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Anti-Akrasia Technique: Structured Procrastination

51 Post author: patrissimo 12 November 2009 07:35PM

This idea has been mentioned in several comments, but it deserves a top-level post.  From an ancient, ancient web article (1995!), Stanford philosophy professor John Perry writes:

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. 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 can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

The insightful observation that procrastinators fill their time with effort, not staring at the walls, gives rise to this form of akrasia aikido, where the urge to not do something is cleverly redirected into productivity.  If you can "waste time" by doing useful things, while feeling like you are avoiding doing the "real work", then you avoid depleting your limited supply of willpower (which happens when you force yourself to do something).

In other words, structured procrastination (SP) is an efficient use of this limited resource, because doing A in order to avoid doing B is easier than making yourself do A.  If A is something you want to get done, then the less willpower you can use to do it, the more you will be to accomplish.  This only works if A is something that you do want to get done - that's how SP differs from normal procrastination, of course.

Like most information works, I am constantly distracted by social networks - reading Twitter, blogs, answering email.  I don't do these things because they are effortless and restful (that's what reading fiction is for), but because they feel like moderately productive work (learning new ideas about the world, keeping up on my ideasphere, connecting with people) that just so happens to be fun and easy.  Unfortunately, that joy and ease translates into a distorted feeling about if/whether/how much I am accomplishing things.  The marginal output product of my spending 15 minutes on social networks may be positive but it's close to zero compared to other kinds of work I could be doing.

SP suggests that I find other things which both feel like productive avoidance and actually are.  For example, rather than reading blogs, I could read one of the dozens of books piled up that have been suggested as relevant to my areas of research.  Yeah, that wouldn't be as much fun as digesting the clever little bites that are blog posts, but it still feels like avoiding the main unpleasant tasks, and it's actually important enough to be on my todo list (if not at the top).

Maybe this is just me applying my standard rationality themes everywhere, but I think that self-awareness and action vs. reaction are key to structured procrastination.  When you are reacting to the vague feeling that you want to avoid doing something, you will automatically get driven towards quick and easy fixes - leave the report you are supposed to write in one window, and go to Google Reader in another.  Anything to scratch the itch of avoidance.

But if you can have the self-awareness to notice your reaction of avoidance, you get to roll a saving throw about whether to make a conscious decision.  If you pass, now you have a choice: buckle down, go with the distraction, or do structured procrastination?  This choice opportunity doesn't automatically let you do the right thing - doing your primary task will still require a major expenditure of willpower.  But at least it stops you from automatically doing the wrong thing, and gives you a chance to use akrasia aikido like SP to apply your willpower efficiently.  Or perhaps go for a truly restful option like taking a break, going outside, or getting a drink, which actually rests your mind (and willpower muscle) much more effectively than looking at the latest on Digg.

There is more nuance to structured procrastination, but this post has gotten long enough already.  If people find the topic interesting, I can write more about it's weaknesses and my ideas for addressing them.

Comments (50)

Comment author: Lightwave 13 November 2009 09:59:13AM 10 points [-]

SP suggests that I find other things which both feel like productive avoidance and actually are. For example, rather than reading blogs, I could read one of the dozens of books piled up that have been suggested as relevant to my areas of research.

That's how I started reading OB (and now reading LW) on a regular basis. >.>

Comment author: MichaelGR 13 November 2009 05:42:03PM 3 points [-]

Now that sounds like a virtuous cycle.

Comment author: djcb 15 November 2009 11:17:46AM *  7 points [-]

I like reading books, but it can be quite hard to sit down and consume those 800 pages. I have found that audio books are a great way to avoid procastination in that area. Obviously, it doesn't work for all kinds of books (e.g., highly technical books), but it does work very well for more 'prozaic' works.

Now, whenever I commute to work or go running etc., I listen to a book, allowing me to read more than 60 books this year - basically all in my 'idle time'. The power of multi-tasking!

