Interview Dr. John Perry | Procrastination


I am joined with Dr. John Perry.  Philosopher, professor, author and radio host and master procrastinator.  He describes to us how this group of people tend to function.  In our program today, we will learn how to separate urgency and importance.  How to turn procrastinate into accomplishment.  Also, just by asking a few simple questions, you can eliminate tasks that aren’t bringing you closer to those important goals.  He has taught at Stanford for 40 years as a professor of philosophy and a cofounder of the Center of study of Language of Information.  In addition to the art of procrastination, he is the author of books including a dialog on personal identity, immortality, knowledge possibility consciousness reference and reflexivity.  And he also a cohost of a public radio show called Philosophy Talk.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And a recipient of many honors and awards.  In 1990 he was awarded Stanford’s Dinkelspiel award for undergraduate teaching.  He lives in Californian with his wife Frenchie.  He has three children and 10 grandchildren.  Dr. Perry it is a great pleasure to have you here today.  Welcome.

Dr:  it’s a pleasure to be here. 

P: You are a Stanford Philosophy professor.  How is it you wound up writing a book on procrastination?

Dr:  It started out in 1996 as an essay.  I was sitting around feeling very guilty and bad about myself because I had a whole pile of papers to grade and some other stuff to do.  I wasn’t getting anything done.  Probably repairing an old typewriter or something.  I thought, what a jerk, a procrastinator I am.  Then it occurred to me, if I was such a jerk, how come at Stanford I had a reputation as someone who got a lot done.  It occurred to me I got a lot done.  Maybe that wasn’t the world’s worst approach.  I wrote this essay right after.  A few years later it won the Ig Nobel Prize in Literature.  Do you know what that is?  It’s almost the same as a Nobel Prize.  Ig Nobel prize is given by a journal.  This is all a brainchild of a man named Mark Abraham.  The idea is to reward research.  It first makes you laugh and then makes you think.  In a good procrastinating fashion after publishing this essay in his journal in 1997, by 2010, he decided to give me the Ig Nobel prize.  It’s a play on words.  I attracted quite a bit of publicity.  An agent asked me if I wanted to turn it into a book.  I did and I wrote some other essays along those same lines.  My agent was flabbergasted.  The whole process was pretty quick. 

P:  16 years.  That would be par for the course for procrastination.  You talked in your book about structural procrastination.  Now after reading this and my assistant read it, she said, Penny, you are a structured procrastinator.  I get so many things done that are not on my list.  I focus on what is important and getting that balance. I guess to start out, for our listeners, help describe, I can’t do it justice, describe how you define a structured procrastinator. 

Dr:  The book is not in favor of becoming a procrastinator.  Nor is it meant to discourage people from getting over it.  Mainly, it’s to say if you are one and you don’t feel like there is much to do about it, you may not be as big a shlump as you think.  It’s pretty intimating to be talking to an expert on productivity.  But it sounds like you have a good sense of humor. It sounds like your assistant saw you in this.  You are a person who gets a lot done but maybe not in the order in which you would expect to do.

P:  Or what someone else might think is important.

Dr:  That’s true.  A structured procrastinator is someone who can appear lazy but are not.  They are someone who maybe they don’t do what they are supposed to be doing all of the time, so they are a procrastinator but they don’t waste their time because they do other things.  Most procrastinators are like that and some are very creative.  That is the part of the book that says if you are one, its not the worst thing in the world, because you may be doing some valuable stuff.  So don’t feel bad about yourself.  Here are some ideas on how to get around to that thing you are supposed to be doing.

P:  You said earlier that you were feeling guilty and bad about grading papers.  I think people are so hard on themselves.  So, people beat themselves up because they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  I really like the book and the essay because it helps people understand and accept who they are and I prefer not to have a label to it.  To understand and to make any kind of change, you need to know where you are and your current habits. 

