Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, October 8, 2010

Caught Up in the Questions

In an article for the New Yorker which, theoretically, hasn't been published yet--it's dated October 11, 2010--James Surowiecki writes:
Philosophers are interested in procrastination for another reason. It’s a powerful example of what the Greeks called akrasia [emphasis mine]—doing something against one’s own better judgment. Piers Steel defines procrastination as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off.  [Emphasis mine.] In other words, if you’re simply saying “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” you’re not really procrastinating. Knowingly delaying because you think that’s the most efficient use of your time doesn’t count, either. The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing [emphasis mine], a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy. 

I love learning new words, like akrasia, and akratic.  Surowiecki also uses the latter in a sentence, in this thought-provoking context: 

. . . before we rush to overcome procrastination we should consider whether it is sometimes an impulse we should heed. The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which. 

Sheesh!  So not spending time on my novel today, is that Epicurian delay?  Existential insight?  Rational and efficient use of my time?  Or just plain dysfuncional/akratic?  

Pretty big question for a Friday.  

I know!  I'll make like Scarlett and think about it tomorrow.  Or, actually, Monday.  But is this akratic procrastination (bad!), or sensible, defensible, intelligent postponement (good)?

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