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Perfectionists Are Often The Best At 'The Art Of Procrastination'

Dec 25, 2012
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We're a running a series this week called The Ones That Got Away, Things We Missed. But here's something that most of you missed. The moment it went on the air shortly after Labor Day, something technical went wrong, and the program failed to reach member stations for almost the precise duration of this interview, which was long in the making. So here goes take two.

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, professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford. Five weeks later, and after two weeks in Delaware, two weeks in Iberia and a week in the sweltering city of Tampa covering convening Republicans, I finished it.

The book is all of 92 pages long. The pages are five by seven, and they're practically double spaced. My timing, though, was appropriate. Perry's book is called "The Art of Procrastination." John Perry joined us from Stanford.

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 are 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. You know, I publish all these stuff and manage to keep a job there. That's impressive.

SIEGEL: Pretty good, yeah.

PERRY: Yeah. That's, you know, impresses me. So it's a kind of a paradox. If I get all these 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 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'd 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, oh, they're all headed towards alcoholism. They put tremendous amount of stress on themselves. They'll probably die young, and they're responsible for the recession and the gross national product going down and probably all the mental ills of mankind.

And then you kind of believe this about yourself and you feel like you're crumbling. Well, my book says, hell, 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. And you're not that bad.

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

PERRY: Yes. Yeah, I love that 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. No, 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 say this has changed my life. One lady wrote this: I finally had the 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.


PERRY: So...

SIEGEL: She had put that off quite a while.

PERRY: Yeah. So, you know, all these 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.

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. He's the author of "The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing.


SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.