Reading Notebook #30: Existential Reasons for Procrastination

From “Later” by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker (October 11, 2010). Click here to read the full article online.

But 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 [doing something against one’s own better judgment] 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.

Posted in Life Philosophy, Reading, Writing Advice.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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6 Comments on "Reading Notebook #30: Existential Reasons for Procrastination"

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As a chronic procrastinator, at least about some things, I find this excerpt particularly resonant. I make lists. They’re very helpful when I adhere to them, but also when I don’t. Often I eventually find those list items I keep skipping fall into one of the two categories above, though I couldn’t have articulated that before reading this, so thank you! And, by the way, if the list item ends up falling into the first category, sometimes all I need is more time/thought to figure out the best way to get that task accomplished.

Azlan Ismail

The worst thing is that if you’re a prefectionist at the same time! I read somewhere that procrastinators are mostly perfectionists, but now I wonder if that’s true.