Dr:  It’s not just procrastinators that are rough.  You can look at the literature on psychology today, you will find out that procrastination is representative as a terrible flaw.  They drink more than others, they die earlier, and they put stress on their colleagues, their responsible for the low productivity in their companies, the national debt, the 2008 crisis, the war and everything else.  If you went back through history and you took away every piece of literature, invention, great idea, work of art, every novel, that somebody came up with when they were supposed to be doing something else, you would gut our civilization.  That is probably how the invention of the wheel came about.  It has a bad reputation and it shouldn’t.  It’s an important part of the process.

P:  Could you tell me who diagnoses a procrastinator? 

Dr:  There have been experiments done by psychologists.  They really think it is a syndrome.  It often goes back to problems in childhood.  Procrastinating is something in common with eating problems, control issues, for example.  It’s a real phenomenon.  If it’s bad enough it can be connected with depression and all sorts of horrible things.  You should go to a psychiatrist.  For most procrastinators it’s not that debilitating of a problem.  There is no pill for it.  If you are depressed you can take a pill. 

P:  Most of the people who are listening to the program who may be a procrastinators, it is a self-diagnosed proclamation.  You don’t usually go to the doctor.  You don’t need a doctor to tell you.

Dr:  You are right.  It’s not like shingles or something where you have the symptoms and no idea of what is going on.

P:  You might have some behaviors that you like to change.  I work on helping people in that psychology section about creating a championship psychology.  Part of that, I know you can relate, has to do with identity.  If I proclaim myself a procrastinator, I will hold on to that because it is serving me somehow.  The first thing we do is suggest that you let go of that label and try to make other choices.

Dr:  Even earlier, make sure you are clear that you might be a procrastinator but all of the other qualities don’t apply to you.  You are right, that is important in that it is just a word.  It doesn’t define me.  It’s a combination of some habits and then my way of labeling those habits.  One of the things I found that is common among procrastinators are also perfectionists.  Task triage is important.  When you get a task don’t let the fantasies carry you away.  How important is this?  Procrastination is a way for doing that for you but it’s painful by leaving it to the last minute.  You can’t do a perfect job because of the time. 

P:  It’s time for us to take a break.  You have been learning about structured procrastination. 

Welcome Back to Take Charge of your Productivity.  We are discussing the key factors about achieving productivity with Dr. Perry.

P:  Everybody has a different definition for productivity or procrastination.  How do you define productivity and why?

Dr:  I am too timid in front of an expert like you.  Productivity is ratio of input to output.  The big questions have come to what is the input and what is the output?  Adam Smith is responsible for many of our ideas.  Man hours of input and number of pins output.  HIs point was if you have division of labor you get more productivity because the same number of man hours gives you more pins.  In today’s world, things are a lot more complicated.  A silicon valley company where ideas are part of the output.  A place like google it’s hard to find the right output to measure productivity.  You can go global.  You can say we got the money we make on our business.  That is the ultimate productivity.  That is not very useful in taking a division or a segment of your company and saying is this part being productive.  Their input into the bottom line may be extremely hard to figure out.  It becomes more of an art than a science.  I think that procrastinators fit into that.  If you are working in a pin factory you don’t want to be a procrastinator.  You don’t want the pins to pile up.  You don’t want the headless pins to pile up behind you.  You won’t last long in the pin factory.  If you use that time where you are not putting the heads on the pins to come up with a brilliant idea.  If you really want to keep your job as putting the heads on the pins, you better not procrastinate. At Yahoo, or Google, they know that if they are making pins today they know they are not going to be doing it tomorrow.  IF you are Netflix with a good business plan today that is working fine, two years from now it may not be working fine at all.  They may want their discs online instead of in the mail.  You can start a division to worry about stuff like that.  The good ideas are going to come out with people who have other things to do and are in some sense procrastinators. 

P:  What if the art of procrastinating got a new name and we called them proactivists.  They are working on something more important than the urgency of getting the pin done.  A focus on what is more important than what is more urgent. 

