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How To Procrastinate And Still Be Productive with Dr. John Perry
I’m going to play back a recording that I did from a previous interview with Dr. John Perry, who’s written The Art of Procrastination. You’ll find some of the tips that he gives interesting and also how he celebrates his own procrastination, which he believes gives him more productivity at the end of the day.
I’m joined by Dr. John Perry. He is a Stanford Professor, author, radio host and a number of other very productive things for a procrastinator. Welcome, Dr. Perry.
Thank you, Penny. I’m glad to be back.
In our last segment, I told you about my concept of championship psychology. Reframing is a very powerful tool in creating a championship psychology for yourself and also for others. That witty essay that you talked about, you talked about that it’s difficult for procrastinator such as yourself to get motivated to complete a task until it’s less important than another task. Essentially, you’re reframing the task that you’re doing so that you can feel like there’s less at stake than another task. I was wondering is it the importance that we’re reframing or the urgency?
What I recommend is you realize somehow it’s easier to do things you’re not supposed to be doing or that I say are not at the top of your long-range priority list. Then you realize, “Often the thing that I was procrastinating about turned out not to be so important.” Look for opportunities like that. Look for things that seem important and will motivate you to do other things, but in the end aren’t all that important. People say, “This is self-deception.” I say most procrastinators have pretty good self-deceptive skills. We want to work for something beyond that or some of some of us do or some of us do some of the time. Try to get something like learn Chinese, that’s important and difficult and almost anything I’d rather do than not devote time to learning Chinese. If I could convince myself that that’s what I ought to be doing, I could do a lot of other things as a way of not doing that.
There’s another kind of to-do list that’s very important and that’s a completely different kind of thing. We’re talking about people who like me have difficulty getting out of bed. You said you just pop out of bed. I have vague memories when I was younger of popping out of bed. I have a feeling you’re a lot younger than I am. When you pop out of bed, that’s a foreign way of life to many of us. We might aspire to be like you, but we’re not like you. How do I get out of bed? That’s what I use to-do list for. Not necessarily written down, but sometimes written down. You need to break your day up into very small, easily satisfiable tasks and then give yourself a pat on the back for doing them. “I’m out of bed,” pat on the back. “I started the coffee,” pat on the back. “I had a shower,” pat on the back. “I drank a cup of coffee,” that’s important, two pats on the back.
By the time I sit down on my desk to start grading papers or whatever I have to do that day, I’ve got ahead of steam. I’m looking at myself, “What a productive, take-charge kind of guy I am. I’ve already done ten things on my to-do list.” The fact that I get out of bed, go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, that’s not so important as the idea that, “Check, check, check,” because there had been in mornings when I haven’t gotten any of those things done. You probably never had an experience like that, but many of us do. There’s a Japanese term for this breaking things up into small tasks, which I should have jotted down somewhere, but it’s in the book. It’s a good idea. Break tasks into smaller tasks and this has to do with not setting the bar too high. I know that you spent some time in Switzerland and so you knew German and maybe you had to learn German.
If you just put, “Learn German” on there, that’s pretty hard to say learn ten vocabulary words or learn five vocabulary words. Over a year’s time, you’ve learned quite a bit. There are two kinds of to-do lists. First is this big, maybe self-deceptive to-do list in which you motivate yourself to do things further down on the list as a way of not doing things further up on the list. That’s structured procrastination. Then this kind of break each task into easy subtasks and give yourself credit each time you do any of them. For many of us, that’s an important feature of a productive day, plus music. You’ve got to have the right music. If you love classical music and see you play the Eroica Symphony, you probably spend the whole day getting more and more depressed. If you play Neil Diamond, you’ll get perky. That’s going to offend a lot of people. You can compromise on Leonard Cohen, who’s got pessimistic thoughts but a good beat.
Most procrastinators have pretty good self-deceptive skills. Click To Tweet It’s that beat and that rhythm that helps us create a certain emotional state, which in that emotional state is what I’m talking about with championship psychology is what elements do we need to help us to get to that emotional state? I completely agree that music is a wonderful way to help us to change our state whenever we see that it’s not working the way that we want it to work. I’m sure anybody has probably had this experience where you’re in a bad mood and something happened and then something comes on the radio and it just totally shifts your entire mental state because you’re hearing something that’s got that beat or brings you back to a particular time that was in your life that was great or whatever. Music is very powerful. We need to change things in our environment. That’s what helps us also to get in that psychological state and more productive. For instance, to get you out of bed, the first thing that came on the radio after your alarm goes up is Start Me Up and a couple of things that get you in a positive state, that’s going to have an influence of getting you out of bed. If the coffee machine starts itself and you can smell the coffee downstairs, that doesn’t hurt either.
