Before reading it, I had already decided to dislike this book. I had assumed, incorrectly, that it must be another clever panegyric on something traditionally thought of as a vice. I’ve grown weary of volumes purporting to reveal the hidden virtues of (to recall a few works from the last decade or so) hypocrisy, bitchiness, gossip, divorce, and melancholy. At their best, these kinds of books can make us reexamine pejorative words and concepts—Adam Bellow’s In Defense of Nepotism did that for me—but by and large they are little more than clever perversity.
The Art of Procrastination sounds as if it would be in this tradition, but it is not. John Perry’s aim isn’t to sing the praises of procrastination or to enumerate ways to “dawdle” or “lollygag” more effectively; in his view, procrastination is often (though not always) a bad thing. Instead, he wants to tell procrastinators that they aren’t the lazy slugs they often think they are; indeed, they’re not procrastinators at all, at least not in the way they think. Which makes sense: The lazy man doesn’t reprove himself for procrastinating.
Perry prefers the term “structured procrastination” to describe what most of us do naturally. It’s not that we’re lazy. People often think of us as industrious. And rightly so: We produce a lot. But there’s always some important task that, despite our best intentions, we seem incapable of completing. Eventually we get to it, usually late; but by that time it’s been replaced, at least in our minds, by some new thing we’ll spend the next several months admonishing ourselves for not doing.
Perry’s idea is that structured procrastinators do lots of things as ways of not doing other things. I clean the gutters and sweep the driveway because, as long as I’m doing so, I won’t get around to filling out that questionnaire for the neighborhood association. I’m writing this now because, if I don’t, I’m going to have to write a critique of a friend’s short story, which I agreed to do months ago but which I badly want not to do.
What’s needed, says Perry, is self-deception. When you compose your list of things to do—and he urges a daily, detailed list, including things you should avoid, e.g., “Do not google Meg Ryan”—make your top-priority items things that you don’t want to do but must do. If you’re a structured procrastinator, you will avoid doing your top priority items by accomplishing lots of significant but second-level priority items. Then one of two things will happen: Either your yet-undone top-priority item will be superseded by a more important item, in which case you will accomplish it while avoiding your new top-priority item, or the original top-priority item will disappear.
The real genius of Perry’s idea is that it takes advantage of the fact that many “time sensitive” responsibilities foisted on us really aren’t that “time sensitive” at all—and, indeed, a substantial proportion of them will vanish before we get around to dealing with them. Which is why, as Perry points out, you should always populate the top of your list with things that (a) seem to have clear deadlines but don’t, and (b) seem to be important but aren’t.
Perry is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford, and I am inclined to think that the demands placed on professors of philosophy are slightly more flexible than those placed on other people who work for a living. Still, he makes an excellent point. A complex and highly bureaucratic economy such as ours imposes an insane number of small deadlines on its adult population—which reminds me, the permission slip for my daughter’s field trip is due tomorrow—and one can easily forget that these deadlines aren’t all moral obligations. To put it another way: You have no responsibility to maximize the comfort and convenience of life’s innumerable deadline-setters.
The trick, writes Perry, is to make the right sorts of things your ostensible “priorities.” For example, renewing your driver’s license—hard deadline, real consequences for letting it pass—should never be at the top of your list. As a general rule, don’t put any government agency to the test; make the trek out to the DMV as a way of avoiding some other “important” chore. Many deadlines in the private sector, by contrast, are far more fluid than the tough-sounding rhetoric with which they’re announced. I don’t like to mention them by name; you know the ones I mean.
One small complaint: Perry is a genial writer, but he couldn’t pass up the temptation to remind readers that he is a good, right-thinking liberal. The snide quip, for example, about wanting to avoid “any [television] program involving Paris Hilton or Glenn Beck doing anything whatsoever” isn’t even funny—and hardly worth putting off the hundreds of thousands of Glenn Beck watchers (or even Paris Hilton admirers) who might enjoy this book.
Still, The Art of Procrastination is a fun, easy read and its chief idea will assuage the guilty feelings of many a procrastinator. It would have made a perfect Christmas gift. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to writing this until after Christmas. Sorry.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.