Many classic audio books are available for free at LibriVox, as well as on Project Gutenberg. These audio books have been created by volunteers -- but the quality is often quite good. Many commercial audio books (with professional speakers, and of books whose copyrights haven't expired) can be found in many other places on the net.

Comment author: arundelo 21 November 2009 06:58:38PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks.

Fixed link.

Comment author: djcb 23 November 2009 07:00:40PM 0 points [-]

thank you!

Comment author: Document 21 February 2010 04:44:24AM 0 points [-]

Overdrive has free professionally-produced audio books, assuming you have an account at one of their partner libraries.

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 November 2009 09:08:59PM 7 points [-]

I've found that mediocre video games become far more fascinating when I have some work to avoid.

Comment author: ChrisPine 13 November 2009 10:02:11AM 7 points [-]

Paul Graham also wrote on this.

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2009 05:13:04PM 6 points [-]

'Errands are so effective at killing great projects that a lot of people use them for that purpose. Someone who has decided to write a novel, for example, will suddenly find that the house needs cleaning. People who fail to write novels don't do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything. They do it by feeding the cat, going out to buy something they need for their apartment, meeting a friend for coffee, checking email. "I don't have time to work," they say. And they don't; they've made sure of that.'

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 13 November 2009 01:47:50PM 6 points [-]

From the linked essay:

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.

This seems to vary by individual somewhat - while I do have a problem with procrastination, I do find that it's helped by having less things to do. If I have too many tasks I should be doing, the end result isn't that I end up being productive on part of them. The end result is that I become paralyzed by indecision and get absolutely nothing done.

Comment author: Document 21 February 2010 04:51:31AM 2 points [-]

Tycho from Penny Arcade talked about something like that once - that when he has one new game, he can't keep away from it, but when he has three, they cancel each other out. I can't find the post, though.

Comment author: RobinHanson 13 November 2009 04:09:46AM 6 points [-]

Yes, this is the main way I've been very productive in the past - by "cheating" on some other "important" task to sneak time for something that at the time feels rebellious, but is eventually more important.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 13 November 2009 11:10:52AM -1 points [-]

How do you trick yourself to false-rank things that way?

Comment author: RobinHanson 13 November 2009 01:28:05PM 5 points [-]

No need to trick - one can be honestly confused about what is more important.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 13 November 2009 04:12:51PM 1 point [-]

Well yes, but that sounds too convenient that it happens to arrange itself that way.

Unless this is basically "Texas Sharpshooter".

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2009 05:31:40PM 1 point [-]

It doesn't seem too much different from Ainslie's points about hyperbolic discounting and factions in the mind warring over what to do. One faction can lack the short-term clearcut justifications necessary to make 'writing this fun little paper' look like the good choice it is, compared to 'grading these papers due back tomorrow' (which is much easier to defend, though likely less valuable).

Comment author: ABranco 20 November 2009 03:01:06AM 5 points [-]

Sharing a less-than-2-minute example of structured procrastination.

I'll slap myself on the face if it doesn't sound terrifyingly familiar to at least 75% of LW community...

Comment author: sketerpot 21 November 2009 07:25:11PM 1 point [-]

I watched almost all of that series of videos because I'm putting off reading a research paper. If it weren't for that paper hanging over my head, I doubt I would have been able to watch them all without being distracted. There's definitely something to this structured procrastination idea.

I have a system where I read one interesting paper every day, then cross out that day on the calendar -- it's the Don't Break the Chain method. So far it's working great; once I read one, I want to read another, and it keeps the topics fresh in my head every day. I wish I had figured this out years ago.

Comment author: jessica-ism 13 November 2009 10:52:03AM 5 points [-]

You suggested this technique to me years ago -- and I am so glad you did! I like to keep one fun project that I can use for procrastinating, which I manage to get a lot of work done on before exams!

Also, I find that mindless tasks, like data entry of some sort, scratch the itch that Facebook scratches but are more productive. There's just something to that dopamine rush of click-reward, click-reward...