If you had a teenager, how would you get him up? You put on music, it wouldn’t be his choice but your choice. You get the bacon going. You have to do the same thing with yourself. The self who does the manipulating has to be the self the night before. Just when you set an alarm clock, that’s self-manipulation. That’s the self the night before creating a situation that the self in the morning wouldn’t choose. I wouldn’t choose to set an alarm for myself, but the self the night before did. The successful life is full of self-manipulation. Although, I suppose if you’re successful enough, it doesn’t even seem like that.
You planned ahead.
William James is a great philosopher and he distinguished between two kinds of people. One of them he called healthy minded. I don’t know what he called the other one, maybe sick-minded, but I don’t like that. Let’s just say gloomy-minded. I have a feeling people like you wake up and say, “Here’s another bright day in this bright, wonderful world and I’m a bright, accomplished person. I’m going to make contributions to making the world better.” That’s great. Then there’s gloomy people like me who wake up and say, “The world has taken one more step closer to climatology for catastrophe, overpopulation, erosion of rights, all young pretty girls having tattoos and all young men wearing their pants around their knees. Who wants to wake up into such a world?” The gloomy-minded person needs all the artificial help it can get. The alarm clock, The Rolling Stones, the coffee and the bacon.
It would be interesting to think about what would you be without all of those automatic negative thoughts? What would you be without those thoughts and without procrastination?
I would be unrecognizable as a human being, but I would probably be a very happy human being.
You said you think you’d be happy, what will be different in your life? I’m just curious. If you saw yourself as free from that and from those thoughts.
It would be like being a lot younger than I am because I used to have a more optimistic view about the world. It’s not that I have a well-thought-out, pessimistic view about the world. Life is like walking down the street and you’re accosted by different things. You walk by a bakery, you’re accosted by the smell of fresh rolls. Then your desires take over and you want a fresh roll. Then your desires incorporate beliefs, your desire for a fresh roll looks around your psyche and find something you read that says, “Rolls are good for you,” or something like that. You’d say, “I’m only going to pass this bakery once this week so having a roll is not so bad.” Then your executive function takes over and says, “You’re fooling yourself. The only way you can maintain a weight that’s anywhere near reasonable is consistently pass up such opportunities.” Your life is shaped by the streets you’re walking down. Although in the end, if you’re a rational human being, there’s this executive thing which is relatively unaffected by those things that keeps charge of everything.
The successful life is full of self-manipulation. Click To Tweet As you get older, depending on your life, you see more worthwhile people who work things that don’t turn out. You see more problems and so forth. You have children and they have problems. You have grandchildren and they have problems. On the other hand, on certain days you see your children, they’re happy, your grandchildren are happy. There’s a lot of input and that’s what percolates up from your psychology. It may be happy, it may not be happy. If you have this executive function, that is the thing at the top that says, “My job is to keep control of these desires and not be swayed so much by a particular mood or input at the moment.” You have to develop that. If you’re like me, if you’re a gloomy-minded, you have to develop that and says, “Come on, Perry, the world’s not coming to an end. Just because boys like to wear their pants down around their butt doesn’t mean that things are hopeless and so forth and so on.” What would it be like to not need that? I imagine these healthy-minded people that just get up and they don’t think about all these negative things. It would be far different. That’s about all I can say. I like to be around such people. If you’re one of them, I’d like to be around you. I like to talk to you on the phone.
That sounds good and that says something because the way we develop and the way we grow is shaped by the people that we spend our life with. I forget who it was that said, “Show me your life and I’ll show you the people that you hang out with.” Tell our listeners out there where they can learn more about you, your books, your programs, and your radio show. Give us some URLs in places that we can find out more about you.
You can go read the book, steal it, you can borrow it or best, buy it. It’s called The Art of Procrastination. You can find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and hopefully your local bookstore where it’s the best place to buy it. You can find out more about me at the website, PhilosophyTalk.org. That’s the website for a radio program I do with my dear friend, Ken Taylor, where we contrary to what the public radio people thought have made success of a show based on philosophy and philosophical topics. If you’re interested in digging deep into the various stuff I’ve written, you can go to John.JPerry.net, where you find all kinds of stuff. There’s also a structured procrastination website, StructuredProcrastination.org.
