Structural Procrastination

Michael Sean
Quinn

Law Office of Michael Sean Quinn

Quinn and Quinn

1300 West Lynn #208

Austin, Texas 78703

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Frequently,
procrastination is portrayed “in big bold letters,” as it were, as a vice. Some
say, it is a bad thing, always.  “Face up
to what you have to do!”  “Do now what
you’ve agreed—promised–to do! Get off your ass!” “Don’t betray yourself!” “Slobbery
is not virtue.” “Procrastination always multiplies itself.” “Procrastination
always leads to failure!” “Procrastination leads to cocaine use and worse
alcoholism, if for no other reason to conquer the anxiety that goes with it.” “Avoid
being lazy; it will ruin you! Not pressing forward is laziness” “Think like
Edison and/or Ford.” [Or pick other names from the Digital-Cyber Age.] “Procrastination
is inauthentic and a betrayal of your real self. . ., ‘if you have one!’” “Make
overcoming procrastination you first and fundamental project.” “For the sake of
God, don’t put it off.” “Think like Stephen Hawking.”

“No prudent
lawyer ever procrastinates.” “It is really contrary to the spirit, at least, of
the ABA Model Rules and other such Rules, ever to simply put ‘it’/things off.”
“You, a lawyer, are the client’s fiduciary and you must
represent him/her/it zealously, and these four ideas are inconsistent
with procrastination.”

 And on, and then on, and then on and one some
more. (I’ll call this view, “The Negative Critique of Procrastination”: “~P.”) One
hears it even from the pulpit, as if some sin was involved, and the psych
therapist, as well, as if there were a mental disorder . . . something many
would call a “character flaw.”  Some
psychiatrists will give you drugs to fight it. Maybe speed might help.

This philosophy is false.   (I’ll sometimes
call this view “~P.”)



I have
found myself doubtful about ~P. I have spent time driving, for example, considering
whether a crucial historical character Jesus himself always eschewed it. The
story of his Big Three Years is hardly one of postponement.  But what was he doing during the 6 months
before his campaign began? Three years is a short time. If the negative philosophy
contra procrastinatory postponement were true, then should He not have gotten
on the stick early? One does not create a courageous radical spiritual group hauling
wood, chopping it up,  and then putting
it back together again (sort of) as tables, chairs, frames for houses, and so
forth. One can easily imagine J. as carpenter, as discussing the future with
his mother, and as putting his feet on a recently made table, sitting in an old
chair made by his father long ago, leaning back, putting his feet up,  having a sip or two, and  engaging in dialogue his spiritual buddies,
mentors, and teachers. . . .Even reading scripture or rhythmically reciting
scripture to himself (or others), for God only knows what purpose. . . . Or wondering
what it will be like when he actually meets the current radical prophet, John of
the River, and hears a voice thundering, or then again, whispering.   

But
enough! The negative critique (or philosophy regarding of procrastination) ~P
is false.  It will upset you. It will
make you unhappy. It will imprison you and thereby deny you the primary values
of the Modern Age, human dignity and freedom.

Sometimes
some procrastination is a very good thing, even for (and sometimes even
especially for) lawyers, sometimes not, and this important piece of wisdom can
be true for many reasons.   It cannot, of
course always be a good thing.  This is
true for logical reasons. If for every decision, carrying it out was always
procrastinated, then nothing—absolutely nothing professionally—would always get
done, at least some of us. But statutes of limitation or repose are something
to which there must be conformity, a client’s will must be completely prepared
before he croaks or goes stark raving mad, requests for admission must be
answered, often timely, and objections to proposed evidence at trial must be
made right away.

Nevertheless,
sometime, however  procrastination is a very
good thing, even for lawyers.  (I’ll call
this thesis “+P, and when I’m referring to it neutral or undecided, I call it
simply “P.”)

Sometimes
P is +P because it gives one time to reflect. 
Sometimes +P gives relief. Sometimes for reasons one does not know, it
works to make you get more done.  One may
need such time, but not know that one needs it. 
Or P may energize. Or it may let one do something else actually more
important where one does not consciously see that the other thing is more
important.  For the lawyer, it may lead
to fairer billing to clients.  One cannot
charge for periods of procrastination, but there may be important mulling,
pondering, reflections, confusion-reduction and/or intuition-shaping going on.  One may not even know this. Many of my lawyer
friends say that they get their best ideas when they are running, biking,
walking, doing yoga, or whatever.

This
can even happen while one is playing ping pong or playing pool for some other
purpose.   I have often thought that
there might be wisdom in law firms following the Silicon Valley example of
installing various kinds of games around their offices. Consider a ping pong
room with videogames and a card table. (Obviously, the chess table must be
somewhere else.  In the lobby, maybe, for
all to see.)  I wonder if I’m right. Of
course, not all activities fit this possibility. (Not that I am arguing for or
standing for “gamification.” See the 2013 book TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE:
THE FOLLY OF TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONISM by Evgeny Morozov, described by George
Packer in “Change the World,” a piece in the May 27, 2013 NEW YORKER  as the “fierest critic of technological
optimism in America.” (Wikipedia has a short piece on him, and the book was
reviewed “everywhere.”)

The
philosophy of +P has been formulated and defended by the Stanford philosophy
professor emeritus John Perry, a much published author of difficult books on
the philosophy of language and metaphysics. (See Wikipedia if you’re
interested.) He also has a
show, “Philosophy Talk” on PBS with a friend of his. (www.philosophytalk.org). 

