In Procrastination and Task Avoidance (1995), Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown define procrastination as, “The purposive delay of the starting or completing of a task to the point of discomfort.”
In 2007’s “The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure,” Steel defines procrastination as, “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.”
And here’s Pychyl’s 2009 definition: “The voluntary irrational postponement of an intended course of action despite the knowledge that this delay will come at a cost or have negative effects on the individual.”
In academic philosophy, procrastination might be talked about as “weakness of will” or under the Greek term “akrasia” which was an important topic for Aristotle. Indeed, weakness of will has been an important topic for lots of philosophers. I’ve read Plato on it and Donald Davidson and his interlocutors.
The philosophical problem is that, as commonly described or defined, procrastination or weakness of will, should not be possible. It conflicts with some other important theories central to our self-understanding. For one, lots of philosophers think that “to know the good, is to do the good.” That is to say, if you know what the right thing to do is, then you will do it. And if you don’t do the right thing it must be because you really didn’t know or understand that it was the right thing. If you really knew it was right, then you’d have done it. Because you didn’t do it, that shows you thought something else was better to do.
You could argue with that. But let’s say for the sake of argument that to know the good is to do the good. Now, to call that “weakness of will” might be to misdescribe the problem. And if you misdescribe, you basically are getting it wrong… not fundamentally understanding it.
Calling procrastination or behaviors like it — where we do something other than what we think is the best thing to do… calling those things moments of weakness of will is wrong. Weakness of will would be like I have the will to do this thing but I can’t seem to do it. That might sound like procrastination but really procrastination is not being unable to do something, it’s doing something else which does not stand up to rational scrutiny. It’s not weakness of will, it’s a perfectly strong will directed in an irrational direction.
More to come.