Writing and the Creative Life: “The Power of Structured Procrastination”

“The beauty of the structured procrastination method is that it recognizes the extreme challenge in changing that pro-tomorrow vein, and runs with it instead of against it.”

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I am not immune to work. Indeed, I am probably one of the hardest working people I know, regularly clocking in with 80–100 hours per week doing all the things I do in this odd professional lifestyle I’ve cobbled together for myself. But even as efficient as I have become over the years in getting things done, occasionally I get stalled by a specific type of procrastination.

It typically involves a task that is big, complicated, and will require a large chunk of time, energy and concentration to complete. Since I have so many other things on my daily work list, I’m pretty easily able to dive into those instead of the more pressing and significant Big Ticket Item.

The problem with that approach, as with any undertaking subject to sustained procrastination, is the tasks doesn’t go away, it doesn’t get any easier, and in fact often becomes more of a hassle to handle the longer I wait.

Of course, I know this from the get-go, yet faced with a list of responsibilities for the day, sometimes I will busy myself with lots of other items that need to be taken care of convincing myself this is the best course of action.

Meanwhile the Big Thing sits there festering…

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If every task I took care of was just busy work, that would be one thing. But how I handle all the stuff on my plate directly impacts the time and energy I have for my own personal creative pursuits. And I really don’t want to carry over my procrastination to that arena.

Thus when I stumbled upon this article — “The Power of Structured Procrastination” — I was immediately curious. Structured? Procrastination? Riffing off an old George Carlin bit, those two words don’t seem to go together like “Jumbo Shrimp” or “Military Intelligence.”

So I cracked open the article written by Walter Chen and found his thesis to be an intriguing one:

There’s that one “Very Important Task” that you really should be getting done. The one that gives you that familiar feeling of resistance: No, no, please — anything but Very Important Task! Here’s the move that goes against the grain: put that task on hold. Give into your inclination to procrastinate.

Meanwhile, consider your to-do list. There are always a number of tasks of varying importance that you should get to at some point.

Now that you’ve yielded to the urge to procrastinate, instead of turning to shiny time-wasting activities, however, start a different task from your list that needs attention.

The beauty of the structured procrastination method is that it recognizes the extreme challenge in changing that pro-tomorrow vein, and runs with it instead of against it. You can take that feeling of “I’d rather do anything than this particular thing” — which normally sends you to sort the sock drawer or go on a Netflix spree — and use it as a force for productivity. As Stanford philosophy professor, John Perry, who wrote a great essay about structured procrastination, notes, “With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” and “an effective human being.”

That sounds very much like what I already do, putting other responsibilities ahead of the Very Important Task. How to use this approach to take on the Big One?

Rank projects that seem quite significant yet have more flexible deadlines at the top instead like reorganizing your workspace or learning a new technique. You’ll probably also find that there are newer Very Important Tasks that have joined your list, making that original one look all the more alluring.

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The bonus to all this is that the usually crippling guilt that undermines your motivation is transformed into fuel for momentum. As more things start getting done, you’ll realize that the procrastinator at heart has become one those highly productive people!

The thinking here seems to be two-fold:

Raised a Southern Baptist, I was trained in the mentality found in the Biblical verse (James 2:17): “Faith without works is dead.” That can be an effective motivator, however I’d prefer not having the threat of eternal damnation hanging over my head when avoiding a Very Important Task.

At the very least, structured procrastination sounds friendlier.

So next time, I think I’ll go that route.

How about you? How do you handle procrastination, especially related to your creative activities?

For the rest of the article, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

For more Writing and the Creative Life posts, go here.

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