The Art of Procrastination

I reviewed books for a local magazine, Business in Greater Gainesville, from 2016-2018. This was one of my favorites, published in 2017 (slightly updated).

Full disclosure: I procrastinated choosing a book for this review. I submitted it in time, though, so no harm done. And that is precisely one of the points of The Art of Procrastination, a short, smart book by Stanford emeritus professor of philosophy John Perry. He suggests we stop beating ourselves up for delaying work and recognize that by procrastinating one task, we’re still accomplishing others. As he puts it in his subtitle, this is “a guide to effective dawdling, lollygagging and postponing, or getting things done by putting them off.”

In 1995 Perry wrote an article aimed at people who feel bad about themselves for their tendency to procrastinate. That essay touched a nerve, and based on all the feedback he received he eventually wrote this book, publishing it in 2012.  He’s half joking when he describes his structured procrastination strategy as a ‘philosophical self-help program.’

In general, Perry says, structured procrastinators get more done. Priorities may not be their focus, but they are accomplishing things. Eventually the priority job gets completed, usually because some other task is acquired that they procrastinate more!

Perry is clear that he offers no cures for procrastination, but his tactics, and a little bit of self-deception, can make things better.  First up is task triage, or prioritizing by urgency. He also asks us to consider the notion that sometimes “the best” isn’t necessary. Doing a less-than-perfect job is okay in certain situations. What a relief to even consider this notion.

The daily to-do list isn’t a new idea, and most people know the satisfaction of checking items off as they complete them. Perry suggests breaking down tasks into smaller ones (more to check off!), and also including what not to do, which is a clever idea. A list may not be a cure, but it does help a procrastinator feel more productive.

Use music. I was happily surprised by this chapter. I agree with Perry about the power of music, as well as the song he referenced: “Get Rhythm” by Johnny Cash. Music can help you get things done, propelling you forward with notes and melody, percussion and rhythm. If you find yourself procrastinating, try experimenting with different types of music while starting the thing you’re putting off… you may look up an hour later and realize you’ve hit upon your personal power playlist!

Perry called his next chapter about email and the internet, ‘Surfing without drowning.’ His idea is to establish some rules and tricks for yourself. For example, only get online when you know you’ll be interrupted. Let’s say you’re planning on going out to eat: the trick is to get ready early and then log on a half hour before you have to leave. Yes, it’s more self-deception, but whatever works. He’s a philosopher, we can trust him on basic human behavior, ha.

In the workplace – home or office – the worst thing for a procrastinator is to have files out of sight in a file cabinet or desk drawer. While that works for Perry’s “vertical organizers,” most procrastinators are horizontal organizers. Bare spots on your desk? That’s a “dead giveaway” you’re a vertical organizer. Someone really needs to work on his ingenious idea of a huge round desk with a Lazy Susan in the middle. Just spread your work out and rotate to whatever needs your attention! Until then, go ahead and stack your folders and notebooks all over your desk, and ignore the side eye of any vertical organizer around you.

Perry made me laugh with his useful tips on how to collaborate with non-procrastinators. His sense of humor is wry and dry, and he freely admits his faults, failures and shortcomings. Go ahead and put off whatever task you’ve been avoiding just a little longer and read this book instead.


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