I have been practicing structured procrastination while allowing a few blog posts to, uh, ferment a bit longer (not to mention other things I want to get done). As evidence, after reading Jonah Lehrer's recent post about unstructured procrastination - Are Distractable People More Creative? - I feel inclined to write about that, rather than finish the other partially composed posts ... not to mention other important items on my todo list. But I'll postpone writing about unstructured procrastination until I write a bit about structured procrastination.
Several years ago, I encountered Stanford Philosophy Professor John Perry's inspiring account of structured procrastination, which offers a more elaborate and erudite rationalization of a practice that I'd previously justified by way of British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell's famous quote:
The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
Perry defines structured procrastination as a practice in which one chooses to postpone working on the most important thing(s) one needs to do by working on other, less important, things. He finds that he can be tremendously productive by this dynamic prioritization, getting all kinds of things done while avoiding the thing(s) he thinks he should really be doing.
I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. 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.
Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
Although Perry doesn't describe it this way, having read and written about Dan Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (in the same post - ironically in this context - that I also wrote about David Allen's book, Getting Things Done ... which I still haven't read), I believe that Perry's practice of structured procrastination may be an unconscious prioritization of intrinsically motivating tasks over extrinsically motivated tasks: choosing to do things he wants to do, such as writing the essay, while postponing other tasks that others want him to do, such as grading papers or ordering textbooks. And as Pink points out, through his review of several studies, intrinsic motivations typically win out over extrinsic motivations. [Note that I do not mean to imply that Pink promotes or even condones structured procrastination; I'm quite sure Allen would not.]
Returning to Lehrer's rumination on the costs and benefits of distraction, he defines latent inhibition - the capacity to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant - and cites a 2003 study showing that decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals, i.e., people who are more distractable may also be more creative. However, he points out that the study includes the important caveat that "low latent inhibition only leads to increased creativity when it’s paired with a willingness to analyze our excess of thoughts, to constantly search for the signal amid the noise" [and I'll note that one of my fermenting posts is all about signal vs noise]. Having recently been inspired by Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, I'm glad he is not promoting distractability ... or, at least, not promoting unrestricted or unstructured distracability.
I would define distractability as a form of unstructured procrastination. Whereas structured procrastination is working on - or attending to - things that are important, but not the most important things, unstructured procrastination may involve attending to things that are not important at all (i.e., completely irrevelevant). Indeed, this blog post itself may be more of an example of unstructured rather than structured procrastination ... but I'm going to postpone further consideration of that train of thought ... and having indulged my impulse to fire off a quick blog post, I will turn my attention back to other, potentially more important, tasks.