Doing one thing as a way of not doing something else is an effective tool for habitual procrastinators, and creating the To-Do list is a good way to go about it, says John Perry, Stanford philosopher and winner of the 2011 Ig Nobel prize for literature. An excerpt from his latest book on the art of procastrination
If you are a structured procrastinator, you likely have vaguely in mind, or perhaps even written down somewhere, the things you ought to be accomplishing in the days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years ahead. And at the top, motivating you to do seemingly less important things will be something that seems of paramount importance but, really, for one reason or another, isn’t all that crucial after all. This is what I’ll call your priority list. It’s a long-term list; the projects on it will occupy you for a day or a week or a month or longer, perhaps your whole life, if you have something like “Learn Chinese” at the top.
This chapter is about a different sort of list: a daily to-do list. Many procrastinators use such a list. You might think the purpose of a to-do list is to remind you what to do. And it can be useful in that way. But that is not its primary purpose. The main function of the daily-to-do list is to give the procrastinator the experience of checking off tasks as they are finished. Putting a check in the box next to the item, or crossing it out with a flourish, gives one a little psychological lift. It helps us to think of ourselves as doers, accomplishers, and not just lazy slugs. It gives us psychological momentum.
You can use your computer to make your to-do list. In fact various programs and websites — for example, Outlook, Gmail, and LazyMeter.com — will generate nice lists for you. But they are not optimal because usually the task simply disappears when you check it off. It would be much more satisfying if a big red line were drawn through the task, accompanied by a little noise of triumph, but I haven’t found a program that does this.
I try to make a to-do list before I go to bed and then leave it by the clock. It starts like this;
- TURN OFF THE ALARM.
- DON’T HIT THE SNOOZE BUTTON.
- GET OUT OF BED.
- GO TO THE BATHROOM.
- DON’T GET BACK IN BED.
- GO DOWNSTAIRS.
- MAKE COFFEE.
By the time I sit down with my first cup of coffee, I can check off seven items. This feels good and looks impressive. My day of accomplishment is off to a flying start. I don’t need reminders to do any of these things. But I do need a little pat on the back for doing them. The only likely way of getting that pat is by having a to-do list, so I can cross off completed tasks.
The system of breaking tasks down into small increments, and giving yourself a good pat on the back for achieving each of them, has solid credentials. The Tao Te Ching tells us to “accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” I found this quote in Robert Maurer’s book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement through small, implementable steps. If you say you are adopting the Kaizen Way, rather than simply that you are trying to procrastinate less, you will sound like you have adopted a martial arts regimen. That’s kind of cool. …
Easy tasks at the beginning will help you get the feelings of accomplishment flowing. The list should include do-nots along with the dos. For example:
- POUR A SECOND CUP OF COFFEE.
- SIT DOWN AT THE DESK, NOT ON THE COUCH.
- TURN ON THE COMPUTER.
- DO NOT CHECK EMAIL.
- DO NOT START SURFING THE WEB.
- OPEN WORD.
- GO TO DOCUMENTS AND SELECT DUMMET REVIEW.
This is my list for today. I made it through “Open Word” successfully. Then I came to “Dummett Review.” Michael Dummett was a very important philosopher who wrote a little book on a big topic with the title Thought and Reality. I have agreed to review it for Mind, a fine British philosophy journal. I’ve read the book through several times, and I’ve even started the review. But it’s hard finishing it. Reviewing an important book by an important philosopher for a top journal is pretty daunting. It’s high on my priority list. It’s way overdue — but in the philosophy business, the top journals seem to be used to missed deadlines. Philosophers are a pretty flaky crowd, I’m afraid. I’m definitely not the only structured procrastinator the journal has to deal with. At any rate, I couldn’t finish it again today. So instead I am working on this chapter — structured procrastination at work.
Practice defensive to-do list making — spend a little time thinking about how your day could get derailed in the early stages and put in safeguards to circumvent that. Last night I saw When Harry Met Sally on TV. I knew there would be a good chance I’d want to start off this morning by googling “Meg Ryan,” to see if there are some other movies of hers that I’d forgotten about and would like to see. Once I start googling, I seldom stop simply because I find what I was originally looking for:
I see Meg was married to Dennis now which Quaid brother is that? I’ll check “Dennis Quaid” on Wikipedia. Ah, the handsome one. I should have guessed. Look at that, his father was a cousin of Gene Autry! Haven’t thought about Gene Autry in a long time. Remember “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”? Great song. I wonder If I can get it on iTunes…
And on and on. It’s best to short-circuit this whole waste of time by putting “Don’t google Meg Ryan” on the to-do list, along with other reminders not to get derailed. ...
Follow this advice, and to-do lists can be helpful. They won’t cure procrastination, but they are part of the strategy of self-manipulation that can help make the procrastinator into a productive human being.
DON’T BUY THIS BOOK NOW: THE ART OF PROCRASTINATION
Author: John Perry
Price: Rs 299
Excerpted with permission from Penguin India