Dr:  Let’s come up with another word for them Penny and I can write another book. 

P:  Ponder on this.  You are a philosopher.  What are the main factors that have the greatest impact on productivity?

Dr:  It is a relative question.  As we live in a global economy and we have to think about markets all over the world and labor all over the world, we have to take a large view of things.  Economists can be disappointing.  They can think about the most basic things in the world but they have a little bit of a more structure to do it in.  They have mathematics, in some cases empirical studies, lots of things are happening.  But what we have is economics for a world that needs to grow all of the time in order for things to work out at the same time, we are being told that there is not much room for growth.  Is there an economics that tells us that here are the tradeoffs between having more productivity and what is the point of the productivity?  To produce more product in less time.  If you think about the world, having a world full of people that are not using up the resources of the planet and are satisfied with a little less.  We need economists to figure out what our model is.  They are not doing it.

P:  They are not doing it but it’s not only up to the economics.  It comes down to how I define productivity and how I encourage people.  It’s a personal measure.  What organization are you working with?  You said, what am I measuring again?  What is the goal I am trying to achieve?  That will determine what the key factors are in being productive as well what productivity is in that instance.

Dr:  If you are a procrastinator and you look back on your year, you see what you did and how much time it took, you may not look very productive.  But if you look at the whole contribution you made to the university or company, you can figure out some of the intangible things.  You may be a very productive person.  Some people who don’t procrastinate sit down and do their tasks and then take the rest of the day off.  It’s not as productive as the procrastinator who fills in time with other stuff to do. 

P:  It’s up to the person who checks it off and says I am going to take the rest of the day off.  If that makes them feel good and that is what they want to achieve, its bringing them forward in what they want, they may be the right level of productivity for them.  Verses someone else who contributes in many other ways.  Both are contributing to themselves and to whatever cause they are working towards.  I like to believe that yes, there is some sort of external measure, but there is internal measure that is important as well.  It may be that person looking back to their whole contribution.  They focused on larger ultimate tasks or goals that were even more important to create what you had mentioned, sustainability.  We are not just producing to produce the number of products this month.  Who cares?  Anybody can have a spike in productivity.  If somebody is spending more time proactivating, looking into how they can make a process better, and more sustainable, in my opinion, they are more productive. 

Dr:  Proactivator is a good word.  That is what you are.  Your assistant doesn’t have it quite right.  You probably works through the lists first and instead of stopping, you would continue going.

P:  I am a little of both procrastinator and proactivator.  I believe it comes down to the art of understanding your priorities.  What is really important to you?  Contributing to the greater whole and creating that sustainability and understanding the purpose behind the priorities.  Dr. Tom Duncan calls it automatic negative thoughts when we immediately go to a negative attitude about the job we have to do.

Dr:  There is one thing I would push a bit that may be contrary to your point of view.  There is this thing in economic that goes to Von Hayek.  He is on the right hand side of economics.  Often spontaneous organization is better than top down thinking.  He grew up in a demand economy in Slavia.  It’s got its limits but the market is supposed to be the ideal for that.  It often works.  The market comes up with solutions that nobody would have figured out from the top down.  I think we need to treat our brains that way.  We have someone who is not really in charge but who has the perspective.  Take getting out of bed in the morning.   You probably don’t have a problem with that. 

P:  I don’t. 

Dr:  I do and I am lying there and parts of me are having a fight.  Boy this feels good lying in bed, why don’t I just stay here.  Probably nothing I have to do is that important that I can’t put off for a half hour.  The other part of me tells me I have to prepare the lecture.  If you don’t give a good lecture, your students will be disappointed, so you better get up now.  Finally, one wins.  My dog will lick my face so I get up.  But so are a cluster of different desires, urges, whims, long range plans, fighting themselves out for control of our body.  Then we have this executive ability to think at the executive level and think this is more important than that.  But often not as powerful as we would like it to be.  That is when you have the weakness of the will.  You say this is what I should be doing, your executive figured that out but you can’t get yourself to do it.  Sometimes your executive is wrong.  If you don’t follow directions, things turn out fine.  You have to be good at judging when, just let yourself go.  Work on what you feel like working out. 

