The proverbial procrastinators’ dictum runs something like: Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow? Many of us struggle in various ways and at various times with procrastination. Our reasons for procrastinating vary widely. Some of us dread doing a particular task. Others of us just prefer to do the pleasant thing we are engaged in now, rather than that which we should be doing or completing. The emotions and desires motivating procrastination run the gamut. Nor does it seem that knowing these motivations, and knowing that procrastination often creates further and greater difficulties, and even knowing the good one ought to do, actually helps with these motivations. Knowledge alone doesn’t seem enough to motivate to action.
There are a variety of ways that the current self-help or time management literature use to address the issue of procrastination, many of them focusing on psychological analyses and self-awareness, with others focusing on incremental behavioral changes. But reading these works only seem to exacerbate the problem: they add to our knowledge without changing our acts.
Aristotle provides resources for us on this matter, in his account of the virtuous life in the Nicomachean Ethics, and particularly in the seventh book which deals with the character flaw of lack of self restraint. What we are fundamentally dealing with, when it comes to procrastination is the tension between rational deliberation and choice (boule and proairesis respectively) and desire (epithumia, although in a critical passage in De Anima III.10-11, Aristotle translates orexis as “desire,” which is one aspect of motion in the soul). That is to say, the procrastinator knows the good he ought to do, but doesn’t do it. If we have a coherent account of the soul, how motion in the soul relates to actual behavior, we have a much better account by which to understand how the procrastinator knows the good but fails to do it, and to formulate responses to soulish vices and lack of self-restraint.