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Learn the Art of Procrastination

A Stanford professor argues that procrastinating isn't so bad--as long as you do it right.
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Usually we think of procrastination as a bad habit to kick or a personal flaw that needs to be overcome with sheer willpower and a touch of self-trickery. But according to a new book, that's the entirely wrong way to look at the tendency to put things off until the last possible minute. 

John Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University and the author of The Art of Procrastination, recently explained his out-of-the-box thinking on procrastination in an essay for The Wall Street Journal. Procrastinators aren't actually slackers, he writes; they just have a different way of doing things:

Are procrastinators truly unproductive? In most cases, the exact opposite is true. They are people who not only get a lot done but have a reputation for getting a lot done. They don't have neat desks or even neat desktops on their laptops. They spend a lot of time playing catch-up. But they are likely to be creative and on the whole amiable.

In fact, as unlikely as the idea may sound to dedicated schedule keepers, Perry isn't the only voice out there championing a reevaluation of procrastination. When I wrote about scientific advice for curing procrastination a few years back, the comments section quickly filled with readers expressing their procrastinator pride and angrily denouncing the idea that being a bit of a dawdler was something you needed to fight like an illness. For these folks, it was a badge of honor, a legitimate work-style choice or a sign of creativity.

But if procrastination isn't so harmful after all, why do so many other folks complain bitterly about their tendency (or their colleagues' tendency) to put things off? Because many of us are going about being procrastinators all wrong, replies Perry, who offers several tips to improve your procrastination skills (yes, apparently there are such things):

First, don't listen to most of the advice offered to procrastinators by people who don't have this particular flaw. For example: "Keep your commitments to a minimum, so you won't be distracted." This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being. If a procrastinator doesn't want to work on something, it won't help to have nothing else to do. It's better to have lots of things to do, so you can work on some of them as a way of not doing the task that, for whatever reason, you seek to avoid.

Second, don't sit around feeling bad because you lack willpower. That will make you a depressed procrastinator but won't help you get anything done. Most of us lack all kinds of powers. I can't lift my car by the bumper in order to change a tire. That's what jacks are for. I can't add long columns of figures in my head. That's what calculators are for. Tools give us the ability to make up for what we lack in native powers. The procrastinator has tools that allow him to manipulate himself to achieve results he can't get with willpower alone.

A third bit of advice: avoid perfectionism. I don't mean avoid doing things perfectly. If you are at all like me, that's not a problem. I mean avoid fantasizing about doing things perfectly. Often procrastination is just a way of giving ourselves permission to do a less-than-perfect job on something that doesn't require a perfect job anyway.

Perry offers more ideas for being a more artful procrastinator in the essay, so check it out if you are a member of the tribe of procrastinators (or go for the deep dive with his book, which is due out this month).

Or, if you're looking for more counterintuitive thinking on the topic, check out this recent post arguing that, contrary to conventional opinion, Type A folks can be procrastinators, too--just a slightly different flavor of procrastinator. 

What do you make of the idea of embracing and perfecting your tendency toward procrastination? 

 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Aug 29, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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