Symposium on Barbara Herman's Moral Literacy [UPDATED]
McCloskey on Bourgeois Dignity at University of Richmond

Pychyl on procrastination and future selves

Mark D. White

Continuing his series of Psychology Today blog posts on The Thief of Time, Tim Pychyl most recently examined Christine Tappolet's chapter "Procrastination and Personal Identity." In her chapter, Tappolet argues that, if procrastination is interpreted as burdening one's "future self" with the foregone tasks of today, it reveals a lack of concern for future selves that plays into debates over psychological continuity account of personal identity.

Pychyl is more concerned with the claim that procrastination always burdens future selves (which, as he acknowledges, Tappolet herself qualifies). He augments her account, offering alternative interpretations of procrastination, such as this one:

I agree that it is tempting to conclude this if we frame it as an overriding concern for present self, but what if it is that one lacks the courage or the will to act in a way that would be best for future self. Most broadly, yes, future self is still losing to present self, but it's not so clear that it's lack of concern. It's not so clear that it's a kind of assault on the future self, the deliberate imposition of a burden on future self due to a lack of concern. It is possible that concern isn't what is lacking, but courage or will.

Alternatively, it is feasible to see future self as continuous with present self but not identical to future self. For example, future self is not as tired as present self is now. Future self will have more energy to face the dishes tomorrow. More energy means more willpower, something that present self lacks now. In short, present self doesn't see this as an imposition on future self, at least certainly not as much as it is on the exhausted present self.

So, on the one hand, our procrastination may reflect a moral failing of present self in relation to future self (a lack of courage), and on the other hand it may reflect an optimistic (and perhaps a naïve) hope that future self will have attributes that present self lacks (e.g., energy). In neither case do we have to assume a lack of special concern for future self.

For example, if I put off grading exams tonight because I'm too tired, and I expect my tomorrow-self to have more energy and focus, and therefore to do a better job, then I am merely taking advantage of the differential resources of my different time-selves by putting off grading until tomorrow. But then again, if this motivation is sincere, it might not count as procrastination, since it is neither against my better judgment nor would I regret it later (unless my tomorrow-self turned out to be in worse shape than my tonight-self!). In such a case, my better judgment recommends that I put off grading--unless that is a mere rationalization, in which case it would more likely count as procrastination, but also as an abuse of future selves rather than strategic, purposeful time-shifting. [UPDATE: Tim incorporated this into his original post as a comment.]

But I think the issue here is not so much with procrastination per se, but how we rely on, or take advantage of, our future selves, and what that tells us about both our concern for our future selves, our self-respect (across time), and our theories of personal identity. Pychyl has expanded our understanding of procrastination (yet again) by offering an alternative account of the relationship between procrastination and future selves, adding to Tappolet's seminal work in this area.

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