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2009 05:21:25PM *  2 points [-]

Yes, I'm always surprised by how well doing my daily Mnemosyne review (for spaced repetition ) serves to get me over a low-willpower hump.

It's not mindless, obviously, but it's just memory/flash-card review and seems to be much the same.

Comment author: Document 21 February 2010 04:47:24AM *  0 points [-]

Yes, I'm always surprised by how well doing my daily Mnemosyne) (for spaced repetition review serves to get me over a low-willpower hump.

That sentence seems scrambled.

Comment author: gwern 21 February 2010 10:10:24PM 0 points [-]

I think I had issues with Markdown not liking links with double ))s. I've tried to fix the formatting.

Comment author: DanielLC 04 October 2011 06:35:26PM *  3 points [-]

In my experience, procrastination seems to keep me from doing any task that can't be done quickly, whether or not it's important. For example, I can't play Dwarf Fortress if I have anything important to do. Is there any sort of trick to procrastinating with significant things, or am I just a different kind of procrastinator?

Edit: Also, I have no trouble doing things with a deadline (though I tend to wait until it gets close). I procrastinate things without a clear deadline, and things that I have plenty of time to complete. The former is my main problem. I think I'm just a different kind of procrastinator.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 13 November 2009 05:33:48PM *  3 points [-]

I study basically by this technique: when one source becomes boring or too hard, I just switch to another. Often enough, new perspective shows that I should drop some of the stuff that was previously halted, and so would've wasted time and suffered needlessly if tried to force it on the first try. If the topic remains important, going around via redundant amount of literature on basically the same topic ultimately allows to understand it deeply and intuitively.

Comment author: alexflint 13 November 2009 10:02:17AM 3 points [-]

Excellent idea! I've tried various anti-procrastination schemes but not this.

On another note, one thing I've noticed of myself is that at the moment that I have an important insight or get something really working I'm inclined to get up from my desk and grab a drink or go talk to a friend or something similar. It always involves getting up and walking away from my desk, and I never actually need the drink or have a good reason to chat. I often don't realise that I'm going it until I'm a couple of paces away. Anybody else experienced this?

Comment author: denisbider 21 November 2009 06:31:20PM 2 points [-]

I experience a similar compulsion that doesn't involve walking away, but generally launching a browser, and I don't realize what I'm doing until some site like Facebook or LessWrong is already loading.

Sometimes I catch myself before the site actually loads, close the browser, and continue working.

Comment author: akshatrathi 23 November 2009 03:37:06AM 1 point [-]

I believe it is possible to increase one's willpower reserve. I follow a simple technique to that effect. Every time my willpower to do something is over, I stretch myself to do that activity a little longer. Next time, I find myself stretching it beyond that and so on until I have a sufficient reserve of willpower for that activity.

Comment author: Alicorn 23 November 2009 04:49:08AM 2 points [-]

Every time my willpower to do something is over, I stretch myself to do that activity a little longer.

So... when your willpower is all gone, you continue doing the activity with... what?

Comment author: akshatrathi 23 November 2009 11:56:28AM *  2 points [-]

So... when your willpower is all gone, you continue doing the activity with... what?

Although, I have no desire to do it, I force myself to do it. So it can be argued that it is till your willpower to do it. But this willpower is not for the activity but for the sheer reason of doing a little more of an activity. Thus, this willpower is orthogonal to the willpower of doing the activity.

An article in the NY times is an interesting read, mentions something close to my technique.

Comment author: Pavitra 23 November 2009 05:47:47AM *  0 points [-]

Translation: when it feels like my willpower is gone -- that is, when my "main supply" of willpower is gone -- I tap into the "backup reserves" for a while.

[Edit: I said something stupid here. Removed.]

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 23 November 2009 07:03:58AM 2 points [-]

Not to be confrontational, but it sounds much more likely to me that you're not really out of willpower when you first think to yourself that you are, but are instead experiencing one of the common self-reporting biases.

I could certainly be wrong, though - have you been keeping records, and if so, has your technique resulted in a measurable increase in willpower?

