Open Thinkering


Structured procrastination

As any who knows me well will testify, I like structure. That’s partly because, as Cory Doctorow put it in his recent Lifehacker interview “habits are things you get for free”. I plan each day using my daily planner – something that I know other people have also found value in using. 🙂

So when I came across a reference to structured procrastination today I was intrigued. Was this a a joke or a real thing? I did some digging. As it turns out, it’s the latter. The ‘method’ (more of an ‘anti-method’) can be summarised easily:

  • Don’t keep a schedule
  • Work on whatever you find most important/interesting

I find it fascinating that people can use such a method successfully.

Having those two things as principles is all very well and good, but does it work? Well apparently it’s been fundamental to the success of none other than bodybuilder/actor/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger:

Want to meet with Arnold? Sure, drop on by. He’ll see you if he can. But you might want to call first. Sorry, he doesn’t schedule appointments in advance.

As a result, for 20 years he has been free to work on whatever is most important in his life at any time.

Those of you in California may recall how, once Arnold decided to run for Governor, he went into a blaze of action and activity that resulted in a landslide victory. The book attributes this in part to the fact that his schedule was completely clear and he could spend all day, every day on his new political career, without having to worry about distractions or commitments.


It’s now got me thinking about lots of things. Whether such a approach would even be desirable. It’s got me thinking about the things that have to be in place before such an approach could work. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve been considering the extent to which an individual’s ‘barriers’ to actually doing this are real or merely perceived.

I’d love to learn more about how you organise yourself. What works best for YOU?

Image CC BY-SA nerovivo

5 thoughts on “Structured procrastination

  1. I’m never sure when people find time to think about productivity 🙂 But hey, people often say that can’t understand how people find time to “do twitter”, and I think “you just don’t understand how it is part of how i work now”.

    I have a theory about productivity tool obsessives: each tool adopted/migrated to is an opportunity to reprioritise. Its psychologically easier to not copy a task over than to delete it.

    Anyway, I discovered the John Perry essay a few years back, i forget who from. It is simply that to avoid item 1 on the list, one will do 4, 7, maybe even 2. And thats the only way some tasks ever get done. I work like that. There is always something I am avoiding. In the meantime I work through the other tasks and plant seeds of future work, which is always more exciting than the thing in front of me. I rarely miss a deadline though. And i do good stuff, even if in a haphazard way (colleagues will testify to the latter 🙂 ).

    As for refusing to schedule meetings? Sounds arrogant to me. And only possible for people at the top of their structures. I’d be affronted if someone refused to schedule on principle. But since i have no interest in meeting Arnie, I doubt that’s going to be a problem 🙂

    1. Hi Amber, thanks for the comment. 🙂

      Absolutely, you either have to be at the top of the tree or not give much of a toss about everyone else! I hope you weren’t including me in the ‘productivity tool obsessives’ group. I try to stick to tools unless I have reason to change. I’m much more interested in hacking and iterating my workflows.

  2. Over time I’ve gone from highly structured to the other end of the spectrum. Currently, I am trying to keep some balance with a “flexibly structured” approach; I have tasks/priorities but they are open to re-evaluation.

    I think the two things most important things I’ve learned about productivity are: 1) ultimately what matters is building a habit of Attention to the task at hand; and 2) it’s imperative to choose the task(s) at hand wisely.

    To encourage the latter, I keep reminder on the wall by my desk – a few lines from Paul Graham’s essay on “Good and Bad Procrastination” where he paraphrases Richard Hamming (from his essay on research):

    1. What are the most important problems in your field?
    2. Are you working on one of them?
    3. Why not?

    If I’m procrastinating a pointless task to work on something important, then “Yay!” If I’m procrastinating something important to work on something pointless, it’s a good quick re-direct.

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