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Self-help for procrastinators

A professor of philosophy at Stanford explains his Ig Nobel-winning theory

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Had he not been procrastinating, this book may never have been written. So how come this self-confessed procrastinator managed to write this peerless 92-page volume on the fine art of procrastination? That's because it is a diversion for this emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University from his real work: grading papers, filling out textbook orders, refereeing a National Science Foundation proposal and reading dissertation drafts.

As he helpfully explains, "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 accomplish and the good use they make of time."

Professor Perry is a respected philosopher who has written on the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, the book jacket tells us (and confirmed by Google). But it is this book-length essay with its deprecating, Thurber-like humour that won him that coveted accolade, the Ig Nobel Prize for 2011. As a habitual procrastinator, may I say it is fully deserved. At last, I have a legitimate reason to, say, read Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho's comments on the shocking refereeing in Tuesday night's Champions League clash against Manchester United instead of vetting a post-Budget article. Or listen to Walking on Sunshine on YouTube instead of finishing this review on time and putting my colleague working on the edit page out of her misery.

The truth is, I feel virtuous about indulging in these diversions because I am the victim of the unstructured procrastination of five other book reviewers who had promised - in that insincere cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die kind of way - to submit their reviews yesterday. So, I have been torn from my structured procrastinating activities to write this review even though I had read the book four weeks ago and should have written the review then. Indeed, downloading Walking on Sunshine during office hours was part of this exercise since it is a peppy pop song Professor Perry recommends. (On reading accounts of last night's match, er, that's got to be useful the next time the editor wants an edit on the business of sport.)

This is a "philosophical self-help program for depressed procrastinators". It prevents them from feeling bad about not doing the jobs they're supposed to do until the absolutely very last minute and makes everyone think they're actually great time managers.

For instance, as a resident Fellow at Stanford, Professor Perry's evenings were filled with: papers to grade, lectures to prepare and so on. What did he do? Go to the students' lounge and "play Ping-Pong with the residents or talk over things with them in their rooms, or just sit there and read the newspaper". The result: "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 setup - playing Ping-Pong as a way of not doing more important things and getting a reputation as Mr Chips."

Once Professor Perry has convinced you not to despise yourself for procrastinating, he takes pains to disabuse you of any high-minded notions you may harbour. The connection between perfectionism and procrastination, for example. He writes: "Many procrastinators do not realise that they are perfectionists, for the simple reason that we have never done anything perfectly or even nearly so... We think, quite mistakenly, that being a perfectionist implies, often or sometimes, or at least once, having completed a task to perfection. But this is a misunderstanding of the basic dynamic of perfectionism."

He goes on to explain "perfectionism in the relevant sense". He may want to, for instance, write the most wonderful referee's report on a manuscript. To do this, he needs to access the library. Or maybe set up a proxy server to access JSTOR, an online source for academic journals, at home. This takes several hours, after which the manuscript in question disappears under a pile of other papers. Then, at last, he gets a reminder from the editor that the deadline is past. He pictures her losing her job or the author of the manuscript losing tenure because he's failed to deliver. So he digs through the debris on his desk and eventually writes "a perfectly adequate report". Journalists will instantly recognise this scenario; only, we like to call it "creative tension".

From chapter 3 onwards, Professor Perry provides a step-by-step approach to structured procrastination. Read it carefully; it's truly helpful in promoting that feeling of accomplishment from doing little. In "To-Do Lists", there's also "defensive to-do list making" - such as not googling Meg Ryan after watching When Harry Met Sally the night before since that'll take you into all sorts of tangents from your main goal of procrastination.

Hmmm. I've come to the end of this review. This book is my new bible. Should I now do the work I'm supposed to and check the op-ed page? Or maybe I should listen to Lacy J Dalton's rendition of Black Coffee to check the veracity of the author's recommendation, and hope the editor isn't reading this.

The Art of Procrastination
John Perry
Viking Penguin; 92 pages; Rs 299

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First Published: Wed, March 06 2013. 21:20 IST