Procrastination: For or Against Freudian Theory?



“We may ask whether in the operation of our mental apparatus a main purpose can be detected, and we may reply as a first approximation that the purpose is directed towards obtaining pleasure.” (444)

Carpe Diem. It’s now or never. YOLO. What do these popular phrases from different time periods have in common?

These phrases all point to pleasure as the Holy Grail of our lives. Not only so, the pleasure here referenced, is not any kind of pleasure, but rather, pleasure in the very moment of our existence–  right here and right now. Indeed, Freud seems to have hit the jackpot by asserting that the pleasure principle is an important governing force behind all mental processes. However, to imply that humans are, by nature, pleasure-seeking creatures has serious implications beyond the self. If society is seen as presenting a system of incentives and meaning that motivates us to make certain life choices and decisions, then what does Freud’s pleasure principle imply about the self and the relationship between systems of meaning that originate from society?  This is the question we have set out to answer through the blog post, and I shall use a phenomenon familiar to us all– procrastination– to tease out the answer to my question.

I have always regarded procrastination as the root of all evil, and after procrastinating on this blog post for just a bit too long, I am even more convinced of my view (tearing up as I am typing this). At first glance, procrastination seems to be a perfect disciple of the pleasure principle– procrastination allows for the “diminution, reduction or extinction of the amounts of stimulus prevailing in the mental apparatus (443)” accumulated from the displeasure of work. This is the reason we procrastinate.

Yet, the problem with explaining procrastination using the pleasure principle is that it somehow assumes that the activity we are doing instead of work indeed brings us pleasure. In fact, it seems that our sense of what is pleasurable becomes skewed when we are procrastinating. For example, when we are trying to procrastinate, everything else other than what we are supposed to be doing seems to give us pleasure, be it playing games, watching youtube videos, or even activities like reading news articles, or going to the washroom— activities which we usually do not find pleasurable. Additionally, Freud points out that masturbation seems to be similar to neurosis as in it is an action repeated unnecessarily over and over again. Similarly, we procrastinate over and over again despite knowing that procrastination will not lead to a pleasurable outcome in the future.

A further problem with explaining procrastination based on the pleasure principle is that in a fully functioning adult, the ego is said to be always much more powerful than libidinal desires. Yet, the ego, unlike libidinal desires, does not directly obey the pleasure principle but obeys a modification of it– the reality principle. The reality principle is still based on “economic (442)” view of pleasure: it seeks to maximize pleasure not only in the moment but over a period of time. Often in doing so, “the ego discovers that it is inevitable for it to renounce immediate satisfaction (444)”, and “to postpone the obtaining of pleasure (444)”. However, in the case of procrastination, we are in fact sacrificing future pleasure for immediate satisfaction. In this case, it seems like the libido is overpowering the constraints of the ego and the “watchman”. Yet, in actual fact, what seems to be happening is this: we satisfy our libidinal desire for procrastination by appealing to the ego with ‘pseudo-rational’ thinking — specifically the slippery slope fallacy. For example, one might tell themselves they will start writing an essay at 7pm, but we often think, “Well if I am going to study for the whole night, watching a youtube video for five minutes wouldn’t matter. This way, we begin to procrastinate, and after five minutes, we use the same logic and repeat it over and over again.  In this way, it is almost easy to push off the ego’s influence in favor of the libido’s influence, until the reality of deadlines (and thus the reality principle) finally set in.

Yet, the ultimate question we want to ask about procrastination is why do we even find work unpleasurable? The answer that immediately comes to mind is that we are being forced to do something we don’t like. For example, in high school I was forced to study political science, which basically was propaganda by the CCP government. I had no interest in it at all, but still I had to study it. Thus, I always procrastinated. Yet, the truly inexplicable part of the problem is that we still procrastinate even when we are studying topics that interest us. For example, I truly find the lectures of Freud very interesting, yet when it comes to completing the readings, I always procrastinate. On a broader scale, as students of UChicago, I think most of us would identify with the fact that intellectual pursuit, or to acquire knowledge in itself is something that is pleasurable to us. I for one am a firm believer in this. Yet the fact that I procrastinate indicates that I do not find the act of acquiring knowledge really as something pleasurable.

Therefore, procrastination seems to go against Freud’s arguments, but upon further analysis, we found that there is an explanation for these paradoxes within Freud’s framework of theories. Perhaps, as Freud puts it, the self is only incentivized by instinctual desires, ones that are primal and basic. However, these primal desires can often go against the continuation of society. For example, a society in which people only wishes to have sex all day and fulfill personal desires would probably be dysfunctional. Therefore, our society seeks to teach us a system of meaning and values for the good and bad. These systems of meaning redirects and sublimates our desire, delaying its immediate gratification for gratification further down the line. We are taught that we pursue a certain career because we really enjoy what we are doing, but in actuality, what we enjoy is usually not the long working hours and number crunching. What we do get, however, is the indirect pleasure from the satisfaction of a job well done, social prestige, material well-being, or even the idea that we are some of the brightest minds out there solving the most challenging problems. Therefore, the systems of meaning from society are incorporated into the self, although they may be fundamentally opposed to the inherent human libidinal desires we all have.
So then where would procrastination fit into this view of the relationship between society and self? We propose that instead of being a sign of our libido overcoming our ego, procrastination is actually one of the most general and obvious forms of resistance to this sublimated desire. But because of the tendency of our libido to desire for immediate pleasure at all costs, the case of procrastination is a perfect argument for why society must try to tame and sublimate our desires. If not, we could very well satisfy our own libido, but do so at the cost of harming our entire community.

By Yao Wei and Wenxi (Sissi) Zheng


One thought on “Procrastination: For or Against Freudian Theory?

  1. I’d agree that procrastination is an odd manifestation of the pleasure principle. I certainly don’t feel pleasure when I’m procrastinating – I feel stressed and on edge, with the task I have to do constantly in the back of my mind. It makes it hard to enjoy whatever activities I’m doing while procrastinating. The real pleasure for me comes for when I complete the task, and all that tension from pent-up stress is no longer weighing on my shoulders. So in a way, I guess submitting to the reality principle (finishing an important task) is a way of submitting to the pleasure principle. Or maybe society has trained us to believe that accomplishing something demanded by the reality principle is actually a pleasurable experience, because the collective knows based on the pleasure principle that we won’t be motivated to do something if it isn’t pleasurable, or especially if it causes pain (like sucking it up and writing SOSC blog comments at 10:30 on a Friday night).


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