P:  I can see there is a time for everything.  Right?

Dr:  I know some people that come up with things there should not have been a time or place

P:  Right.  In terms of organizations, there are times and places where both would be apropos.  Flexibility is key.  I want to come back to the getting out of bed issue.  When I heard you describe the dilemma of getting out of bed, it sounds like your focus is on the task and what’s urgent to get done in the day or in the week.  The reason I pop out of bed is because of my focus on my greater contribution.  And I wonder if people who feel that sense of those automatic negative thoughts or that ghost inside that is pulling you back into bed, I wonder if there was more focus on really a greater contribution and the value you bring and if it was focused more on creating that championship psychology you may be able to pop out of bed.

We are going to take a break.

Welcome back to the last week.  I am Penny Zenker and I am joined with Dr. John Perry

P:  Welcome back.

Dr:  Thank you Penny glad to be bad.

P:  I told you about my concept of championship psychology.  Is the importance that we are reframing or the urgency?

Dr:  Good question.  It’s really the importance because what i recommend you realize you have this somehow it’s easier to do things that you are not supposed to be doing.  They are not at the top of your long range list.  Often the thing I was procrastinating about turns out not to be so important.  People can say that is self-deception.  Most procrastinators have self-deceptive skills.  Trying to get something like ‘learn Chinese” that is important and difficult, and there are so many other things I would rather to be doing.  I could really convince myself that I ought to be doing.  There is another kind of to do list that is important and that is a completely different thing.  We were talking about people like me who have difficulty getting out of bed.  You said you just pop out of bed.  I have a feeling you are a lot younger than me.  You sound full of energy.  That is a forcing way of life to many of us.  We may aspire to be like you but we are not like you.  That is what I use to do lists for.  Not really written down but sometimes written down.  You need to break up your day into small easily satisfiable tasks and then give yourself a pat on the back. 

P:  I agree.

Dr:  I am out of bed, pat on the back.  I started the coffee, pat on the back.  I got into the shower, pat on the back.  By the time I sit down at my desk. I got ahead of steam.  I am looking at myself what a productive take charge kind of guy I am.  I have already done 10 things on my to do list.  I have checked so many things.  There have been mornings when I have not gotten any of those things done.  There is a Japanese term of breaking things up into small tasks.  It’s a good idea.  Break tasks into smaller tasks.  Not setting the bar too high.  I know you have spent time in Switzerland and you had to learn German.  If you put learn German on your list that is a lot.  But maybe if you put learn 10 words, then it’s more attainable.  Break each tasks into easy subtasks and give yourself credit, each time you do it.  For many of us, it’s an important feature of a productive day.  Plus music.  If you love classical music, you probably will spend the whole day working.  It can perk you up, like Neil Diamond. 

P:  It’s that beat and the rhythm that helps us create an emotional state.  In that state is what I am talking about with championship psychology.  What elements do we need to get to that emotional state?  I agree that music is a wonderful way to help us to change our state whenever we see that its not working the way we want it to work.  Like when you are in a bad mood, then something happens and something good comes on the radio, you shift your entire mental state.  It triggers some memory of something that was great.  We need to change things in our environment.

Dr: That is what helps us get into that psychological state.  To get you out of bed, if the first thing that came on the radio is Start Me Up, and a couple other things that influence you to get out of bed.  Or if the coffee maker starts by itself and you can smell the coffee downstairs.  Self-manipulation of the night before.  Setting the clock at bed.  Making the coffee ahead of time.  The successful life is full of self-manipulation.  If you are successful enough it doesn’t even seem like that. I have a feeling that people like you wake up and say wow, it’s a great day and I am going to wake up and make the world a better people.  Then there are gloomy people like me who wake up and think oh brother, the world is overpopulated, there are erosion of rights, all young pretty girls are getting tattoos, and young men are wearing their pants around their knees.  The gloomy person needs all of the artificial help it can get.

