Weeds: Structured procrastination

Whenever Randy asks me to write this column, he gives me a heads-up, then a deadline, then a reminder, then a check-up.

“Yep, I’m on it,” I told him sometime in August.

“I’ve got several ideas I’m kicking around,” I told him in September, and this was true.

“Oh yeah, I know the deadline,” I told him when he inquired a little more insistently last week.

He checked up at 5:24 p.m. Monday, but I didn’t answer because I was writing and didn’t want to be interrupted.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve liked to write and have been a fast writer. Working as a newspaper reporter and editor honed that aptitude even further. But this last week, I was thinking about writing the column in between staining my deck and painting a watercolor as a gift for an Oct. 19 wedding. The RSVP card was due the first week of September.

All that got me thinking maybe I’d better examine my ability to procrastinate. One of my favorite lines in a favorite song by my favorite band, Counting Crows, is “if you’ve never stared off into the distance, then your life is a shame.” Everybody procrastinates to some degree, and some psychologists suggest that it filters out tasks that really weren’t that important in the first place. The trick for 20 to 25 percent of chronic procrastinators is recognizing when you’re disappointing people, not doing your share or on the verge of getting fired.

Better start with some reading and research, I thought. Psychology Today’s website has a whole bunch of articles on procrastination. “Procrastination and Morality” made me think about it in a whole new, kind of scary, way. “A History of Procrastination” also cited morality:

“Numerous admonitions in the Christian Bible also speak to humankind’s perennial tendency to put things off,” the article author writes.” Jesus taught that reconciling with our adversaries should be done, immediately (Matthew 5:23-24). Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry,” echoes Ephesians (4:26). From these ancient sources we learn that procrastination is a spoiler of morality. It’s not enough to know what is right. Personal discipline must close the gap between a good intention and a good deed.”

OK, in a lot of life, agreed.

Other articles told me that procrastination is expensive. Americans waste millions of dollars by filing their taxes late and putting off signing up for 401(k) accounts. Some writers suggest procrastination is a function of humans’ horrible ability to process time. We’re wired for immediate rewards-mastodon steaks today, not dried lentil stew this winter. People also vastly underestimate how much time it will take to do something. We assume everything will go off without a hitch, that biting, cold torrential rain won’t be forecast the day we want to finish the deck. And our goals and priorities change as time goes by, even short times like days and weeks. Starting Season 1, Episode 1 of “Parks and Recreation” on Netflix was higher on the priority list last week, before frost was predicted, and we hadn’t caulked our windows.

So, was I really a moral failure for taking on too many projects at one time and waiting until the last minute to finish them all, I wondered? Then, the terms “structured procrastination” or “productive procrastination” started popping up, alongside essays by a main proponent, John Perry, a philosophy professor. Perry wrote “The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing.” I laughed out loud at his website photo with the caption “Author practices jumping rope with seaweed while work awaits,” but Perry makes some valid points.

“Are procrastinators truly unproductive?” he asks. “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. The truth is that most procrastinators are structured procrastinators. This means that although they may be putting off something deemed important, their way of not doing the important thing is to do something else.”

He’s got some practical suggestions, too. Instead of taking on fewer tasks, Perry advises dawdlers to put certain projects at the top of their to-do lists. These should be tasks that seem to have clear-cut deadlines (not really) and seem to be important (not really). Then, list things you actually want to get done. The classic dawdler will chose an item further down the list, thereby putting off the “priority” items. Brilliant.

A related study that caught my eye while doing “research” contrasted clean desks vs. messy desks. A psychological scientist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management got interested in the topic after she moved to a new, modern office. Her test subjects seemed to act differently in the new environment. She developed another study with a workspace that was either clean or messy, then had subjects sit down and do specific tasks. Turns out the messiness of your workspace affects decision-making and creativity.

“When people are in a tidy room, they seem to perform behaviors and make decisions that go along with what’s expected,” the researcher said in one interview. “People in the messy room are more creative. Cluttered minds can lead to all kinds of pathways and solutions.”

Turns out, as I finish writing and look at my office/painting studio/dining room table, I’m feeling pretty darn good about myself.

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