Comment author: alexflint 23 November 2009 12:09:41PM 1 point [-]

I think it is possible that pushing oneself close to the limit of one's willpower reserves could cause increase overall reserves in the future.

Consider the case of over-eating, in which pushing oneself close to the limit of stomach capacity causes the stomach to stretch and hence increase in capacity for the future.

That's not to say it actually does, just that it could.

More importantly, though, the "willpower reserve" is a fairly coarse model, not a detailed map of actual brain functioning (though if anyone knows of detailed empirical investigation of this phenomenon then I'd be very interested). I don't think it's productive to probe in such detail -- it's like trying to discern houses from a low-resolution map of the entire Earth.

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2009 05:26:01PM *  5 points [-]

"As a final practical maxim, relative to these habits of the will, we may, then, offer something like this: Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or 2 something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.

Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin."

--William James, The Principles of Psychology 1890, Chapter IV

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 14 November 2009 12:09:07PM 2 points [-]

I was just talking to a friend about what I do when I get bored with a book I am reading. I switch to a different book until I get bored with that one (in which case I switch back to the first book). It works almost every time.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 13 November 2009 07:02:27AM 2 points [-]

A friend of mine delightfully dubbed this "fauxductivity." I've myself glossed it as "productivity by the willful misprioritization of one's various responsibilities."

And yes, as Perry says, it's pretty much the only way to ever get anything done. He's equally right when he points out elsewhere in the essay that you have to take on a lot of responsibilities for it to work. Don't cut your responsibilities back to only the MOST important things, in the mistaken belief that you'll then stop procrastinating and accomplish them -- you need the pressure of lots of responsibilities to spur you to accomplish anything at all.

It's seemed to me that, assuming I commit to a volume of responsibility that is at least hypothetically physically possible, the amount I accomplish varies linearly with what I commit to -- maybe at the 80% level or so. So it's very important not to do something stupid like decide "I'm going to clear out my schedule for the next three months so I can really finish that article." And of course, for the remaining 20% (or however much), you fall back on the kinds of techniques Perry recommends -- being apologetically late on deadlines, letting adequate work stand in for the much-better-than-adequate work you fully intended to accomplish, etc.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 13 November 2009 07:11:18AM 5 points [-]

It's worth adding that the whole business is rather dangerous, because you're ceding control of your mental activities to a process you don't have much control over. So while the ideal of structured procrastination is "I should be writing that article ... but I'm going to slack off and work on that other, slightly less important article instead!", it often manifests instead as "I should be writing that article ... BUT I CANNOT HAVE A MOMENT'S PEACE UNTIL THE BATHTUB HAS BEEN THOROUGHLY SCRUBBED!"

And then you wind up half a day later with nothing accomplished, but with a very clean bathtub. And tomorrow it'll be the oven. &c.

So in a sense, structured procrastination is only an anti-akrasia technique for the already-not-particularly-akrasic.

Comment author: pjeby 14 November 2009 07:30:24PM 1 point [-]

So in a sense, structured procrastination is only an anti-akrasia technique for the already-not-particularly-akrasic.

In this, it differs little from most advice for the chronic procrastinator. Honestly, the first time I heard of this structured procrastination idea several years ago, my first thought was along the lines of, "I should maybe try that sometime."

Never got around to it. ;-)

Comment deleted 13 November 2009 11:31:39AM [-]
Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 13 November 2009 12:52:05PM *  7 points [-]

Prophecies aside, here's a study that seems to have failed to replicate Baumeister's ego depletion findings: Self-Regulation: A Challenge to the Strength Model

Previous research suggested that an individual’s capacity to self-regulate is limited, and easily depleted. The strength, or resource, model posits that self-regulation operates like a muscle, fatiguing after use and requiring rest. We attempted to replicate studies that supported this model. In Experiment 1, participants completed the Stroop task (requiring self-regulation), and then squeezed a handgrip exerciser as long as they could (a measure of self-regulatory depletion). In Experiment 2, participants were instructed NOT to think about a white bear as they wrote down their thoughts; depletion was then measured by time working on difficult anagrams. Self-regulatory depletion was not evident in either study. A new model for understanding the key psychological process of self-regulation may be needed.

