Fifteen years after penning an essay on structured procrastination, Professor of Philosophy John Perry won a prize for his work from the Annals of Improbable Research. In 2011, the magazine that seeks to bring humor and levity to the disciplines of science and technology awarded the Stanford and University of California, Riverside professor an Ig Noble prize for his explanation of how he has used self-delusion and trickery to get himself to perform tasks that he otherwise did not want to complete. Perry’s book, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing was published in hardcover in 2012.
“If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it,” wrote Perry in his original essay. “However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important,” he summarized. Perry describes a sort of Law of Descending Desirability in his task list to trick himself into doing tasks that need to be done. For people familiar with the Steven Covey planning rubric, Perry would suggest one put off the A tasks in favor of getting a number of B and C priority tasks ticked off. He says he has used this system for years and is considered to be someone who gets a lot of things done. A contributor to the fields of logic, language and metaphysics, and a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Perry is no slacker.
The lure of procrastination among creative people is well-known. The article is due, but the annual need to sort the sock bin happens today, else the magnetic poles of the Earth may shift. Two hours ’til deadline, but if those bank statements do not get reconciled, bankruptcy may be just around the corner. Nothing gets more drawers sorted, cars detailed or closets culled and organized than a rousing deadline.
Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, discusses at length the resistance that creative people encounter when facing the decision point between action and inaction. The inaction is what distinguishes the art of procrastination and according to Pressfield, it is the ever-present force of resistance that fights against the forward motion of creativity. Pressfield suggests that people who want to succeed at art must make peace with resistance. Recognizing that resistance is an organic part of the creative process, and learning how to work with it instead of being ruled by it, is the best way to overcome the inaction and procrastination that people in creative pursuits face.
Over at Wait But Why, a website dedicated to procrastination, Tim Urban penned a two-part series on procrastination that every reader reading this who has ever suffered from procrastination should read sometime (links are below). Filled with simplistic cartoons, monkeys and scathing clarity, Urban strips the facade off of procrastination. People who act like adults and steer their own symbolic ships simply do what needs to be done and do not procrastinate. People who procrastinate surrender the steering of the boat to what Urban calls “Instant Gratification Monkey.”
Instant Gratification Monkey is the one who would rather play Candy Crush for 13 consecutive hours than get something done that would move the ship along. By choosing to play instead of work, Instant Gratification Monkey leaves his shipmates in a bad place called the “Dark Playground.” The Dark Playground, according to Urban, is filled with play because it is not getting work done, but the playground is dark because it is filled with guilt and self-loathing for not finishing the work that needs to be completed.
The technique that Urban, Pressfield and Perry all suggest for overcoming procrastination is to break tasks into bite-sized pieces and commit to starting. Urban considers a remarkable, glorious achievement to be made up of a long series of small and unremarkable tasks executed over time.