• November 28, 2014

15 Years After an Essay on Procrastination, a Philosopher Wins an Ig Nobel

10 Ig Nobels Awarded; Procrastinator's Prize Was a Long Time Coming 1

Robert McGrath for The Chronicle

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close 10 Ig Nobels Awarded; Procrastinator's Prize Was a Long Time Coming 1

Robert McGrath for The Chronicle

John R. Perry is a prolific philosopher, with at least eight scholarly books and scores of journal articles to his credit.

He is also a self-diagnosed procrastinator and a self-help author of sorts, having written an essay called "How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done." First published in 1996 in The Chronicle, the article established the principle of "structured procrastination," which holds that "the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important."

Mr. Perry, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford University and an active professor of philosophy at the University of California at Riverside, won the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for the ideas set forth in that essay.

Seven genuine Nobel laureates handed out awards in literature and nine other categories at "the 21st First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony," in Harvard University's Sanders Theater.

The Annals of Improbable Research, a science-humor magazine, produces the event, which each year honors "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think."

Mr. Perry, who spoke to The Chronicle this week in advance of the ceremony, deemed the tardiness of his award "quite appropriate" given the nature of his essay, which grew from an experience in 1995.

"One day I was deeply depressed about procrastinating, and I thought, It's kind of funny because everybody at Stanford thinks I'm somebody who gets a lot of stuff done," he said. "How can that be?"

He realized that in the course of avoiding seemingly important duties that he'd laid out for himself, he had diverted his energy to any number of other tasks and had inadvertently become quite productive.

Mr. Perry dropped what he was supposed to be working on and instead wrote the now-famous essay that anchors his Web site, Structured Procrastination. He's added several corollary essays on such topics as "The Academic Trough" and "Procrastination and Perfectionism." Along the way he has become something of a cult hero among others who, try as they may, simply cannot stay focused on the job at hand.

"All my fantastic contributions to understanding the human condition as a philosopher seem to have had minimal impact compared to this thing," said Mr. Perry, who receives a couple of confessionary e-mails each week from fellow shirkers.

The humorist Robert Benchley also flirted with structured procrastination, Mr. Perry later learned. "He didn't develop it with the full scientific clarity that I did, but he did say, 'I can complete any task I'm assigned as long as I have something more important to do.'"

Mr. Perry advises procrastinators to make a list of the many things they hope to accomplish, and then place a goal like "Learn Chinese" at the very top. "You have to have good self-deceptive skills," he said. "That's key."

Somewhere along the way, no doubt while avoiding some more pressing matter, Mr. Perry set to work expanding his essay into a book. "But of course I never finished it," he said.

Evidently it rose to the top of his "to do" list, and there it remains.

Following is the full list of scholars who won Ig Nobel Prizes this year:

Physiology: Anna Wilkinson, of the University of Lincoln, in England; Natalie Sebanz, of Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands; and Isabella Mandl and Ludwig Huber, both of the University of Vienna, for their paper "No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise" (Current Zoology, Vol. 57, No. 4, 2011).

Chemistry: Makoto Imai, of Shiga University of Medical Science; Hideki Tanemura, of Chiba University; and Naoki Urushihata, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi, and Junichi Murakami, all of Japan, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (a pungent horseradishlike condiment) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

Medicine: Two groups of scholars—Mirjam Tuk, of the University of Twente, and Debra Trampe, of the University of Groningen, both in the Netherlands; and Luk Warlop, of the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium (Group 1); and Peter J. Snyder, of Brown University, Robert A. Feldman, of the Connecticut Clinical Research Center, and Matthew S. Lewis, all of the United States; and Paul T. Maruff, of La Trobe University, David Darby, of the Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria, and Robert H. Pietrzak, all of Australia (Group 2)—for their separate papers demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things, when they have a strong urge to urinate. (Papers: "Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains," by Tuk, Trampe, and Warlop, Psychological Science, Vol. 22, No. 5, May 2011; and "The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults," by Lewis, Snyder, Pietrzak, Darby, Feldman, Maruff, Neurology and Urodynamics, Vol. 30, No. 1, January 2011.)

Psychology: Karl Halvor Teigen, of the University of Oslo, in Norway, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh. (Paper: "Is a Sigh 'Just a Sigh'? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task," Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 49, No. 1, 2008.)

Literature: John R. Perry, of Stanford University, for his theory of structured procrastination, which says: "To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important." (Essay: "How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done," The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 23, 1996. Later republished elsewhere under the title "Structured Procrastination").

Biology: Daryll T. Gwynne, of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, in Canada, and David C.F. Rentz, of James Cook University, in Australia, for discovering that certain kinds of beetles mate with certain kinds of Australian beer bottles. (Paper: "Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females (Coleoptera)," Australian Journal of Entomology, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1983.)

Physics: Philippe Perrin, of Henri Poincaré University, and Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne, and Bruno Ragaru, all of France; and Herman Kingma, of the Maastricht University Medical Center, in the Netherlands, for trying to determine why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't. (Paper: "Dizziness in Discus Throwers Is Related to Motion Sickness Generated While Spinning," Acta Oto-Laryngologica, Vol. 120, No. 3, March 2000.)

Mathematics: Dorothy Martin (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet (who predicted the world would end in 1990), all of the United States; Lee Jang Rim, of South Korea (who predicted the world would end in 1992); Credonia Mwerinde, of Uganda (who predicted the world would end in 1999); and Harold Camping, of the United States (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994, and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching humankind to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

Peace: Arturas Zuokas, mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

Public Safety: John Senders, of the University of Toronto, in Canada, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, momentarily blinding him. (Article: "The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving," Highway Research Record, Vol. 195, 1967.)

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