What is the “procrastination equation,” according to Dr. Piers Steel, and how to overcome it?
Are you procrastinating and struggling to find motivation to do what needs to be done?
There’s a list of stuff we need to do, and then there’s a – usually much smaller – pile of what actually gets done.
Of course, there might be many reasons for that, but very often, procrastination is the main reason.
Of course, not all delay is procrastination; sometimes, lack of time or other resources really IS the problem.
But let’s take a look only at the things that we can do and yet, somehow, struggle to get done.
It’s easy to understand why we don’t do what we simply don’t enjoy doing, like cleaning or doing taxes, in my case, or what is imposed on us.
But why do we struggle with what we find important and, at least on some level, do we want to get done?
There are many tips and tricks on how to ‘beat’ procrastination.
Sadly, I don’t think it’s an option – we can’t really beat it; we can learn how to manage it better.
Armed with the right skills, we can greatly improve our odds.
Name it so you can tame it.
When things simply aren’t getting done, it’s best to take some time and investigate the reasons.
Making the unconscious conscious is the first step to tackling the problem.
Procrastination: How the sausage is made.
According to Piers Steel, a leading expert on procrastination, the procrastination equation is:
Motivation = (Expectancy x Value) / (Impulsiveness x Delay)
In other words, our motivation to complete a task is a function of how much we expect to succeed (Expectancy) multiplied by how much we value the task (Value), divided by how impulsive we are (Impulsiveness) multiplied by how long we have until the deadline (Delay).
To overcome procrastination, Steel suggests focusing on improving each of these variables:
This equation shows that there are many combinations for procrastination, and each task we procrastinate on should be analyzed individually.
It takes enough awareness and some effort to even think of managing the problem, but it’s worth the struggle.
How to overcome procrastination.
When you catch yourself procrastinating on a particular task, take some time to investigate the root cause of the problem.
We can procrastinate on many different things for many different reasons. We can procrastinate on goals we care deeply about and those that are simply imposed on us.
Each case is different, and the treatment has to be tailored.
Expectancy: First, check if you believe you can succeed.
Are you expecting the effort to be rewarded, or do you have doubts?
“Sometimes, deep down, we just don’t believe we can succeed. Whether doubts are retrieved automatically from memory or are derived from ongoing experience, they have consequences. Doubts can cause scaling back of goals or giving up on goals. It’s bad for this to happen too readily. A person who gives up whenever things get difficult will have trouble reaching any goal in life. Disengaging too fast keeps you from trying your best, and short-circuits what could be successes.” Carver, Charles S.; Scheier, Michael F.. On the Self-Regulation of Behavior .
If you procrastinate on an important personal project, maybe subconsciously, you doubt that your efforts will pay off.
It’s only natural not to want to invest too much of our precious resources into something that will never be rewarded.
How to increase your confidence and optimism?
- Now is a good time to prime yourself with inspirational talks and stories of those who succeeded in a similar venture! You can read books, watch TED talks or follow people who risked and succeeded.
- Break the task into smaller, more manageable steps, and focus on completing each step one at a time.
- Increase your confidence that you can successfully complete the task by creating a series of successes: reach for some low-hanging fruit and easy wins. Small wins help increase your optimism, strengthen your self-efficacy, and gain momentum. They may seem small, but that’s when ‘I did’ can later translate into ‘I can .’
Value: Look for value in what you don’t like.
Sometimes, things we don’t like – or even hate – still need to be done. If what we need to do doesn’t present much value for us, we will have a harder time summoning excitement to do them.
Here’s how to increase the perceived value of your task:
- Increase the perceived value of the task by connecting it to your personal goals or values.
Maybe you’re not inspired by the research paper you need to write right now, but this will help you graduate and get a job where you can save white tigers.
Maybe you’re not crazy about ironing your shirts, but that could help you get that promotion.
- Find ways to make the task more exciting or enjoyable, or find ways to make it more rewarding once it’s completed.
Not a fan of long walks, but do you need more exercise? How about going for a walk with your buddy or a good audiobook?
Impulsiveness: The Real Menace
Impulsiveness is tricky; here’s why:
You may really want to do something; you see the value of it, believe it’s within your reach, and still not be able to get anything meaningful done because of your impulsivity.
Whenever you work on something that requires more time and focus, you soon start scanning your surrounding for something that excites you more, something that seems easier and more rewarding to get – some Shiny Object.
It’s the human need to restore the balance between Exploitation ( aka work – the things we ‘have to’ do) and Exploration (aka leisure – the things we ‘want to’ do).
There might be something you genuinely want to do, then take things seriously and turn them into something you now ‘have to’ do. The fun and exciting task soon turns into a chore, and as soon as it becomes tedious (boring, difficult, vague), while the potential reward is still distant, you will start looking for ways to ‘restore the balance’ – and find something new you ‘want to do’ at least for a bit.
So, what can you do to manage your impulsiveness?
First, shape your environment so that you don’t have to rely on your willpower/self-control. Humans have this thing called ‘novelty bias’, and it’s a powerful force, not to be messed with.
Here’s what helps:
- “Out of sight, out of mind.” – Reduce the influence of distractions and temptations by creating a work environment that is free from distractions.
- Turn off your phone, close unnecessary browser tabs, and create a designated workspace.
- Commit to a focused work time, free of ANY distractions- not coffee breaks, and no toilet runs. If you’re older than 4, you can do it.
- Get a piece of paper to write down anything that pops up in your head to save it for later.
- You can reward yourself with the thing you crave AFTER successfully completing your deep work session. Guilt-free!
Delay: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Here’s the truth: Work almost always takes longer than you thought.
If the potential reward of a task is very distant (and sometimes even uncertain!), your motivation will take a hit.
It’s very common for people to procrastinate on things that don’t provide instant gratification, but if you know something presents great value to you (yes, you need to have your values aligned with the task in the first place), there are ways to make the ride less bumpy.
- First, try to reduce the time between now and the deadline by setting realistic deadlines for yourself. If you think you can write that book you’ve been putting off for years in one month, try again.
- Complex, taxing projects are like renovating an old house: they always take longer and cost more. Be realistic: you can either plan and then cut your project in HALF or add 50% more time for completion. Less stress and disappointment equals less resistance (and procrastination).
- Use calendars, reminders, and to-do lists to stay organized and on track. Tracking your project can help by visualizing how much progress you’ve already made.
- Create routines: routines with solid cues around you help dissolve some of the resistance to start working on your task. Their main power lies in not giving your brain any other option for a certain amount of time. They are the way to tame the lion. Just agree with yourself that from Monday to Friday, from 9 am, you will sit your butt in your office and work for 90 minutes. Or whatever else works for you.
“Having broken through that motivational surface tension and immersed yourself in the project, you, like most, will opt to continue.”
Procrastination is down to your motivation.
Ultimately, overcoming procrastination requires a combination of strategies tailored to your individual needs and preferences. The Procrastination Equation is a helpful tool to x-ray your motivation and address the real problem.
By focusing on improving your motivation equation and developing strategies to manage distractions and stay on track, you can help you overcome procrastination and achieve your goals.