Dear Guilt-Ridden #PhD Students: Structure your procrastination and turn a vice into a virtue

For years I’ve tended to chronically over-commit myself in all areas of life. I find it difficult to say ‘no’ if I encounter an interesting opportunity or have an interesting idea. However I periodically get quite exhausted and have brief phases of dropping projects left right and centre. Clearing up the free time is an unfailingly disappointing experience however… it doesn’t help me focus on the things I’d identified as ‘priorities’ and I get bored very easily. This is exactly what the idea of ‘structured procrastination’ argues would happen in such circumstances and given how useful I’ve found it, I’d suggest anyone who shares my twin problems of procrastination and over-commitment should read this astonishing and insightful essay:

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. […]

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.

Categories: Higher Education


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