Sometimes we make decisions that we think long and hard about, but often we make decisions simply because it feels right. Call it a hunch, an intuition, or an instinct—what they all have in common is that we don’t know why we feel the way we do, yet the feeling is so compelling, it moves us to act.
This week we talk about procrastination. Now I am not only an expert practitioner of the procrastinating arts, but have actually written an essay on this topic [ed.note: which has been expanded -- finally! -- into a book, The Art of Pracrastination]. In fact, in spite of my many outstanding contributions to philosophy (IMHO) I’m pretty sure it's the most read thing I have ever written. You can find it at
However, this doesn’t mean I’m really and expert on the phenomenon of procrastination. It’s a very short somewhat tongue in cheek essay to make procrastinators feel better about themselves. But there are real experts on procrastination, and one of the finest, Timothy Pychyll of Carleton University, will join us Sunday. He has done psychological research on why we procrastinate, and also what the best methods are for dealing with it.
But that leads to the question: why is procrastination a philosophical problem.
Since the time of the Greeks, philosophers --- at least some of them --- have been puzzled by how we decide that something is best to do, and then not do it. And procrastination is an example of that. I decide the best thing to do, all things considered, is to get up from the couch, go to my desk, and grade some term papers. But instead of doing so, I lie on the couch and watch a rerun of Cheeers for the fourth time.
We might just call that being laxy. But perhaps I finally get up, but instead of grading the papers, I start cleaning up the kitchen, and then move on to cleaning the garage. I’m not being lazy; I’m just not doing what I think it’s best to do…that’s procrastination, not it’s not laziness. As Robert Benchley put it, managing to anticipate the main point of my essay,
anyone can do any amount of work,provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.
Procrastination isn’t laziness. It is irrationality. But is it mysterious? After all, if people weren’t irrational, philosophers wouldn’t have much to do.
But it seems like a peculiar form of irrationality? Suppose you are multiplying 7 times 5 and adding ten. So you figure 7 times 5 is 35, add 10 and you have 45. And then you carefully write down 55. I don’tmean a slip of the pen. Having figured out that the right answer is 45, you carefully and intentionally write down something else. That seems pretty weird.
Well procrastination is like that. You figure out what’s best to do, most important to do, the rational thing to do, the right answer to the question, what should I do? And then you do something else.
But to be puzzled, of coiurse, we have to have a certain picture of the will, --- that is, with how we decide what to do, and how that leads us to do that ---that makes the analogy work. The picture is that deliberating is like figuring out the answer to a problem, the problem of what to do, and that acting is just drawing the conclusion. If that was the right picture, procrastination, as well as other forms of ``weakness of the will” would be mysterious.
The phrase “weakness of the will” actually suggests another one. It’s the job of reason to figure out the best thing to do. But what gets done is what we want to do the most. The job of the will is to make us want to do the best thing, so that we do it. But often the will is weak …. quite often with procrastinators like you, and, occasionally, me. It can’t convert the results of reasoning into a desire that motivates us.
Well, philosophers are good at spinning out theories, but psycholgists have to actually put them to the test. Timothy Pychyll will help us choose between our pictures, or, more likely, suggest something better.
I am reminded of the procrastinator's creed: Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. I think procrastination is a form of rebellion---without a cause. Most of us, regardless of how rational, have a few loose screws; a few frayed circuits. This is not remarkable when we consider the light-speed pace of twenty-first century living. I have found solace in procrastination since retiring from a job where things which had to be done yesterday could have all waited until next week. A job where incompetence was rewarded while capable workers were denigrated and leadership was predicated upon political loyalty.
We learn procrastination, in various ways from various people. Initially, we question the utility of it. But, as we learn more about why it used, we understand that it is a coping mechanism which can make our hectic lives more tolerable. Sure, we pay our bills and take our medicines on schedule (if we know what is good for us), but if something can wait until tomorrow---or longer---we take advantage of the option. I am drinking my only can of Labatt's Blue. I could go get more. But it can wait.
i'm not really sure if i'm interested in this journey into your choices. to procrastinate, to put off doing an activity, is just a possible relation - thankfully you stayed away from portraying --- procrastination --- as some technical termus and thereby stopping consideration in its real?-ness.
