Maryland lawyer Dana Moylan Wright was trapped in a vicious cycle. The more her work piled up, the less she wanted to do it. "At that point, I had many deadlines and was having trouble making myself do anything," she says. "My anxiety level would absolutely soar."
One day in 2005, Wright, 42, was surfing the Web, avoiding pressing matters. She searched "procrastination," seeking an antidote. Instead, she found a way to exploit her habit: "structured procrastination."
The brainchild of Stanford University philosophy professor John Perry, structured procrastination involves doing small, low-priority tasks to build a sense of accomplishment and the energy to tackle more important jobs. Perry, a chronic procrastinator, suggests followers choose an important task, but defer work on it while tackling others.
Too often, Perry says, people focus on their biggest and most important duties, then waste time on unproductive tasks - like surfing the Web and watching television. His Web site, structuredprocrastination.com, features a picture of the author "jumping rope with seaweed while work awaits." He suggests procrastinators fill their time with less formidable - and more useful - assignments, such as following up with clients, completing expense reports or catching up on industry news. He says the smart procrastinator can earn a reputation for productivity while giving in to the urge to delay.
What about the big jobs? Perry says a non-negotiable deadline will force action, or the procrastinator will gather enough information to make them appear less daunting.
Perry's theory, based on personal experience rather than rigorous science, comes amid growing research on the psychological roots of procrastination and its economic cost. Psychologists who study procrastination estimate that 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, and half do so routinely; between 15 and 20 percent of adults are habitual procrastinators.
Piers Steel, associate professor at the University of Calgary and author of the forthcoming book The Procrastination Equation, estimates procrastination costs the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Steel says the computer games Minesweeper and Solitaire alone probably account for billions in lost time and productivity.
Though there isn't one explanation for why people procrastinate nor one recommendation for how to overcome the behavior, suggestions include setting goals, breaking down large tasks into a series of smaller ones, and energy regulation - that is, planning to tackle difficult tasks at the time of day when one's energy level is highest, often around 10 a.m. Some authors promote sophisticated organizational systems. Others urge procrastinators to focus on positive goals, like professional advancement or more family time.
Wright, the Maryland lawyer, says structured procrastination has helped her focus and tackle tasks more deliberately and efficiently. "As long as I can feel like there's something I'm avoiding, then I can get myself to work," she says.
Perry says procrastinators shouldn't waste time feeling bad about their work habits because guilt saps motivation, reinforcing the desire to delay.