Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Achieving Behind Our Own Backs

                        Click here to buy the t-shirt

I am always on the alert for ways to turn my faults into virtues. I was thus enchanted to come across Stanford professor John Perry's notion of "structured procrastination." On his website devoted to the approach, Perry tells us that in practicing structured procrastination 

one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself.

He goes on to say that 

virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also.   And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?
So how exactly does this noble strategy work?  How do we turn our task-avoidance flax into gold?

Perry, himself a prolific producer of academic work whose curriculum vitae boasts a long and impressive list of books and articles, parts company with those who would have us eating frogs and beginning with our highest priority tasks.  He advises, instead, that we maintain lists full of useful and important things to do, topped by something we want to put off.  In his words,

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.  
The ideal "top priority" task, in Perry's view, is one that seems crucial, but isn't really; and one that appears to have a firm deadline, but doesn't really.  Clearly, we wouldn't want to put "Administer CPR to stricken family member" in that position.  Nothing else we could accomplish while postponing lifesaving measures would yield satisfying results.  Or make us look particularly good (saving face), which is part of the appeal of Perry's method. 

I'm thinking, in my own case, that "finish dissertation" probably functioned in this way for me, for years.  Clearly, "the dreaded d-word" was my frog for much of that time.  In Alan Lakein's schema, outlined in How to Get Control of Your Time and Life (1973), production of the anticipated tome was my "A1" task.  In the words of Ford's retired ad campaign, it was "Job One."

And yet, while not doing my dissertation, I managed to parent three children, become a performance poet, teach college, become a special education paraprofessional, refashion myself as a self-trained low-level healthcare worker, co-author a smattering of important academic articles, rewire my stove, build a backyard fence, plunge countless toilets and unclog legions of sluggish drains, abide by most laws, make and keep friends, join a new religion, participate in endless numbers of protests and rallies and campaigns, take up meditating, and other achievements and milestones "too numerous to mention."  I was obviously not idle.

The problem I have with this style of procrastination--we might call it "Procrastination Lite--is that I still feel so bad about not doing the thing I most wanted to do.  You could say I'm onto myself.  I'm no good at the "man behind the curtains" ruse.  No Madoff, I.  I see through my efforts to dazzle myself with this plethora of feats.  Under it all, I am still A.B.D., and will most likely go to my grave so. (Hopefully, no one will be crass enough to chisel the letters in stone above me.)

Although, if I think about it, my dissertation probably never belonged in the place of "honor" at the top of the list.  As a mother who experienced the arrival of each of my three children as the result of a different form of Himalayan trek, I always valued them above all else.  I have said many times that, when "push came to shove," my kids came first.  And push just kept coming to. . . you guessed it.

It probably makes sense to give myself some credit for having managed to fool myself into doing what mattered most.

No comments:

Post a Comment