Structural Procrastination

Michael Sean Quinn
Law Office of Michael Sean Quinn 
1300 West Lynn #208
Austin, Texas 78703
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(c) 512-656-0503
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.” 
In my life as a lawyer, over 36 years, I have heard this applied to many types of lawyers, but to goes not only to litigators, but to coverage lawyers, as well.
“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.”  The rule becomes, “Never ever procrastinate,” and the rule of prudence is never ever procrastinate.”
 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.”)  Of course so is the philosophy “Always procrastinate,” and I’l use the abbreviation “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  of  (or negative philosophy regarding  procrastination) ~P is false, since it is not always true  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.”) It is distinguishable, obviously, from 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. ( 
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.” This applies to coverage lawyers. 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 to be done immediately, right quick, or by a self-stated/imposed deadline, but doesn’t.
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]tructured 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? 

8. There is another problem that can be caused by P, which needs to be considered and that is the “Shit-or-Get-Off-the-Pot Problem.” 

I reserved a discussion of this problem for another posting of a relevant blog-essay. 
Now, in conclusion, I confess that I  have procrastinated editing this piece 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 proofreading this commentorial note at all. Maybe it’s good enough, to the Dr. Perry’s words.  Then again, maybe not. 

Of course, there are circumstances in which Structural Procrastination cannot be done.  If there are court imposed deadlines of  some types, for examples, procrastination beyond that deadline is forbidden certainly for the fiduciary lawyer