Thank you so much for being here. This was a great discussion and thought-provoking for many of our audience.
Thank you, Penny. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve learned a lot from you.
I know that you have a book around identity, so we’ll have to have you back when we talk about purpose and identity again. To close out this session of Take Charge of Your Productivity, I like you to imagine at the end of each day connecting to what’s important to you, that greater purpose. Visualize yourself already having achieved it and how great it feels and how things would be different now that you’ve reached those goals. How much more focus would you have? Make a point that the first two hours in the morning that you get up, that you focus on something that advances you towards those ultimate goals that you’ve set for yourself. After all, you still have 1,320 minutes left in the day to do whatever is urgent or to procrastinate if that’s what you want to do. Set up your environment. We talked in the show also intertwined about how important the environment is to set up and support you in getting the biggest items done first and to eliminate distractions.
Priorities need to be set around the critical success factors in doing what you need to do to maintain that championship psychology. By setting clear priorities based on those factors, then you’re able to support yourself with critical, tactical planning and scheduling. It can be difficult to distinguish what’s important from what’s urgent, especially when many of us are taught from an early age to place an urgency on low priority tasks. The secret sauce that will let you quickly and consistently prioritize is by asking quality questions. That’s what’s going to address those automatic negative thoughts that we’ve talked about. It’s also going to help you get clarity on what to prioritize and what needs to be done in your urgent and in your important sector. Nearly 100% of the time for prioritization can be cleared up by simply asking questions about the task. This has had amazing effects for my clients. For instance, why does it have the deadline that it does? Is that deadline feasible or appropriate or necessary? Will it bring you closer to your goals? What results need to be achieved? Is that result worth your time and energy?
Keep control of your desires and don’t be swayed so much by a particular mood or input at the moment. Click To Tweet Don’t ask only yourself these questions, but also ask the others who were involved in setting these goals and these deadlines. I want to work with an organizer who would help people to decide what to keep in their office and what to box up. They would do that by asking them to look at each item that was cluttering the room and say, “Do I need it? Do I love it? Does it make me money?” You can approach your tasks in the exact same way. Things that you need to include, for instance, paying the electric bill or buying paper for the printer and things that you love or the tasks that bring you joy and fulfillment. They give you that energy so that you can be better focused and appreciate what you achieve more. Finally, will the task result in financial gain, energy gain or some time gain that’s going to feed either of the financial of the energy gain? You can usually eliminate the tasks that don’t fit into those categories and you’ll be amazed at the results.
Thanks for reading to our interview with Dr. John Perry. Talking about procrastination, it’s something that I’ve written about in my best-selling book, The Productivity Zone: Stop the Tug of War with Time. I talk about it in what I call the Productivity Curve. On one side of the curve, we have procrastination. On the other side, we have perfectionism. In the middle, that’s where we have the productivity zone. It happens, we procrastinate from time-to-time, but we’ve got to be aware of it, conscious of when we’re procrastinating so that we can shift quickly into the productivity zone. Dr. John Perry has some interesting thoughts about that in terms of breaking things down. It’s also about getting into action. He breaks things down so that he can get into action.
If you want to break the cycle of procrastination, you want to get as quickly as possible of getting into action, taking that next bold step. You can do that through asking yourself quality questions that are going to help you to do that. You can even have a mantra like Mel Robbins talks about 5-4-3-2-1. It’s extremely effective. Break it down and just set clear priorities so that you can know what you want to be focusing on and what you need to be focusing on. I never said it was easy, but when you can put some strategies in place and have a couple of brain hacks, you can see yourself shifting from procrastination into the productivity zone. The quicker you recognize it, the quicker you can make that shift. When you practice it like any type of sports move or any type of skill, you’re going to get better at it. You’re going to get faster. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even start to teach other people. Thank you so much for being here. We’ll see you in the next episode.
- Dr. John Perry
- The Art of Procrastination
- The Productivity Zone: Stop the Tug of War with Time
About Dr. John Perry
John Perry is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. His office is Cordura 127 at CSLI, Stanford University, where he conducts several research projects. He is also a professor of philosophy (half-time) at the University of California, Riverside, on leave 2012–13.