Have you ever noticed that if you have six hours to do something, you get it done in six, but if you have three hours to do that same thing, you get it done in three? Or that the less you have on your plate, the longer it takes you?
If so, then like me, you may be a procrastinator. But never fear: being a procrastinator is not only common, it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve recently learned that I’m actually a “structured procrastinator,” according to Stanford emeritus professor of philosophy John Perry’s definition, and if you’re one too, then we’re in good company.
In Perry’s latest book The Art of Procrastination, he explains that although we as humans like to think of ourselves as ideal rational beings, the truth is that most of us don’t actually act that way. Many of us have a strong tendency to put off doing important things, which means we often act counter to our best interests. But Perry argues that if you are a procrastinator, that doesn’t mean you have to feel awful about it, and it doesn’t mean you won’t ever get anything done. Quite the opposite: he himself is a self-identified procrastinator, and yet somehow he has managed to get quite a profound amount done, including becoming a noted professor at a darn good school, writing scores of articles and a half-dozen books, and making some impressive contributions to the field of philosophy.
The key to Perry’s success is that he follows a strategy he calls structured procrastination. Structured procrastinators get a lot done by avoiding doing other things. When we have a really big task ahead of us that we can’t quite face, we fill our time with lots of little tasks as an avoidance tactic. Those big tasks take quite a while for us to finish, but we get tons accomplished in the meantime by constantly re-prioritizing. And when push comes to shove, we pull off those big projects just in the nick of time.
Structured procrastinators work from to-do-lists (which may be written down, or in our heads). We are constantly referring to them and re-prioritizing throughout our day. Procrastination is unfortunately often equated with laziness, but in fact procrastinators are typically very busy people. We enjoy ticking tasks off our lists. We just don’t necessarily follow the order that a non-procrastinator might.
But in order to make sure we stay on track we need deadlines. The worst thing you can do to get a procrastinator working is to sit him down at a desk for eight hours a day, five days a week, and tell him to get whatever work done he can within those confines. A procrastinator cannot work on “critical” tasks from 9am to 5pm; he has to regularly intersperse less important items throughout the day. And if a “critical” task doesn’t actually need to be done by 5pm that day but instead by the end of the week, then forget it. There’s no chance he will get it done early, so there’s no point in hoping he will.
Perry’s book helped explain why I feel such a great need for flexibility at work. I need to be able to insert a variety of tasks into my day so that I can keep checking things off my list. In order to get the big projects out of the way, I have to do lots of little things as well, and preferably things that don’t require a great amount of thought—errands, like laundry, or grocery shopping, are ideal—and that will allow me to take a breath and a break from the concentration required for the big things. If I’m stuck in an office all day, forced to work within arbitrary constraints, I just end up feeling trapped and unproductive. Give me a deadline and the freedom to work the way I work best and I’m happy as a clam.
Not everyone is a procrastinator, of course. People work best in a variety of ways. And yet we keep insisting that everyone follow the same rules of the traditional work model, for no reason other than that’s the way it’s always been done. As an academic, Perry fortunately chose a career path that has flexibility built in, but I hate to think how he might have been stifled in a different profession. How many of us could be changing the game in our fields, like Perry has in philosophy, if only we were given the room we need to excel?