2 November 2013

Spiralling Procrastination

Today I deviate from my ordinary focus. I try, but doubt success, to emulate the tonal levity in the philosopher's work I consider here. John Perry's The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing is easy to read and well worth the little effort the short book demands. This post explores how Perry's thesis may help law students.

Note: Perry's style is witty and clear. For those who would like a sample, the book's first essay is posted on his website.

1. Perry's Thesis

Perry observes:
Structured procrastination is the art of making [a] negative trait work for you. Th[at] (…) does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, such as (…) sharpening pencils (…). Why (…)? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had (…) to do was (…) sharpen (…) pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. (p 2–3)

One danger for structured procrastination is having too few tasks. If you think you may succumb to this danger in law school, email a tutor or a friend: you almost certainly have misread your reading list or course outline.

The trick is to arrange tasks in the proper order, and undertake enough tasks to tick the system over. In law school these tasks include reading monographs, cases, and textbooks for each module's weekly workload, the odd assessment, and any other responsibilities.

2. Procrastination in Your Assessments

When assessments are due, separate the reading and writing. The writing is paramount because you must hand it in. Read to avoid writing, which anyway is easier the more you read and re-examine cases and statutes. There may be a turning point when you persuade yourself you must become an expert in the assessed area; so you must read everything on the area today. At this point, the reading will become more important. You can avoid it by writing.

Perhaps two assessments overlap: persuade yourself it is more important to start with the later one. Maybe to delay until the first is handed in will mean your exam revision time is reduced. If your self-persuasion is successful, you avoid the second assessment by writing the first.

3. Procrastination in My Research

I applied Perry's lessons to my own work. The process is useful because I find I take on too many projects at once. I hear a nagging inner monologue when I choose to work on one and not another.

Currently I have several books open. In Lon Fuller's The Morality of Law I chase an important idea for a research project. If my guess is correct, somewhere in Fuller's text is part of an answer to a problem I have. At the same time, and broadly for the same project, E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel sits on my 'to read' pile.

I get a few pages into Forster and the voice begins to nag. 'Don't start another book, finish Fuller, first'. I don't like to procrastinate. I assent and switch to Fuller. The solution to the problem I seek to resolve feels close. Fuller's prose is important now. Too important. Forster's introduction appeals more and more. I admit to myself, 'I'm fallible, pick up Forster'. I do. On it goes.

It is clear, therefore, that while I read one to avoid the other in an ever spinning importance-spiral, I provide the momentum to get through both texts. By setting off two important texts which compete for dominance in my research schedule, I am motivated--to avoid one, then the other--to get through both texts quite fast.

To flick between two relevant texts of such different material precludes the boredom that sometimes accompanies dry material. Though I admit to giving poor examples because neither Forster, Perry, nor Fuller is a dry writer.

4. Productivity Still The Best Tactic

Of course, there is an element in all this that Perry mentions but I have so far ignored: it is better to get on with actually more important tasks than avoid them--good academic writing requires drafts, redrafts and fact-checks, which are difficult when time runs out or is wasted. If you can avoid procrastination, just sit down and work. But if not, then at least try to use the trait to beneficial effect.

5. Three Lines to Conclude

The benefits of structured procrastination are twofold:
  1. It pushes the unmotivated to adopt better habits; and
  2. Ensures material is less likely to stagnate.

Created: 1 November 2013. Version 1.0.

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