Julia Kanya on the science behind procrastination

So, let us envisage the following situation: you are a student (nothing new here) and revision time is looming like a beast that’s been lurking in the shadows, just waiting to make the final attack. You eventually sit down, colour-code your notes, pick up a pen, sharpen it… and remember that you should probably do some laundry. On the way back from the laundry room, you realise your carpet looks messy so you hoover. And also dust. Clean the windows, because you’re at it, so might as well make the extra effort. You go and get your clothes back, fold them into neat stashes and think that it might be a good idea to bake that awesome cake you bought all of the ingredients for last week. At the end of the day, revision is still a chimera, but now you have clean outfits, a sparking room and an amazing dessert. Procrastination, perhaps? No, you’re still being an effective human being.

2011’s Ig Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Professor John Perry from StanfordUniversity, an eminent philosophy scholar who finally coined the concept most of us are so familiar with that we take it out for coffee on a daily basis: the theory of structured procrastination. The idea is quite amazingly simple: to be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important. Ring a bell? In his 1996 article, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Perry argued that most procrastinators are usually perceived as efficient members of society, respected and admired by their peers for all of their extensive accomplishments and the way they put their time to good use. The key idea is that procrastinating does not necessarily have to mean doing absolutely nothing: most time-wasters devise a hierarchy of tasks and gradually work their way from the least important to the critical ones, only acknowledging critical deadlines at least a fortnight after they’ve passed.

Perry claims that some laggards get it wrong purely because they try to minimize the number of tasks they should accomplish, assuming that having fewer commitments will actually force them to get things done. However, this particular approach conflicts with the procrastinator’s basic nature and shatters his most important source of motivation: every task will seem equally and crucially important and avoiding them means plainly doing nothing. Thus, our dawdler gains the title of ‘couch potato’, instead of the community’s appraisal for being so productive.

By way of conclusion, Perry also argues that most procrastinators master the lost art of self-deception, since they are constantly inflicting a pyramid scheme on themselves: ‘One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel they are important and urgent.’ I’ll let my readers be the judges of that. And all things considered, this article is clearly not a way in which a 3rd year Medical student is trying to put off revising for an upcoming exam – it’s not procrastination, the correct term is ‘lateral creativity’!


Julie Kanya

 Image credit- [F]oxymoron