Master of Procrastination

The other day I stumbled on an article on procrastination in the science section of The New York Times. I was, of course, procrastinating — I needed to do several things that required calling people and replying to emails and making decisions — but I was doing constructive procrastination: After all, if you write science fiction you need to keep up with science.

The article included a link to a survey, so, in the interest of further procrastination, I filled it out. To no one’s great surprise — least of all mine — I’m not just a run of the mill procrastinator. I’m a master procrastinator.

It’s nice to know I’ve mastered something.

Judging by the article, I actually have mastered some of the coping skills of the serious procrastinator. I avoid doing something I don’t want to do by working on something else. For example, right now I’m avoiding making those phone calls, emails, and decisions by writing this week’s blog post, which while it doesn’t need to be finished for a couple more days, does need to get done. And earlier today I avoided working on my expense report for work by writing a news story for work — an excuse my boss will accept.

(We will not talk about the amount of work time I have devoted to spider solitaire.)

In my childhood, I discovered that reading was a wonderful form of procrastination. When you’re reading, you always feel like you’re doing something important, regardless of whether you’re reading your school assignment or a Nancy Drew book. I still use this technique (witness my perusal of The New York Times science section).

I was born to be a master procrastinator, but I might have felt guilty about this career path if I hadn’t come upon an interview with Jules Ffieffer early on in which he pointed out that the advantage of working in a variety of media — he did cartoons, plays, and other creative acts — was that you always had something else to work on when you were confronted with a deadline for one of them.

In truth, I have discovered great creative surges in other directions when faced with a deadline for an unpleasant task.

I rarely blow deadlines — or rather, I rarely blow deadlines that are serious. In my day job I write for daily publications and I tend to get my copy in at the last minute, but on time. Could I get the work done earlier if I didn’t procrastinate? Probably, but where’s the fun in that?

Besides I have figured out an important point over the years: not all deadlines or projects are really important.  The Times article referred to updated advice from John Perry, author of the recently released 92-page book — 17 years in the writing — The Art of Procrastination. According to The Times, Perry has rewritten the old rule about never putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. His version?

Never do today any task that may disappear by tomorrow.

I have noticed that many tasks actually do disappear if you put them off long enough, and at least some of them disappear because they weren’t important in the first place.

The article had hints on constructive procrastination. One that caught my eye is to put a daunting task with a firm deadline at the top of your to-do list, so that you’ll procrastinate about it by doing other tasks farther down the list. The trick is to find a daunting task that is not nearly as important as it sounds.

But for a writer, the best advice in the entire article came from Raymond Chandler. Apparently he got his novels written by setting aside four hours per day and following two rules:

a) You don’t have to write.

b) You can’t do anything else.

I’m planning to give those a try. Do you think writing blog posts counts as writing?

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Master of Procrastination — 4 Comments

  1. The intro to the survey says that they are Investigating the relationship between procrastination and personality —. Of course, researchers commonly lie to subjects of psychological tests, saying that they’re studying A, when they’re really studying B, so that you won’t be self-conscious about B. The questions included procrastination, family relationship, satisfaction with various things about your job, and sexist and authoritarian views. Agree/Disagree with things like “Managers shouldn’t consult subordinates when making decisions”, and “There are few jobs that aren’t done better by a man than a woman.” Makes me most curious about what they’re doing!

    • I noticed that, too. I wonder if people who don’t think managers should be absolute monarchs test high on procrastination. As a believer worker-run businesses, I tend to reject hierarchies built on the “because I said so” model.

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