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Get more done - procrastinate!


Roman Lubynsky

My original intent for this month's column was to look at personal task management tools. Like most people, I have many projects and commitments encompassing both my professional and personal lives; keeping track of all the things I have to get done is challenging.

But there's another dimension to my difficulties: procrastination. For
example, every month I get this column in at the very last moment. It's not that I plan it that way. My intentions are to start and finish early, but then somewhere along the way it gets put aside and I shift my attention to other projects and activities. It's not forgotten; it's continuously hovering in my mind. Finally, as the due date passes, I put other things on hold and complete it.

In avoiding writing this column I have stumbled across an amazing discovery – Structured Procrastination. John Perry, a Stanford philosophy professor, has developed a strategy that leverages putting things off into a powerful motivational tool that enables you to accomplish far more. His insight is that "The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.  Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact."

The trick is to properly structure your to-do list so you are enticed to work on the tasks lower down while avoiding the ones at the top. Perry advises that the key is in selecting top-priority tasks that are relatively important that appear to have clear deadlines, but actually can slide some.  By purposefully avoiding the No. 1 thing on your list, you can accomplish many other seemingly less critical tasks. 

On the day I wrote this, in an impressive burst of creative procrastination, I finished a report for a client, cleared off my desk, sent out a wedding card and birthday card, written e-mails to a niece and nephew, and completed a bunch of items off my wife's household to do-list – all to avoid actually writing this column.

This brings us to another critical element in the strategy – the timing for replacing the top priority task with a new one. By avoiding that new task, you can complete and dispose of the old one. Think of this as just-in-time productivity. I'm sure you can see and appreciate the beauty of Perry's thinking.

I have a few observations to add.  First, even though I haven't actually done a task, it doesn't mean that I haven't been thinking about it. In order to get the delicate timing just right, I have to have a good handle on it; which means a significant level of research, planning and analysis. Arguably, this ultimately leads to higher-quality work as you trim non-essential elements and focus on a clear target.

Second, don't blink too early on the prioritization timing. Occasionally, what was important a couple of months ago has been superseded by something else and you learn the original task no longer needs doing.

Finally, procrastination sometimes produces something better than your original thoughts.  This column is a case in point – isn't this more interesting than task management software? It was due days ago, but will be submitted just in time for publication.  Plus I still have that original topic for the next column along with a great headstart on avoiding it.

The elegance of structured procrastination and its power in getting other things done is impressive. Although I have long been practicing procrastination, I haven't been as productive as I could be.  With Perry's insights I'll be able to take task avoidance to new levels and get more things done.

Roman Lubynsky is a technology consultant based in Boston. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he has an MS in Management of technology from MIT.

Roman can be reached at roman@lubynsky.com

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