P:  What would you be without all of those automatic negative thoughts?  What would you be without them?

Dr:  I would be unrecognizable as a human being.  I would be a very happy human being. 

P:  You think you would be happy?  What would be different?  Would you be free from those thoughts? 

Dr:  It would be like being a lot younger than I am.  I used to be more optimistic view about the world.  Life is like walking down the street and you are accosted by different things.  We walk past a bakery and you smell fresh rolls.  Then your desires take over and you want a fresh roll.  Your desires for a fresh roll looks around your psyche and finds something you read that said rolls are good for you or something like that.  Well I am only going to pass this bakery once this week so one roll is not so bad.  Then your executive function says you are fooling yourself, you can’t maintain your weight if you eat that roll.  Your life is shaped by the street you are walking down.  In the end if you are a rational human being your executive sometimes keeps charge of everything.  As you get older, depending on your life, you see more worthwhile people.  You see more problems too.  You have children and they have problems.  On the other hand, on certain days you see your children and grandchildren and they are happy.  There is a lot of input.  That’s was percolates up from your psychology.  But if you have the executive function that says my job is to keep in control these desires and not be swayed so much by the particular mood or the input of the moment, you have to develop that.  If you are gloomy minded, like me.  You have to go back and forth with your executive mind.  What would it be like if I was like that?  Do some people just not think about these things?  I would be far different.  If you are one of them, I like to be around you.  I would like to talk to you on the phone.

P:  The way we develop and the way we grow is shaped by the people we spend our life with.  Show me your life and I will show you the people you hang out with.  We are coming to a close now.  Tell our listeners out there where they can learn more about you, your programs, books, etc.

Dr:  ok, well you can go read the book, The Art of Procrastination.  You can find out more about me at that is the website for our radio program I do with Ken Taylor.  We actually have made a success of a show.  You can also for even really digging deep into various writings of mine. where you will find all kinds of stuff. is another website to visit.

P:  What a thought provoking discussion.  Thank you so much.

Dr:  Thank you Penny it has been fun and I have learned a lot from you. 

P:  I know you have a book around identity.  I will have to have you back. 

Dr:  ok. Very good.

P:  To close out today’s session, i would like you to imagine that at the end of each day, connecting to what is important to you.  Visualize yourself, already having achieve it and how great it feels and how things will be different now that you have reached those goals.  How much more focus would you have.  Make the first two hours that you wake up something that you focus on that are goals you have set for yourself.  After all you still have 1320 minutes left in the day.  So set up your environment and limit your distractions.  Priorities need to be set and do what you do to maintain that championship psychology by setting priorities based on those factors.  It can be really difficult to distinguish what’s important from what is urgent.  Especially when many of us are taught at an early age to place an urgency on low priority tasks.  The secret sauce that will let you quickly and consistently prioritize, listen carefully, it’s by asking quality questions.  That is what is going to address those automatic negative thoughts.  It’s also going to help you get clarity on what to prioritize and what needs to be done in your urgent and important sector.  Usually 100% of the time for prioritization can be cleared up by simply asking questions about the tasks.  This has had amazing results for my clients.  Example:  Is that deadline necessary?  Will it bring you closer to your goals?  Is that result really worth your time and energy?  Ask yourself and others these questions.  I once worked with an organizer who would help people to decide to keep in their office and what to box up.  They would ask them to look at each item and ask the questions do I need it?  Do I love it?  Does it make me money?  You can approach your tasks the same way.  Finally, will the task result in financial gain energy gain or some kind of time gain that will feed either the financial or energy gain? 

This is Penny Zenker reminding you to take charge of your time and energy.  It’s a choice you can feel good about.


One Comment on “Interview Dr. John Perry | Procrastination”

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Stop Procrastination

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