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Getting Around To Writing 'Art Of Procrastination'

Sep 6, 2012
Originally published on September 10, 2012 11:12 am

At the end of July, when NPR's Robert Siegel set off on the longest vacation since his honeymoon 39 years ago, he packed a few books, including the new book The Art of Procrastination by John Perry, emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford.

After two weeks in Delaware, two weeks in Iberia and a week of work in Tampa, Fla., Siegel finally finished it Wednesday night. He says his timing is fitting: The book is 92 small, double-spaced pages.

It expands on a short confessional essay Perry wrote in 1996 called "Structured Procrastination."

Perry tells Siegel that the essay resonated with people so much that he started to get fan mail.

"All this incredibly profound and deep stuff I write in philosophy, at least according to me, really hasn't made the impact that this little essay did," Perry says.

So Perry set off to help readers. More than 15 years later, he penned the book. Perry says his book assumes the reader is a procrastinator and is probably not going to change — and that's not so bad.


Interview Highlights:

On how Perry discovered "structured" procrastination

"I had a stack of papers to grade and some other stuff to do, and I wasn't doing it, which is pretty typical for me. There was no reason not to do it, but I wasn't doing it, and I really started to get depressed and feel rotten about myself. But then it occurred to me that, you know, I get a lot done. I mean at Stanford, people thought of me as kind of a go-to guy, put me on a lot of committees, gave me a lot of tasks. And I publish all this stuff and manage to keep a job there. ...

"That impresses me. So, it's a kind of a paradox. If I get all this stuff done, how can that be when I'm a crummy procrastinator? And it occurred to me, well, there's a difference between procrastinating and being lazy — I'm not lazy. I do a lot of stuff, as long as it's a way of not doing something else that I'm supposed to do."

On the phrase "task triage"

"I love the sound of that phrase, so I use it even though it doesn't really fit the situation very well. The idea is that a lot of procrastinators are perfectionists. Now, they're not perfectionists in the sense that they do things perfectly — I mean, I've never done anything perfectly. But when I get a new task, I often fantasize about doing it perfectly. You know, the dean wants a memo on what we should do about philosophy in summer school. I'm going to write a memo that Hemingway could have written, and it'll be creative and full of ideas. You set the bar so high in this first rush of enthusiasm, and then you look at the bar and say, 'I'm not going to try to jump over that.' And the procrastination gives you permission to lower the bar: 'Oh, I've got to have this memo in by tomorrow, I guess I'm not going to do all those things I thought I was going to do.' You sit down, you spend an hour or two, you write a perfectly good memo, it does the job, probably the dean never reads it anyway."

On how long it took him to turn the essay into a book

"I didn't even think I was going to publish the article, much less turn it into a book. A friend of mine sent it off to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and then the Internet came along, and one of my granddaughters started an Internet page for me called 'Structured Procrastination' and put it on there. And to my surprise, I began to get lots of fan mail — you know, a dozen emails a week that were quite touching. They'd say, 'This has changed my life.' One lady [wrote], 'I finally had courage to stand up to my brother, who's been criticizing me about procrastination for years, and say, get lost.' She said, 'By the way, I'm 72 years old.' "

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

At the end of July, when I set off on the longest vacation since my honeymoon 39 years ago, I packed a few books, including one by John Perry, emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. Last night, after two weeks in Delaware, two weeks in Iberia and a week of work in the sweltering city of Tampa, Florida, I finished it. The book is all of 92 pages long, the pages are five by seven and they are practically double spaced.

Well, my timing, though, was appropriate because Perry's book is called, "The Art of Procrastination." John Perry joins us now from Stanford. Welcome to the program.

JOHN PERRY: Well, thanks. I'm really thrilled to be here.

SIEGEL: And I should explain that in this book you are expanding on a short confessional essay you wrote called "Structured Procrastination." You're not just a procrastinator, you're a structured procrastinator. Please explain that.

PERRY: Well, that's absolutely right. This is a short essay I wrote in about 1996. I had a stack of papers to grade and some other stuff to do and I wasn't doing it, which is pretty typical for me. There was no reason not to do it, but I wasn't doing it. And I really started to get depressed and feel rotten about myself. But then it occurred to me that, you know, I get a lot done. I mean at Stanford, people thought of me as, you know, kind of a go-to guy, put me on a lot of committees, gave me a lot of tasks. Then I publish all this stuff and manage to keep a job there. That's really...

SIEGEL: Pretty good, yeah.

PERRY: Yeah. It impresses me. So, it's a kind of a paradox. If I get all this stuff done, how can that be when I'm a crummy procrastinator? And it occurred to me, well, there's a difference between procrastinating and being lazy. I'm not lazy. I do a lot of stuff, as long as it's a way of not doing something else that I'm supposed to do.

SIEGEL: This is not a self-help book that tells people how they can stop procrastinating. It tells them more how they can live with what they are.

PERRY: That's exactly right. The book assumes that you're a procrastinator and you're probably not going to change. You can't afford the psychotherapy that's necessary or don't believe in it. But you're really down because you procrastinate. And what's worse, the whole world is helping you feel down.

You go to the Psychology Today or other places and you get, you know, 10 facts about procrastinators and it turns out to be that, well, they're all headed towards alcoholism. They put tremendous amount of stress on themselves. They'll probably die young and are responsible for the recession and the gross national product going down and probably all the ills of mankind. And then you kind of believe this about yourself and you feel like a crumbo(ph).

Well, my book says, oh, come on, you're not so bad. Probably you're a structured procrastinator, you get a lot done, probably a lot of the things you don't get done didn't need to be done. You're not that bad.

SIEGEL: Professor Perry, I think you coined a phrase in this book: task triage.

PERRY: Yes. Yeah, I love the sound of that phrase, so I use it even though it doesn't really fit the situation very well. The idea is that a lot of procrastinators are perfectionists. Now, they're not perfectionists in the sense that they do things perfectly. I mean, I've never done anything perfectly. But when I get a new task, I often fantasize about doing it perfectly. You know, the dean wants a memo on what we should do about philosophy in summer school. I'm going to write a memo that, you know, Hemingway could have written and it'll be creative and full of ideas.

You set the bar so high in this first rush of enthusiasm, and then you look at the bar and say: I'm not going to try to jump over that. And the procrastination gives you permission to lower the bar. Oh, I got to have this memo in by tomorrow, I guess I'm not going to do all those things I thought I was going to do. You sit down, you spend an hour or two, you write a perfectly good memo, it does the job, probably the dean never reads it anyway.

SIEGEL: I can't help but note that this book about procrastination is an expansion of an article that you wrote in the mid-1990s. A case in point that it's taken you over 15 years to write the other 70 pages.

PERRY: Yeah, well, compared to some other books I've been working on, that's nothing. I didn't even think I was going to publish the article, much less turn it into a book. A friend of mine sent it off to The Chronicle of Higher Education. And then the Internet came along, and one of my granddaughters started an Internet page for me called Structured Procrastination and put it on there. And to my surprise, I began to get lots of fan mail. I mean, you know, a dozen emails a week that were quite touching. They'd say: This has changed my life. One lady wrote, I finally had courage to stand up to my brother, who's been criticizing me about procrastination for years, and say, get lost. She said, by the way, I'm 72 years old.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: She put that off quite a while.

PERRY: Yeah. So, you know, all this incredibly profound and deep stuff I write in philosophy, at least according to me, really has amazing impact that this little essay did.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Perry, thank you very much for talking with us about your book. It was a pleasure.

PERRY: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk to you, Robert. Thanks so much for having me on your show.

SIEGEL: John Perry, emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University, is the author of "The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.