A Lesson in Procrastination

Let’s re-frame the discussion surrounding procrastination. Yes, it’s a bad habit, but if you’ve gotten this far as a procrastinator, chances are you’re probably not going to change.  Instead, let’s think about all the fringe benefits.  After all, procrastinators tend to accomplish quite a lot while they’re putting off other things, and meanwhile, tasks they don’t accomplish sometimes disappear.  John Perry, emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford, delves into the hidden upsides of dawdling and dallying in his new book, The Art of Procrastination.

If procrastination is an art, like the painter who favors watercolors, we all have our medium of choice. Putting things off is tough at a deadline-driven place like Workman, but this is an industrious group, so we manage. Here’s how Workmanites procrastinate:

I make “to do” lists. I also spend a lot of time researching things that I don’t need to know about.

Favorite techniques include:

– organizing my desk
– cleaning out my personal email inbox
– commenting on my friends’ kids’ cute photos on Facebook
– cleaning out the refrigerator
– cooking pretty much anything

It’s really important to “check the news.” If I’m going to procrastinate, it has to be under the guise of work, so I’ll go to NYT, Daily Beast, Huff Po, Atlantic. Then I should really check in with my “authors” on FB. Just quickly. And then there’s always the AWESOME Workman blog. That’s my absolute favorite productive procrastination site.
—Mary Ellen

Snacking! Making lists including things I’ve just done and crossing out the latter to make me feel better!
—Carol S.

No question here. Watching “Say Yes to the Dress.” On TiVO, no commercials, 20 minutes tops.

I tend to procrastinate in ways that seem somewhat productive, so that I don’t feel horribly guilty about it afterwards. One of my vices is reading the news—I’ll read the same few stories as presented on multiple websites (everything from The New York Times or the BBC to io9). I also have a tendency to read whatever I’m organizing, so that filing or cleaning out the magazines under my bed can take ages!
—Sarah G.

Nothing beats touching each pile of paper in my office at least once, beginning with the hope that one pile can be dealt with, before the realization that the piles can always be productively moved from place to place. This can be repeated endlessly.

I am a master procrastinator! I usually watch TV, even if it’s a rerun I have already seen. With Netflix, you can watch old shows and procrastinate for hours!

I’m infamous for my to-do list, no matter how much I actually follow it. It doesn’t look like I keep my priorities straight…but it sure feels good when I get to check something off. But you want to know my poison, and it’s TV, because it doesn’t matter how many times I have seen the “WE WERE ON A BREAK” episode of Friends, or how many fat women Al of Married with Children has offended (after all he is a shoe salesman), they never stop being funny and making me laugh and what better distraction is there than laughter?

Thanks for your email asking about our procrastination techniques! I’m generally a pretty on-the-ball person, so I thought I’d go ahead and answer you straightaway. That may seem counterintuitive: I’m not generally one to procrastinate (as evidenced by my prompt response to your email), so what could I possibly have to say on the subject? Well I don’t know that this necessarily applies, but I thought I’d share regardless, in case you or your blog readers have some use for it. Often when I find myself without something to do—or at least without something pressing; there may be other things on my to-do list, but they’re typically not urgent, or I’d be doing them!—I like to check my email. I’m subscribed to a number of mailing lists, so I get countless email blasts throughout the day, each of them promising a few brief moments of entertainment, and a much-needed respite from work or whatever else I may be doing. Many of these emails are essentially ads, corporations touting their various products and services. But I don’t mind! I like to see what the ever-expanding online marketplace has to offer, preferably five to eight times a day. I’ve also put my name on a number of petitions supporting a particular political candidate, and his team sure has been sending out a lot of emails lately! I like to stay informed so I read each and every one of them top to bottom. Most of them end with “Would you consider making a donation?”, which I sometimes do (this is another favorite pastime), and sometimes I just click on the link to see how close they are to their fundraising goal. If I’m feeling really generous I click “Tweet this Link” so that my Twitter followers know whom I support, and can make a donation too, if they so desire. This reminds me that I also spend some of my non-essential time on Twitter. But mostly it’s just emails. Reading emails, deleting emails, and sending emails—especially sending emails. I have friends flung across the country—the world, even!—and email is a great way to keep in touch. One of my sisters lives in Tennessee and the other in Michigan, so I email them sometimes. Just the other day I got an email from a friend in France, so I answered him (promptly), and now we’re engaged in a very nice email dialogue. I check in on that conversation every hour or so, just to see if he’s responded. (It’s hard for me to keep track of the time difference—he could answer at any time of day, and I want to be there when he does!) And I email other people too, but I won’t go into that now. The point is that I read and write emails a lot. It’s a digital world we’re living in and I just think email is the way of the future!

That’s what you asked, right?
—Avery (who gets either a gold star or a scarlet P for this)

I suddenly get really, really conscientious about cleaning, organizing, and/or recycling anything in the vicinity of the work area.

It seems the only time I clean is when I have work to do. If I have a big project (a freelance project), I suddenly have time to dust, vacuum, organize my closets…
—Sarah S.

It feels good to admit it—everyone’s a procrastinator.  Well, almost everyone (this was the very first response I got, naturally):

Procrastination doesn’t even enter into the equation. There’s so much to do that every day is just an exercise in triage.

And then there’s the next-level procrastinator, who puts off procrastination itself. A true master:

Can’t we discuss this next week?

Happy procrastinating! New Yorkers, don’t miss author John Perry at The Strand later this month.


  • Reply
    September 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    “tasks they don’t accomplish sometimes disappear” = the dirtiest and best-kept secret of them all.

  • Reply
    Susan Edmiston
    September 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    I procrastinate by scouring the internet for mentions of “The Cow in the Parking Lot” and then posting them on facebook and emailing them to friends. Avery, can you please send me a copy of this book?


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