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Structured Procrastination

The Author Procrastinating

Author practices jumping rope with seaweed while work awaits.

``. . . anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment." -- Robert Benchley, in Chips off the Old Benchley, 1949
"......任何人都可以完成任何数量的工作,只要不是他当时应该做的工作。" -- 罗伯特·本奇利,《本奇利的旧芯片》,1949 年

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, 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.
我一直想写这篇文章好几个月了。为什么我现在才这样做?因为我终于找到了一些空闲时间吗?错了。我有论文要批改、教科书订单要填写、NSF 提案要审查、论文初稿要阅读。我写这篇文章是为了不去做所有那些事情。这就是我所谓的"有结构的拖延症",一种神奇的策略,让拖延者变成高效的人,受到尊重和赞赏,因为他们能完成很多事情,并且很好地利用时间。所有拖延者都会推迟去做他们必须做的事情。有结构的拖延症就是让这个坏习惯为你所用的艺术。关键是拖延并不意味着什么都不做。拖延者很少彻底什么都不做;他们会做一些边边角角的事情,比如园艺、削铅笔或绘制一张重新整理文件的流程图。为什么拖延者会做这些事情?因为这是一种逃避更重要事物的方式。如果拖延者只剩下削铅笔这个任务,地球上没有任何力量可以让他去做。然而,只要这些艰难、及时和重要的任务成为逃避更重要事物的一种方式,就能够激励拖延者去做。

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

The most perfect situation for structured procrastination that I ever had was when my wife and I served as Resident Fellows in Soto House, a Stanford dormitory. In the evening, faced with papers to grade, lectures to prepare, committee work to be done, I would leave our cottage next to the dorm and go over to the lounge and play ping-pong with the residents, or talk over things with them in their rooms, or just sit there and read the paper. I got a reputation for being a terrific Resident Fellow, and one of the rare profs on campus who spent time with undergraduates and got to know them. What a set up: play ping pong as a way of not doing more important things, and get a reputation as Mr. Chips.
我妻子和我担任斯坦福大学 Soto House 宿舍的住宿助理时,是我经历过的最理想的有结构拖延情况。在晚上,面对着要批改的论文、要准备的讲座、要完成的委员会工作,我会离开我们在宿舍旁边的小屋,去休息室和学生们打乒乓球,或者在他们的房间里聊天,或者只是坐在那里读报纸。我因此获得了一个出色的住宿助理的好评,并且成为校园里为数不多花时间与本科生相处并且了解他们的教授之一。这是一个多么完美的安排:打乒乓球作为一种不做更重要事情的方式,却获得了"晚钟老师"的美誉。

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

At this point you may be asking, "How about the important tasks at the top of the list, that one never does?" Admittedly, there is a potential problem here.

The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. In universities the vast majority of tasks fall into this category, and I'm sure the same is true for most other large institutions. Take for example the item right at the top of my list right now. This is finishing an essay for a volume in the philosophy of language. It was supposed to be done eleven months ago. I have accomplished an enormous number of important things as a way of not working on it. A couple of months ago, bothered by guilt, I wrote a letter to the editor saying how sorry I was to be so late and expressing my good intentions to get to work. Writing the letter was, of course, a way of not working on the article. It turned out that I really wasn't much further behind schedule than anyone else. And how important is this article anyway? Not so important that at some point something that seems more important won't come along. Then I'll get to work on it.
诀窍在于为列表顶端选择正确的项目。理想的任务有两个特点,第一,它们好像有明确的截止日期(但实际上没有)。第二,它们看起来非常重要(但实际上并不重要)。幸运的是,生活中充满了这样的任务。在大学里,绝大多数任务都属于这一类别,我相信在大多数其他大机构也是如此。例如,我现在列表顶端的一项就是为一本语言哲学论文集完成一篇文章。它本应在 11 个月前就完成。为了不写这篇文章,我完成了大量重要的事情。几个月前,受内疚困扰,我写了一封信给编辑,对迟交表示歉意并表达了努力写作的良好意向。当然,写那封信也是一种不写文章的方式。结果表明,我的拖延程度其实并不比别人更糟。而且,这篇文章究竟有多重要呢?没有那么重要,以至于某一刻出现了看似更重要的事情,我就会开始着手这篇文章了。

Another example is book order forms. I write this in June. In October, I will teach a class on Epistemology. The book order forms are already overdue at the book store. It is easy to take this as an important task with a pressing deadline (for you non-procrastinators, I will observe that deadlines really start to press a week or two after they pass.) I get almost daily reminders from the department secretary, students sometimes ask me what we will be reading, and the unfilled order form sits right in the middle of my desk, right under the wrapping from the sandwich I ate last Wednesday. This task is near the top of my list; it bothers me, and motivates me to do other useful but superficially less important things. But in fact, the book store is plenty busy with forms already filed by non-procrastinators. I can get mine in mid-Summer and things will be fine. I just need to order popular well-known books from efficient publishers. I will accept some other, apparently more important, task sometime between now and, say, August 1st. Then my psyche will feel comfortable about filling out the order forms as a way of not doing this new task.
另一个例子是教科书订单表。我写这篇文章的时间是 6 月。十月份我要教一门认识论课程。订书表格在书店已经过期了。对你们这些非拖延者来说,我要说的是,截止日期真正开始紧迫的时间是在过了一两周之后。我几乎每天都会收到系秘书的提醒,学生有时也会问我们将要阅读哪些书,而那张未填写的订单表就摆在我桌子正中央,就在我上周三吃的三明治包装纸下面。这个任务排在我的列表靠前位置;它让我觉得烦恼,并促使我去做其他看似次要但有用的事情。但实际上,书店已经忙于处理其他人提交的订单。我可以在夏季中期交上表格,一切都会很好。我只需订购常见且出版商高效的畅销书籍。在现在到 8 月 1 日这段时间里,我会接受另一项看似更重要的任务。然后我的内心就会觉得舒服,可以填写订书表格作为不去做这个新任务的一种方式了。

The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly. One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines, while making oneself feel that they are important and urgent. This is not a problem, because virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also. And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?