Structured Procrastination

Heather Cox Richardson

Over the years, I have been blessed with wonderful teachers. Advisors taught me to think and to write; colleagues pointed out my egregious errors; students kept me from making logical leaps by tripping me up with healthy skepticism. But all of these teachers have all worked in the academic, rather than the spiritual realm.

Finally, finally, I have found a guru.

His name is John Perry, and he is an emeritus philosophy professor at Stanford. He has recently won an Ig Nobel Prize for his work exploring the benefits of procrastination. One day, Professor Perry realized with surprise that he had a reputation for high production even though, as far as he was concerned, he never did anything. Thinking about that contrast, he figured out that it was possible to use procrastination well. Some scholars, he argues, use their determination to avoid big, unwelcome projects to whip off a number of projects that they perceive to be small and easy. Professor Perry points out that really good structured procrastinators—like himself—actually get a lot done. It’s just not necessarily what they felt they had to do.

Professor Perry’s argument is so odd it’s funny, but it’s also one of those ideas that make you sit up and think. What he describes is precisely the way I work. Give me a big, unmanageable, and preferably boring project, and it’s astonishing how many other things I can accomplish in my quest to avoid it. Grading, blog posts, book chapters… all seem negligible when compared to getting estimates for fixing the caved-in car door (which, by the way, I still have not done). I think Dr. Perry is on to something, and I’m thrilled to hear such a prophet. In the spirit of an acolyte, I would urge everyone worried about that article they’re avoiding to spend some time reading what he has to say.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone whose webpage presents a photo of the author jumping rope with a piece of seaweed has got to be worth listening to.