Procrastination and Morality

Before you procrastinate again, try thinking like an ancient Greek philosopher.

Posted Jan 12, 2011

If you search for "Is procrastination a sin?" online, you find the question asked earnestly on religious discussion boards. One woman carefully describes her habit of leaving packing until the last minute, discusses her husband's growing disdain for her habit, and asks, "Is what I am doing a sin?" She ends ruefully, "Whether it is or not, it feels terrible."

What a sincere question. Procrastination does feel terrible. And it can be terrible. We think of it as being a matter of students rushing final papers, but we procrastinate (or "block") about our health or even getting help for others.

And confusion about how to morally classify it is so understandable.  Procrastination itself is a rather opaque phenomenon. Joseph Ferrari has gathered data on how confusing procrastination can be to both the subject and the observer. Procrastinators often report that they do not know what it is they are avoiding.

The classic Christian writings on procrastination (if that is what the message board poster was looking for) argue that we can procrastinate about only what matters: salvation. Though this fails to address her packing issues, the idea would be that the packing matters a lot less than she thinks. There is something to this in the kind of ethics I work on.

Let me suggest that if we find ourselves wondering, "Is procrastination a sin?", what we want in response is some explanation, or set of explanations, for how the behavior befits a human being, given the nature we have. We want to be able to explain what can we expect of ourselves and why.

Some common responses will not work to this end. Merely explaining the bad consequences of procrastination won't do it. Merely condemning procrastinators in harsh terms won't do it. Arguing that procrastinators are less rational than others won't do it.

As I argue in Chrisoula Andreou and Mark White's book "The Thief of Time" (New Yorker review here), we need a robust conception of vice. I actually think this could help procrastinators get a handle on what they are dealing with.

Now, when we say "vice" today, we are usually referring to roguish qualities that I, at least, altogether admire. By virtue I don't mean hypocrisy. By vice I don't mean a refusal to pose as a hypocrite. I mean these terms in their very old fashioned senses, and I am going to try to suggest that they are useful in these forms! They help us to think through issues we care about.

Aristotle, for example, would not count procrastination as a vice. No one wants to be a procrastinator, it sneaks up on you. This is unlike the person who decides to be a slacker, and commits himself to this... lifestyle choice. He might have all sorts of ideas of why other people should do work, work that is unworthy of him. A procrastinator feels terrible about her failures to contribute (it seems like a procrastinator might even feel terrible about her failure to contribute more than average!) No, it wouldn't be a vice, Aristotle would say. It's a feature of our human psychology. In various ways we fail to live up to what we think we should do. The problems procrastinators have are just like the obstacles we all face.

For example, researchers tell us there are various types of procrastinators. Some find the rush of procrastinating pleasurable. Others can be described as "avoiders" and "decisional procrastinators." The avoiders seem to be afraid of being judged by their product. The decisional procrastinators, who cannot make up their minds, prefer to think of all the options being left open. Each of these types are easily fit into Aristotle's descriptions of how we go wrong. But this is human nature, not vice. If Aristotle's explanation leads to any advice, it might be the sort that gets professors to require several drafts of papers to be turned in: something to get us out of the predictably bad habits we fall into.

But for some other traditional ethicists, the Stoics and the Epicureans, procrastination would meet the standards of vice. They wouldn't focus on how common it is or how easily we can fall into the trap of it. They'd be seeking out the false beliefs involved in procrastination. What are these? Some are going to be about the relative importance of the ends causing the anxiety. Some might be about your own relative importance.

Procrastination, these ethicists would think, is a sign that a person does not understand what is really of value yet. If you are up all night, worried sick once again about a presentation you have not sufficiently rehearsed, the Stoic or Epicurean voice in your head would be the one saying, "The presentation does not matter; the presentation is not worth this."

Or maybe the false belief is about yourself? Is it that you cannot fail? That your work must be superior? That you are the perfect homekeeper? Give up on those ideas, for goodness' sake!

You see how contrary this is to some messages we get from our culture. I like to call it the Poor Richard view of life: it is bettered by doing more. "Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary action!" But surely recent scholarship is right to suggest that Ben Franklin did his moralizing mostly in jest. Follow his jokes at your own peril. (And if his life serves as its own example, keep in mind that he called himself as Epicurean!)

If you are a writer who never makes a deadline, the Epicureans would certainly not encourage you to strengthen your will; rather, they would question your choice of occupation. What could you do that would not cause this level of anxiety? Beyond your provision of basic needs, no matter what you are procrastinating about, the Epicureans could say that the task is not necessary to a good life. So why beat yourself up?

The Stoics might not encourage any student who procrastinated before tests to give up on his studies in the breezy way an Epicurean might, but they also would not put the onus on strengthening one's will when faced with issues of time management. They would recommend comfort with the consequences of procrastination instead. Take the bad grade. Lose the account. Be frank with your editor about how late you started your revision. Accept that you procrastinate, do not attempt to lie about or hide this, and move on to focus on what really matters.

Speaking for myself, these ways of thinking about procrastination work.

Psychologists have pointed out how both a product (rather than process-based) orientation and a perfectionist self-image are associated with procrastination, but perhaps philosophers are the ones who can rid of us these!

If you are (still) interested in this topic, listen to me discuss it on Public Radio International's wonderful "To the Best of Our Knowledge." Available here:

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