John Perry's theory of structured procrastination can be summed up as follows:

  1. Some people are inherently predisposed to be procrastinators across a wide range of domains
  2. Such procrastinators are still capable of being productive
  3. They can achieve this because they work on less-important (but still important) tasks in order to avoid working on (procrastinate) on more-important (or seemingly more important) tasks.
  4. If you are a procrastinator and want to still get things done, expand your workload/to-do list.

The first point seems to be well supported since procrastination is regarded in the literature as a personality trait (Steel, 2007). The second point also seems reasonable, although I am not sure of empirical support for it (although I can think of plenty of anecdotal evidence). The real interest for me, is the mechanism proposed in the 3rd and 4th point. (Note that Perry is not the only one to propose such a theory, see for instance Aaron Swartz' HOWTO: Be more productive.)

Has it been observed that procrastinators who are successful achieve this success by expanding their workload and working on medium importance task at the cost of high importance tasks they want to procrastinate on?


Steel, P. (2007) "The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure." Psychological Bulletin 133(1): 65–94. [pdf]

  • $\begingroup$ You know that Steel wrote that just to avoid more pressing work facing him? Me, I tend to vacuum. $\endgroup$
    – msw
    Commented May 10, 2012 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ totally speculative here, but I wonder if it has to do with an insensitive amygdala. I.e. the amygdala is somewhat of an emotional signifcance detector. For those of us that procrastinate, I wonder if it just requires a closer due date because of our higher amygdala threshold, before we are motivated to start working on things. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ It may be hard to measure it, as procrastination involves mainly creative, open-ended work, as opposed to work than "can be done" [citation needed; I had it somewhere]. So, for example, you can say that X produces 5 papers, but Y produces only 1 paper in a year. But it might be hard to asses creativity or value of the papers. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ @PiotrMigdal yes, you would need a cute experiment to measure it. Alternatively, you might have to come up with a "creativity-task" instead of studying creativity in the wild. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev Here it is: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candle_problem - making haste makes it harder to come with a creative solution. It is not that unlikely that the converse is also true: to make creative things one needs to not rush so quickly and make his/her mind wander (NB which makes one unhappy, see scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-wandering-mind-is-an-un), where procrastination is a side effect (or perhaps not even - just a natural phenomenon in creativity, or (sic!) well-spent time). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 20:45

1 Answer 1


In short, no. Perry's essay is amusing and compelling, but incomplete. Procrastination is an epiphenomenon of motivation, an active area of research which has some models relevant to the study of procrastination, such as:

Perry emphasizes task importance as the metric that keeps a task unfinished and at the top of a structure procrastinator's to-do list. The truth is more complicated and not an entirely resolved area of research. Delayed gratification, immediate discomfort, and the procrastinator's prediction of probability of reward are some of the additional factors that determine which task a structured procrastinator will work on at a given time.

Over time, the least-desirable tasks often remain unfinished, seem increasingly important, and thus move to the top of the to-do list.


  • Laibson, D. (1997). Golden Eggs and Hyperbolic Discounting. Quarterly Journal of Economics 112(2): 443–477.
  • Steel, P., König, C. (2006) Integrating theories of motivation. Academy of Mgmt. Rev. 31(4): 889-913.

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