Perry_2013John Perry is the author of the wonderfully amusing „The Art of Procrastination“. Aside from being a professor at Stanford university he has been very successful in turning procrastination into an art form. Let’s see which task he avoided by answering this interview. (Photo: Copyright John Perry)

Thank you for participating in this interview.
So, tell me, what task is being left undone while you are answering my questions? 🙂

Ah, I wish there were only one thing! I have an overdue paper for a philosophy anthology on the topic of what it is to say something. I have an overdue book due at Oxford University Press on free-will. And the garage needs to be cleaned out.

Have you always been a fan of procrastination?

No. I used to feel bad about being a procrastinator. Why not? According to many articles one can find in magazines, procrastinators are lazy, unproductive people who create stressful lives for themselves and others; they are likely to take to alcohol, and perhaps drive others to it too. They are a major burden on our economy. Probably we are responsible for the world-wide recession, and perhaps all war and pestilence for that matter.

Once in 1996, feeling bad because instead of grading the papers and preparing the lectures and exams I should have been working on, I was daydreaming and reading. Then a sort of paradox occurred to me. I had a reputation as a person who accomplished a lot. The resolution of the paradox was that I accomplished a lot of things, as a way of not doing important things that I probably should have been doing instead. That is what I call “structured procrastinators”.

I think we structured procrastinators get a bad rap. Procrastinating is a flaw — I don’t deny that. Still, if you were to go through human history, and take out all the ideas and inventions that people came up with when they should have been doing something else, you would gut human culture. Great novels have been written, wonderful poems penned, businesses started, and scientific discoveries made by people who were supposed to be doing something else.

Do you think the person who invented the wheel was supposed to be inventing things? I’ll bet he or she was supposed to be lugging things, and took a break. Or consider Newton’s discovery of gravity. He was supposed to be picking apples for Mrs. Newton, not daydreaming under the tree. (If there was a Mrs. Newton. I have never gotten around to checking).

Procrastination seems to run in your family since your granddaughter designed your homepage to avoid her literature test. Does everyone in your family have this particular trait and how do you handle that?

I don’t remember my mother and father as being procrastinators. Probably I developed the trait as a defense for dealing with such well-organized people. Even if I had to eventually do what they told me, I retained some control of my life by putting things off. My brother was a procrastinator, but my sister is well-organized and efficient. My oldest son procrastinates, but my daughter is one of those people who gets things done rapidly so she can relax.

When a non-procrastinator deals with a procrastinator, it is easy to be controlling. It usually works better to let people work in their own way, even if it is not optimally efficient. You may be pleasantly surprised by what they come up with while putting off and delaying what they are supposed to be doing.

When a procrastinator deal with a non-procrastinator, the key is to admit your flaw, but point out that in the end you get things done, even if you have to stay up all night. The important thing is not to claim that you are not really procrastinating, because what you are doing is actually more important than what you are supposed to be doing. That drives people crazy.

Who had the idea to turn „structured procrastination“ into a T-Shirt, bags, cups and such?

My lovely and talented granddaughter Erin. After the incident above, in 1996, I wrote a short essay, “Structured Procrastination,” which is now the first chapter of the book. Eventually the web came along, and Erin put the essay on a website, and, remarkably, it became very popular. So she decided to sell t-shirts and make a little income from it. Very little income, I’m afraid, but it is fun to have the website.

What books do you like to read?

Almost anything I don’t need to read to get ready to teach a class. Mysteries, great novels, history books, and the like; the New York Times; magazines like the New Yorker.

For a while I spent a lot of time reading books in German. What a wonderful language! Unfortunately, I have never become very good at understanding spoken German, probably because I was too old when I started to learn. Another problem is that when I am in Germany, most of the academics I see speak very good English, and would rather do that than listen to my attempts to speak their language.

Since audiobooks are such a great invention – do you like them and which titles do you like to hear?

Sometimes when my wife and I are on a car trip, we get an audiobook, usually a mystery, sometimes a biography. I enjoy them very much. But, when I am in a position to read, I’d rather read than listen. I have no idea why.

Do you get much fan mail from readers of your book? Maybe even from foreign countries?

For years I have gotten lots of fan mail about the structured procrastination article — several emails a week, from all around the world. It drew much more attention than any of the hundred or so academic articles I have written. Almost all the email has been very positive, some people even saying I changed their life! How about that! This continues now that the book is out. Most of the reviews have been quite positive. I am fortunate that my personal defects, and my ruminations about them, resonate with so many others.

Would you like to tell your German readers something else?

I love the German title, and think it is a very fine translation. I lived in Bonn for about six months once, doing research at the University, and have made many trips to Germany. In spite of the no doubt deserved reputation Germans have for organization and diligence, there are a great many procrastinators in Germany. I hope my book will make them feel better about themselves, and give them a little useful advice for avoiding the worst effects of this flaw.

Thank you very much!

You are very welcome!