In praise of tomorrow
John Perry's quest to make life easier for the procrastinator
"The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing," by John Perry, Workman Publishing Company, 112 pp., $12.95
It's a real shame that most of the people John Perry targets in his new book, "The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing," will never get around to reading it because they're too busy scrubbing clean pots, finishing last Sunday's crossword puzzle or sweeping crumbs and pennies from beneath their couch cushions.
It's a shame not just because Perry's book offers plenty of simple and practical tips to the chronic delayer. The witty, breezy volume also serves as a support group of sorts, a warm hug and a pat on the back to those of us all too skilled at tuning out that annoying sound of time's winged chariot hurrying near. He calls his book of musings "a sort of philosophical self-help program for depressed procrastinators" and he doesn't disappoint.
The scope of the book is mercifully limited. A veteran procrastinator himself, he knows his readership well and he points out in the conclusion that most self-help books for procrastinators look down on the habit. Perry's doesn't try to plumb the deeper mysteries of the procrastinator's psyche or engage in the type of neuroscience jargon that characterizes much of today's pop science. As the title makes clear, procrastination to Perry is an art, not a science — a fact that offers little comfort to those of us looking for a quick fix. No magic pill can cure us of our affliction (if one existed, we'd pop it first thing tomorrow). No surgery can fix us up (even if it could, we'd spend a year weighing its pros and cons). We can't even pin the blame on some obscure virus whose Latin name would at least lend our paralyzing condition a shred of dignity and legitimacy. No, when it comes to chronic procrastination, the enemy is within and defeating him typically involves an intricate chain of self-deception, self-flagellation and a rack of dishes that sparkle mischievously after repeated washings while a story lies unwritten or the manuscript lies unedited or the homework lies uncompleted while the clock ticks away.
Perry, a Stanford University philosophy professor, is here to guide us through the endless cycle of deception, disappointment and deadlines. The key, Perry claims, is to become a "structured procrastinator," which he defines as "a person who gets a lot done by not doing other things."
"Oddly enough, once we realize that we are structured procrastinators, not only do we feel better about ourselves but we also actually improve somewhat in our ability to get things done, because, once the miasma of guilt and despair clears, we have a better understanding of what keeps us from doing those things," Perry writes.
To cope with the problem, Perry prescribes a series of simple solutions with complicated names. Chief among these is "task triage," the art of sorting your list of tasks according to urgency and determining which of these tasks demand perfection and which can be relegated to the just-good-enough pile. The exercise is offered as a treatment for a symptom (or possibly the cause) of procrastination — the self-defeating drive toward perfection that keeps one from getting anything done. The task triage, Perry explains, gives the tortured procrastinator the permission to do an imperfect job right at the outset of the activity. By consciously deciding which tasks can be accomplished without perfection, the paralyzed perfectionist effectively turns down the pressure and frees himself up to proceed with no (or at least little) delay.
While task triage is Perry's solution to prioritizing projects, he relies on a more traditional tool for planning daily activities — the to-do list. To him, however, these lists are palliatives as much as directives. The Stanford philosopher understands the giddy comfort that comes with checking a box on a list, regardless of the activity being checked off ("It helps us to think of ourselves as doers, accomplishers, and not just lazy slugs. It gives us psychological momentum," Perry writes of checking boxes). His own to-do lists, which he says he tries to make before he goes to bed, are far from imposing. The first seven items on the list — turn off the alarm, don't hit the snooze button, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, don't get back in bed, go downstairs, make coffee — get accomplished by the time he sits down with his first coffee cup, as he points out.
The detailed to-do list is a particularly useful tool because it allows the procrastinator to break down large, daunting tasks into small, conquerable increments and to pat himself on the back at every increment. He finds similar guidance in Kaizen, the "Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement through small, implementable steps." He encourages his disciples to lean on these ancient teachings from the East.
"If you say you are adopting the Kaizen Way, rather than simply that you're trying to procrastinate less, you will sound like you have adopted a martial arts regimen," Perry writes. "That's kind of cool."
A cousin of the to-do list is the "not-to-do" list — Perry's preemptive strike against foreseeable distractions. His examples, which likely sound familiar to procrastinators and regular people alike, include "do not check email" and "do not start surfing the web." The latter habit, as the perpetual delayer knows too well, is particularly vexing, and Perry helpfully devotes an entire chapter to the love-hate relationship between the procrastinator and the computer. His solution? Surf only when you know you'll be interrupted.
"I log on when I'm already hungry or I'm sure my wife is going to pop in with some urgent task before too long or I am already feeling the first signs of a full bladder," Perry writes. "If you use a laptop, another ploy is to unplug it before you start your email; the spell will be broken when the battery dies — although as batteries improve, this technique becomes less useful."
Perry's prescriptions, whether for finishing projects or getting through the day, tend to target symptoms rather than the disease, which in his mind isn't such a bad one to have. It's good, for example, to play lively music in the morning (even if it's bad music) to get out of bed and inject some momentum into your day. It's also useful to collaborate on projects with non-procrastinators, who as Perry points out "will likely have already started on many tasks by the time you are ready to plunge in." His solutions are clear, easy to implement and demonstrate a deep, nuanced understanding of the procrastinator's inner dilemmas. He doesn't chide or slap wrists. You are who you are, gentle procrastinator, Perry seems to say. Live with it and let me help you.
At certain points in the book, Perry comes close to but stops just short of glorifying procrastinators. He acknowledges that procrastination is a "flaw, not a well-hidden virtue," but then spends much of his treatise praising this flaw with faint damning. The goal, he writes, "isn't to find a philosophy of life that makes procrastinators into heroes (although it might be fun to try to work out the principles). I simply want to note that it's not the worst flaw in the world; you can be a procrastinator and still get a lot of work done. Plus, with good self-deception skills and the little bit of willpower that allows you to manipulate yourself, you can become less of a procrastinator."
The problem he diagnoses is all too real and, for some of us, far too familiar. The solutions sound plausible and comforting. But desperate cases and those looking for more substantive changes (perhaps making that astronomical leap from "structured procrastinator" to "actual achiever") might need heavier medication. Reading "The Art of Procrastination" made me want to get crazy with checkmarks, compose a not-to-do list, flip my alarm-clock radio to a station that plays something jollier than static, close my browser and meet a few more go-getters. These things will get done. First thing tomorrow.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at email@example.com.