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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工作量,只要这些工作不是他当下应该做的。" —— Robert Benchley,摘自《Chips off the Old Benchley》,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.

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.
我曾经拥有的最完美的结构化拖延的情况是,当我和妻子在斯坦福大学的 Soto House 宿舍担任驻校研究员时。晚上,面对要批改的论文、要准备的讲座、要完成的委员会工作,我会离开宿舍旁边的小屋,到休息室和住校生打乒乓球,或者在他们的房间里与他们聊天,或者干脆坐在那里看报纸。我因此获得了一个出色驻校研究员的声誉,成为校园里为数不多的花时间与本科生在一起并了解他们的教授之一。多么理想的安排:打乒乓球成为不做更重要的事情的一种方式,还能获得 Chips 先生的美誉。

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.
诀窍在于为清单顶部选择合适类型的项目。理想的项目有两个特点。第一,它们似乎有明确的截止日期(但实际上没有)。第二,它们看起来非常重要(但实际上并非如此)。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,我相信大多数其他大型机构也是如此。就拿我现在清单最上面的项目来说吧。这是为一本语言哲学著作完成一篇论文。这篇论文本应在 11 个月前完成。为了逃避写作,我完成了大量重要的事情。几个月前,在内疚的困扰下,我给编辑写了一封信,表示我对拖稿感到抱歉,并表达了我开始工作的良好意愿。写这封信当然是逃避写文章的一种方式。结果发现,我的进度并没有比其他人落后太多。而且这篇文章到底有多重要呢?没有重要到不会有看似更重要的事情出现。到时候我再开始写吧。

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.
另一个例子是图书订购单。我在六月份写这篇文章。十月份,我将教授一门认识论课程。书店的图书订购单已经过期了。很容易将此视为一项重要任务,有紧迫的截止日期(对于你们这些不拖延的人,我会注意到,截止日期通常在截止后一两周才真正开始施加压力)。我几乎每天都能收到系里秘书的提醒,学生有时会问我我们将阅读什么,未填写的订购单就放在我桌子的正中央,就在我上周三吃的三明治的包装下面。这项任务在我的清单上排在前列;它困扰着我,激励我去做其他有用但表面上不那么重要的事情。但实际上,书店已经忙于处理那些不拖延者提交的表格了。我可以在仲夏把我的表格交上去,一切都会好起来的。我只需要从高效的出版商那里订购流行的知名书籍。从现在到 8 月 1 日之间的某个时候,我会接受其他一些看似更重要的任务。然后我的心理就会觉得填写订购单是一种不做这项新任务的舒服方式。

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?