The book’s title is
THE ART OF PROCRASTINATION: A GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE DAWDLING, LOLLYGAGGING AND
POSTPONEMENT, OR GETTING THINGSS DONE BY PUTTING THEM OFF (2012).  It’s short and an easy read; the title is more
aesthetically arranged on the cook jacket that I have used for citation
purposes, not that it matters, maybe. Ironically, it’s published by Workman
Publishing, WORKMAN.COM. There is a very short version of his main idea to be
fund on the professor’s  personal
webpage, the address of which is to be found on the Wikipedia pages. (How’z
that for completely unnecessary marketing?)

The main ideas of “structural procrastination”
can be summarized briefly:


1.“All procrastinators put off things they
have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this negative trait
work for you.  The key idea is that
procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom
do absolutely anything; they do marginally useful things, such as gardening or
sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files
when they get around it.”

Achieving this
attitude, this state of mind, this outlook can be called embracing the
“Philosophy of Structural Procrastination.” Hence the title of this blog. Back
to fundamentals.

2. In structuring procrastination, put off
that which presents itself as of significant importance, but isn’t; and put off
that which presents itself as having be done immediately, right quick, or by a
stated deadline.

This
one requires careful judgment, since measuring significance and timing is not
always easy.  It takes reflection and
thought. Paradoxically, this cannot be postponed. These decisions have to be
made on most things at some early point.

3. Do not submit to (or, fall prey to) the imperatives of
perfectionism. 

It will make you
unhappy, at least because almost none—if not all none, or none whatever—can
ever achieve it. Whatever we do, there is always a better way to have done it.
The philosophy of ~P correlates closely with perfectionism, and the latter
stands in the way of +P. In the words of some philosopher or other: “The world
is what it is and not another thing.”

4. “[S]structured
procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, because one is in
effect constantly perpetuating a pyramid scheme on oneself.”

According to
Professor Perry, all talented procrastinators have this skill, usually thought
of as a flaw, and there is a certain nobility in using one flaw to undermine
another, he says. I’m not sure that the following really is a problem with this
view, but it is difficult to see how one can concretely realize that one is
deceiving one’s self and there be a self-deception. Of course this is different
than when one knows that one has a propensity for self-deception, but doesn’t
know at a given time that one is doing it at that moment by means of lying to
oneself about a particular proposition one know to be the opposite of what one
is saying to one’s self. 

          5. If your experiments in
structured procrastination are depressing you, of even it’s plain-ole-injurious
procrastination, cheerful music will cheer you up.
[Really. Not like the
old SNL skits.]

I agree whole
heartedly. Mozart works very well, as does a lot of baroque music, my good and
log time friend, Archangelo Corelli, for example, and my distant cousins
Vivaldi and Telemann  are both very
helpful.  Some music doesn’t work,
however. I haven’t found either Wagner or Mahler helpful.  In general, music in a language you
understand may not be helpful. For example, Cole Porter should be helpful, as
should lots of Stephen Sondheim, but, as marvelous as they are, they distract.
(Not exactly like Barack’s description of BiBi’s lecture to congress, but sort
of.)


          6. Defeat the agony of email
volume. “[T]he psychology of the structured procrastinator [can] easily
outwit[] modern technology.”


True. And don’t put
if off. Have someone else look at the stuff. Put amazing amounts in the junk
bin. Write back in less than 5 words. And so on.


But there are two
problems with this overall view, and they are of a similar nature. Professor
Perry asserts this:


7. “Procrastinators tend
to finish tasks at the last minute at best, shortly before the
absolute-and-final no-more-extensions deadline for delivery.”


This may be a
greater problem for lawyers than many others, e.g., academics, but it has two
more general problems. First, there is a point in time near the “last minute”
where there must be no more procrast-ing, and one cannot procrastinate in recognizing,
and therefore fearing or experiencing anxiety over that time and its coming.  Second, many of us cannot live with this
extraordinary risk. I know I can’t, much as I’d like to.  I feel a bit of inadequacy and therefore  shame about this: it seems manlier to be able
to do so. Third, I can’t remember what I was going to say here. Maybe it will
come to me.


Some how related to
this point, one wonders if one can pursue or persevere in achieving a goal
during the time that one is procrastinating performing acts to achieve the
goal.  Maybe this is not really a
problem. Professor Perry points out that there is a lot to be said in taking a
big project and cutting it into parts, and focusing first on one and then on
another and then on a different one after that.


Still, perhaps,
paradoxically, Professor Perry’s idea of structured procrastination, an idea I
need and love, contains a flaw in one of its dimensions.  If  you’re going to become a user of structured
procrastination and part of your purpose in adopting this marvelous idea, is to
transcend your procrastinative history, and thereby transform yourself into a happier
being, then, once you have recognized the possibilities, you need to get on the
stick.  Of course, that will take
rethought, emotional review and reformation, and attitudinal changes.  Getting these done will take discipline,
concentration (maybe), and perseverance. 
Thus, a foreseeable termination of ~P and an adoption of +P should not
be postponed by procrastination. But won’t that likely be an instance of ~P,
and if so, will it not be an impediment to forming and embracing +P?


Now, in conclusion, I confess that
I
  have procrastinated editing this piece, including formatting and coloration, as long as I  think I can, and, following
the apparently sound professorial advice THE ART OF PROCRASTINATION has provided
me regarding perfectionism, I am going to pass on proof reading this
commentorial note at all. Maybe it’s “good enough,” to the Dr. Perry’s words. (Oh no. Here’s an area where good-enoughness in the legal profession is very different from what it is, even at Stanford, the journal MIND, and publishers like Oxford U.Pr. )

Originally posted on 03/05/2015 @ 5:28 pm

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc

Michael Sean Quinn, PhD, JD, CPCU, Etc. (530)

One of Texas's leading insurance scholars, Michael Sean Quinn is a past chair of the Insurance Section of the State Bar of Texas and has a broad legal practice.

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