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Philosophy prof wins Ig Nobel prize for ‘structured procrastination’

Emeritus professor of philosophy John Perry was awarded an Ig Nobel prize in the literature category last Thursday for his theory of “structured procrastination.” Perry, who was in Germany, was unable to attend the award ceremony at Harvard University, and sent in his stead his editor Deborah Wilkes.

Perry first published his theory in a Feb. 1996 Chronicle of Higher Education essay titled “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done.” The piece has since been republished under the title “Structured Procrastination.”

In the essay, Perry outlines his method for a procrastinator to become a “useful citizen.”

“The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks,” he wrote, “as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.”

Rather than minimizing one’s commitments, a method many procrastinators try, Perry suggests strategically filling one’s list of commitments to use procrastination as a tool to achieve more.

Perry writes, “Structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself… And virtually all procrastinators also have excellent skills at self-deception – so what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the effects of another?”

Perry co-hosts the radio program “Philosophy Talk” with fellow philosophy professor Kenneth Taylor and is known for his work on situation semantics.

Improbable Research, the organization administering the awards, describes its criteria on its website: “The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.”

Other 2011 winners included researchers from several countries who examined why people sigh, analyzed decision-making when subjects needed to urinate and documented that there is “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”

- Margaret Rawson