is someone who knows what he has to do. He also knows that, by doing it, his life would be better. Yet, for whatever reason, consciously or otherwise, he chooses not to do it. Instead, he chooses to do something different. That might be watching TV or playing video games, or that might also be something more “productive” like running errands or answering e-mails. Then, he feels guilty, so he makes up a story for himself. That might be something like “I just needed a break”, or it might also be something like “at least I reached inbox zero”.

    “Building momentum” seems like just another one of those stories we tell ourselves to feel less guilty for not doing what we know we should be doing. As Mike from Breaking Bad would say: this method is just a half measure.

  • BumbleDee

    DISCIPLINE is my shield against procrastination… DISCIPLINE determines your future. Creative person can always find a creative way to get things done on time. Procrastination is the best friend of Laziness.

  • Vanessa Davies

    This is exactly what I do! I didn’t know, until now, that it had a name. Great article.

  • armanketigabelas

    nice thing to try, :D

  • Dan Williamson

    I have ten things to do with every second of my life.
    When I was eight years old I said “I’m bored.”
    My Mother said “Go and DO something.”
    So I did and have never been board since.
    I have ten things to do with every second of my life.
    Now If only I could overcome the twin curses
    of indecision and procrastination.

  • Gideon

    Procrastination is a very deadly disease . To me it can be compared to HIV/AIDS . For real….I have been a victim of this disease in the past ….Deadly..

    • genius

      what disease?

    • Unimpressed.

      Wait, did you really just compare procrastination with HIV??????????????

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,137 other followers