ETA: The journal where I found the study describes itself as follows "In the past other journals and reviewers have exhibited a bias against articles that did not reject the null hypothesis. We seek to change that by offering an outlet for experiments that do not reach the traditional significance levels (p < .05)."

Comment author: akshatrathi 22 November 2009 11:47:37PM 2 points [-]

I believe that each individual's store of willpower is different. May be you are one of those individuals with a huge reserve and thus don't find it a limited resource.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 14 November 2009 07:55:03AM 2 points [-]

Why is this comment being voted down? I thought it made a good point when it noted that willpower as a limited resource might be self-fulfilling prophecy.

Comment author: Elizabeth 28 November 2010 07:29:25AM 1 point [-]

The neatness of my bedroom is a fairly reliable barometer of how many papers I have due, and when I first consciously noticed that phenomenon a few years ago, I started to attempt to take advantage of it. However, I have discovered that there are more constraints than just having something more important I should be doing. When I'm procrastinating badly I find it almost impossible to sit still long enough to settle to anything. I can clean or do errands, but I require a podcast to keep me entertained. I had great success getting myself to practice piano, and indeed achieved daily practice for the better part of six months, but piano also had the advantage of being something I could effectively practice in ten minute bursts, rather than requiring a more sustained effort, and it involves movement. Sitting still becomes such a great effort of willpower that I can't accomplish anything, even fun projects or reading fiction. If anyone has suggestions for overcoming that particular hurdle, I suspect it would help my procrastination significantly.

Comment author: AspiringKnitter 14 January 2012 02:21:19AM 0 points [-]

Invest in a treadmill and do everything while walking on it.

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2009 05:18:33PM 1 point [-]

Why the http://web.archive.org/web/20070613061354/www.structuredprocrastination.com/ link? As far as I can tell, the website is up just fine and the same essay is the top page.

Comment author: kpreid 15 November 2009 04:20:36PM 1 point [-]

Typo spotting: “information works” ⇒ “information workers” in paragraph 5?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 13 November 2009 04:58:19AM *  1 point [-]

Hmm... maybe I should start putting my grading off until the last minute so that I'm more motivated to do homework and study. There's another productivity boost here: the last minute effect. I have a lot of trouble doing tedious things, unless it's the last minute. I can grade extremely fast if I need to have them entered before morning so the course coordinator can run an anova on the grades of the different sections, but if I try to grade the weekend before, it will take all weekend.

On the other hand, I'm usually fairly productive doing homework - as long as it isn't a tedious or especially difficult problem. I also structure studying to take advantage of this - doing problems. When I need to memorize things while studying, I think I already partially take advantage of what patri is talking about - instead of some great studying technique, i just copy and recopy whatever I need to memorize. It feels like I'm avoiding what I should be doing, but i find it helps me memorize things rather well - and I can will myself to do it.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 14 November 2009 02:34:28AM *  3 points [-]

Many people find that alcohol lowers the relevant inhibitions to grading quickly. (eg, repulsion from what the students have written, or the compulsion to leave extensive comments) Also, it combines well with artificial deadlines: go to the bar an hour ahead of your friends.

Comment author: jake987722 15 November 2009 04:01:22AM 2 points [-]

My secret is out!

Comment author: Joseph 13 November 2009 09:03:28PM 2 points [-]

if I try to grade the weekend before, it will take all weekend.

This sounds like an example of Parkinson's Law at work: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Comment author: Jach 13 November 2009 11:28:02AM 0 points [-]

I wrote a blog post on this last month, and I've always just referred to this as "good procrastination", and indeed it has been very successful overall. It's also fun to tell people "Procrastination really helps me get things done."

Where I'm refining my technique is in exploiting this to get things done that I still really want to do but normally procrastinate. #2 on my priority list, if you will, while I'm procrastinating #1.