How to Stop Procrastinating: An Elegant Solution

This clever loophole can help even stubborn procrastinators

How to Stop Procrastinating: An Elegant Solution

You know that feeling when you sit down to tackle a big project…and you just can’t seem to get started?

It’s something we joke about, but the consequences of putting of work can be serious. Procrastinators can suffer from mental health effects, like increased stress, and may have poorer physical health as well.

This apparent slacking also takes its toll on business. A recent survey found procrastination costs U.K. businesses £76 billion annually in lost revenue as employees spend an average of 43 minutes daily procrastinating with tasks not related at all to work.

Fortunately, there’s a technique that can help, and it doesn’t require you to change your personality or magically acquire more willpower.

Find out how you can embrace your inner procrastinator — while radically increasing your productivity.

Even the stubbornest procrastinator can become a “useful citizen”

The name to this alluring concept is structured procrastination (or “effective dawdling,” as the man who coined the term also calls it).

John Perry, now an emeritus professor at Stanford University, is credited with coining the term in the mid 90s. Of course, he did so while feeling badly about, what else? Procrastinating.

The theory goes like this: As a procrastinator, you’ll do many seemingly less important tasks in order to avoid doing the actual thing you’re supposed to working on. You know, the way you’ll get to that project — right after you unload the dishwasher and organize your old files.

Perry’s solution? Trick yourself into being productive, dear procrastinator.

Make a list with your most daunting goal right on top. Ideally, it should be a goal without a really clear deadline — and one that isn’t terribly important (just daunting).

Perry offers up the writing of a dreaded essay as a suggestion of such a task. Paradoxically, believing in the importance of this unpleasant goal is the first step to turning procrastination into productivity.

Below it, place some worthwhile tasks to do while avoiding the writing of your essay (or whatever your version of the dreaded essay is).

Now you have the framework you need to get started!

“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.”
— John Perry

Ever thought that a persistent procrastinator could acquire this kind of a reputation? How would it change your life?

So, does it really work?

The structured procrastination technique has been around in various forms before Perry popularized it. He’s not the only researcher to create a theory around this phenomenon, the New York Times points out.

Before Perry, for example, American humorist, columnist and actor Robert Benchley penned the phrase, “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Benchley wrote that in 1930 in a Chicago Tribune column while explaining how he gets so much writing done, according to the Quote Investigator. And Perry pays homage to this influence, including the quote atop his essay.

You might be surprised to learn who classifies themselves as “true procrastinators” in need of structured procrastination.

Marc Andreessen, cofounder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz and cofounder of Netscape, is a fan.

He included structured procrastination in his lively, specific roundup on personal productivity (published in 2007, it’s still well worth a read). In it, he calls reading Perry’s essay “one of the single most profound moments of my entire life.”

Andreessen explains that he hates calling people…and gets a ton of other work done while successfully avoiding picking up the phone.

“In fact, that’s what’s happening right now,” he quips, while writing the blog post.

Dave Seah, a freelance designer/developer, decided to test out structured procrastination recently. He blogged about the experience, reflecting on how it feels to think about what he should be working on:

“The response is wickedly visceral, immediate and unstoppable. My brain feels choked of oxygen, and lethargy swiftly casts the pallor of death over the day…unless I choose to do something else.”

It’s understandably hard to get anything done in that state! By taking a conscious approach to structured procrastination, however, he feels more relaxed about meeting his own deadlines, which has resulted in less stress:

“I think I’ve been more productive than I have in a while, albeit not in a rigorous sense. It’s all pretty groovy,” he writes.

If you’re excited about the idea but not quite ready (ahem) to give it a try, give a listen to Perry’s NPR interview on “All Things Considered.”

In it, he shares more examples of the positive feedback he’s received since his granddaughter posted his original structured procrastination essay on the internet.

He recounts how people have told him the theory has changed their life, even giving one the courage to stand up to her critical brother about her procrastination.

Ready to get started now?

If you’re ready to make structured procrastination work for you, then get ready to become a walking paradox: an efficient procrastinator.

Prime yourself to take advantage of the method. Once you’ve made your list, complete with your dreaded but non-urgent goal at the top, there’s really just one more thing you need to do. And don’t worry, it doesn’t take so much effort that you’ll want to put it off!

Just start bringing a greater awareness to your experience so that you start to notice when you’re procrastinating. That’s it.

When you feel yourself drifting over to Facebook or chatting up a co-worker to avoid your work, head back to your list. Look at the item at the top and feel the lethargy and pallor that Seah described sink in.

And then, relief. Procrastinate! Just do something else on the list instead.