John Perry, a Stanford University emeritus professor, made the study of philosophy's mysteries his life's work. After 37 years at the lectern, he finally got around to distilling that acquired wisdom into a magnum opus of sorts tailored more to the interests of a general audience than to those of his fellow academicians.
In "The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing" (Workman, 2012) Perry delivers the insights of a lifelong introspective dawdler.
He's sorry it took him so long to complete.
Perry, also co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio program "Philosophy Talk," recently shared his thoughts with BusinessNewsDaily on procrastinators and the powers of positive procrastination.
BusinessNewsDaily: Are procrastinators born or made? Is procrastination a conscious choice or accident of heredity?
John Perry: It may be that procrastinators are born; perhaps there is a gene corresponding to some useful adaptation on the savanna of prehistoric times that in our world shows up as procrastination. Who knows? I suspect, however, that it is basically a response to control. Your parents may have the power to make you do things, but you retain control of when you do them. And then your boss is in control. And then sometimes part of you is in active rebellion against another part. So it's a little like anorexia, I suppose, but not as unhealthy.
BND: What is the real beauty of a to-do list?
JP: To-lists can be useful to remind us what to do, but I think their main utility is to allow us to check things off as we do them, giving ourselves a pat on the back and motivation to keep going for the rest of the day. That's why it's important to have lots of easy tasks, broken into small parts: Get out of bed, make the coffee, drink it ... There you have done three things by the time you have your first cup of coffee, and the day is off to a flying start.
BND: How can procrastination be a positive virtue?
JP: "Positive virtue" may be a bit strong. It's a flaw, but it's not like you are a child molester or a serial killer or Bernie Madoff. On the other hand, if you went through history and took away all the novels and plays and poems and inventions that people came up with while they were supposed to be doing something else, you would take away a good bit of our culture.
For the individual procrastinator, there can be some advantages. Who hasn't had a task that disappeared while you were putting off getting started on it?
BND: Why do procrastinators get such a bad rap?. Credit: Photo of John Perry courtesy of Workman
JP: Well they certainly do. You can read about how we are all on the verge of alcoholism and depression, are driving everyone around us nuts, and driving the world's economy into the hole through our nonproductive ways. This is mostly BS. Most procrastinators ―at least structured procrastinators, like me, who do one thing as a way of not doing something else that they should be doing ―are quite productive. Most procrastinators aren't lazy. Lots us them are creative.
One thing they also often are is annoying. This is usually because they deny being procrastinators and claim they just have a deep insight into the importance of whatever it is they do to waste time. This understandably annoys spouses, bosses, colleagues and subordinates. If you admit that you are a procrastinator, however, most people will recognize that you do make a contribution in your own peculiar way.
BND: From an evolutionary perspective, how does procrastination pay off in survival of the fittest?
JP: Well, it's fun to think about how various traits that we now think of as flaws might be related to things that were useful long ago. ADHD, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is now, as the name suggests, thought of as a disorder, especially common in little boys who are given drugs for it. But there weren't schools and schoolwork and homework on the savanna, and who knows, those who were easily distracted might have served a very useful function —maybe they were the most reliable early warning systems for lions and tigers, because they didn't get as absorbed in their work as others. Maybe there is something like that we could come up with for procrastinators. Perhaps they were useful because they kept coming up with new thing to do, as ways of not doing what they were supposed to, and these new things led to fire and the wheel and now the Internet. Like I said, this is fun, but it's not very scientific, I'm afraid.
BND: What is a "structured procrastinator"?
JP: A structured procrastinator is someone who has things he or she is supposed to do but usually find themselves doing something else instead. So the structured procrastinator may get a lot done. Being a procrastinator doesn't mean being lazy. Structured procrastinators may get a lot done, just not always what they are supposed to get done. And usually they do get that done at the last minute, too. If you are a structured procrastinator and realize it, there are some strategies for minimizing the bad effects of your tendency to procrastinate. These sometimes require a little self-manipulation and even self-deception, but many procrastinators have these skills.
BND: What would the world be like if there were no procrastinators?
JP: Well, I wouldn't be here, so that's a loss, from my point of view. Like I said, I think there are all sorts of creative ideas that no one would have come up with in such a world. Who knows, maybe our ability to produce fire was due to someone who was playing with flint and bark when they were supposed to be skinning an antelope? Maybe the wheel was invented by someone who got obsessed with knocking the corners off a rock until none were left, when he was supposed to be throwing the rocks at his neighbors.
BND: Is procrastination curable?
JP: Probably. There are certainly a lot of books that claim they can help you. There is one, "The Procrastinator's Digest" by Timothy Pychyl, that seems to me better than most of the others — it is short, for one thing. On the whole, however, my recommendation is to try living with it while working around the edges, using tools of self-manipulation, to avoid its worse consequences.
BND: Have you ever wished you weren't a procrastinator?
JP: All the time. At least until I wrote this book. It's been a lot of fun, and I would have missed out on all that.
BND: Are there different categories of procrastinators and procrastinating?
JP: Yes, definitely. There are the structured procrastinators, the ones I am mostly talking about and talking to. Some of them have issues with perfectionism, so that's one subtype. Some procrastinators have really deep problems, often related to depression. My little book probably won't help them much. They need a shrink or maybe some medication. Lighthearted philosophy can only get us so far.