Isaac Neutron: The state of a job where its tasks can literally wait for a week or more. that's actually one of the more adept things i've heard in a while. god forbid one actually has a relation with the relatedness of the possible task of the whole state of affairs.
So the only conversation you're willing to have about procrastination is about how to be rid of it? And you scoff at my email about human malaise as a more apt lens on the issue? You were all quite content to describe the human condition in exclusively utilitarian terms, life as a set of "goals" such as 'moving sandbags'. I felt like I was listening to a conversation among sandbags, unmoved.
My unabridged email to you read as follows...
The problem with adopting economics and logic as the pole star of a philosophy is that you become indistinguishable from corporate motivational speakers. You all sound like a 1-800 motivational advertisement. What of resistance? What of fighting off coercion? Hippies used to speak of this, now they’re all self-important baby boomer careerists. What better example of how impoverished economic and logical pragmatism have become as philosophies of ethics. Again… what of resistance, what of sabotaging the banks!
I challenge you to leave off the predictable fallacy that reason=logic or pleasure=good as the basis for every behavior. What about dwelling in a state of pure human free will? In fact, malaise is the human condition. Art and meditation express precisely this.
Please speak instead of the long history of human free will as expressed through, for example, the flaneurs of Oscar Wilde’s day who would walk turtles on leashes as an expression of liberation from utilitarian philosophy.
San Francisco, CA
You did not refute or speak to my comment. You return as quickly as possible to utilitarianism and talk of “rewards.” Economics is not philosophy. Again, I challenge you to speak of art, meditation and RESISTANCE as the height of human possibility. NOT careerism and “accomplishments” such as you trade in at the university.
Snoring over here.
I did not find the this piece very convincing. There is nothing irrational about procrastinating and the mathematical analogy is simply flawed. When faced with a decision, we all have choices. Some of these choice may actually provide more pleasure or enjoyment than the "rational"choice. Hence, procrastinating can certainly add to on'e pleasure.
"HOW DO WE FEEL ABOUT OURSELVES WHEN..."
As pointed out in the show, this goes back to ideas about the self (addressed in last week's show).
Aside from the fundamental and unanswerable question of philosophy, "What or who is "we"" (the other fundamental and unanswerable question of philosophy is "Is there anything other than one's consciousness"), addressing the statement concerning "feeling" about one's self, I contend, is not really doing philosophy. The duality of the "feeler" and the "feelee," since both are the same person, invites two layers of speculation that defy the use of reason as a tool of investigation. Once reason is not useable, and we can only speculate as to causation WITHOUT using our power of reason, we become only observers, or maybe poets (if we have some very particular language skills). Philosophy is not observation alone; it is the application of reasoning to thoughts.
The idea of self-deception is like this. There really is no such thing, rationally, as knowing something, and then thinking about one's self while BELIEVING what one knows isn't true.
I will jump into this discussion shortly. Quite unexpectedly, only hours after the show yesterday, I was rushed to the hospital in pain. Turns out to be kidney stones (I've torn my achilles tendon completely and experienced less pain than what that little "stone" caused yesterday - amazing). In any case, until I get back here, there's lots of information freely available at procrastination.ca - FREE blog on Psychology Today (Don't Delay), FREE podcast on iTunes (iProcrastinate podcast), FREE cartoons (Carpe Diem) and lots of information and research.
cheers for now,
I love this blog. Er, well, I do like it a lot. A Vietnamese friend set me straight on liking and loving years ago, saying: we are supposed to love PEOPLE and like THINGS. Anyway, who knew that something as facially innocuous as procrastination could generate such strong opinions? And how could we have predicted it would result in serious philosophical discourse? Thanks to all for participating and especially to Dr. Perry for setting the pot to boil. I think I'll take a nap now. No---it is only 9:30 am---I'll do it later.
I think I'll wait and write my comments tomorrow.
Do you have the names of the songs that were played on the JANUARY 28, 2011 Procrastination show? I heard one, that I really liked. Thanks, Sam