Everyone knows what procrastination is.
It could be:
- Zoning out in front of the TV or getting sucked into hours of video games as Charlie found himself doing because he feels so overwhelmed by responsibilities, burdened by challenge stressors.
- Taking numerous breaks instead of focusing and being productive at work, and putting off mundane household tasks like Hilda does in response to the hindrance stressors of interruptions and the lack of systems and strategies that make her job so hard to do.
- Or, resigning himself to ugly interpersonal interactions because "tomorrow" is always more attractive to Theo than addressing the threat stressors of a toxic work environment today.
We know that procrastination is our reaction to stressors that push us out of our comfort zone. Stressors in the context of procrastination comprise tasks that are aversive because they tend to be:
- Boring, like putting away the clean dishes
- Frustrating (cleaning up the kitchen when it will only get messed up by the next meal)
- Difficult (having to turn out a report based on a large number of sources and not having a good personal knowledge management system)
- Lacking in personal meaning (the task won't benefit anyone, so you aren't being of service, which is important to you)
- Lacking in any intrinsic rewards (you won't learn from it, enjoy doing it, or feel a sense of accomplishment)
- Ambiguous because you don't know exactly what is expected of you. (You are supposed to meet new clients and orient them to the company, but you have no idea who the new clients are, what they are interested in, what their needs are, or what your company can do for them; you also don't know what your goals are nor how your success with this client will be measured.)
These are the kinds of tasks that constitute stressors. But here’s the question: What is the underlying mechanism that propels us to procrastinate when faced with tasks like these?
Procrastination Equation - Steel
The anatomy of procrastination answers this question.
In his book, The Procrastination Equation, Piers Steel, a world-renowned authority on the science of motivation and productivity, defines four variables that determine our motivation to act, instead of procrastinating.
The four variables are:
- Impulsiveness and
Let’s dig in to each of these variables to see the part they play in the procrastination equation.
Expectancy comes first. Expectancy may be a new term for you but you’ll be hearing it a lot in this course, so we'll spend a little time on it right now.
Expectancy is used extensively in many disciplines related to human behavior because it is one of the biggest factors that contributes to motivation, and it must be present if you want to succeed in any behavior change, especially change related to procrastination.
When you hear the word “expectancy,” you may be thinking “expectation.” They’re related. But they are different in one critical way.
First, let’s define expectation: An expectation is the strong belief that something will or should happen, or will be the case in the future.
That belief can be based on all sorts of factors, factors that don’t necessarily have anything to do with you or your desires, skills, effort, or choices. It could be as simple as it being your birthday and learning from past experience that family and friends give you gifts.
Expectations can apply to you, other people, and even other situations that have nothing to do with people at all, like sunny days in summer.
Expectancy, on the other hand, is very different from expectations because expectancy is based on your belief related to your ability to take effective action in the right way, at the right time, and with the right amount of effort.
In other words, expectancy is the anticipation of your desired outcomes based on your belief in your ability to:
- Take action
- Choose the right action to take at the right time
- And apply the necessary effort to produce the outcomes you value and want
Your belief in your abilities are based on both your past experiences and the confidence you have in being able to carry out tasks in the future that will produce the outcomes you want.
High expectancy enables you to answer a big “yes” to the question, “Can I do it, and will I get the outcome I want?”
But when expectancy is low, the likelihood of procrastination rises. Low expectancy means that you:
- Lack of confidence in your ability to succeed
- You fear that you’ll fail, fear that you’ll be harshly judged
- You don’t expect to receive any recognition for completing the task
- You think that the task is too difficult—requires too much effort or too many things to do
- You focus on previous failures and don’t believe that success is possible
I wonder which of these items ring a bell with you.
Research data over the years strongly indicate that people who procrastinate tend to have lower expectancy than people who get things done on time.
Now, let's look at value, the second variable of the equation.
Value is how much you enjoy doing the task, how important getting the result is, and how much you’ll enjoy the reward from completing the task and experiencing the outcome. Value answers the “Why do it?” or “How meaningful is this to me?” question.
When you value doing the task, even when you find it hard or distasteful, it can offset the temptation to procrastinate.
On the other hand, you're more likely to procrastinate when the value of doing the task is lower. Low value includes:
- Not knowing what you want
- Unclear priorities
- Not valuing the goals and outcome of the project or task
- Goals that are things you want to avoid rather than accomplish
- Perceiving the task as too difficult, boring, annoying, or tedious
- Tasks and goals that are defined by external forces. They’re what you think you SHOULD do, but they don’t reflect your own values
- The mistaken belief and underlying assumption that if you’re uncomfortable, you should stop doing whatever it is that’s making you uncomfortable and not stress yourself out
How much of these do you recognize in your own procrastination situations?
The third variable in the procrastination equation is impulsiveness. Impulsiveness refers to your tendency to get distracted and pulled away from the task and your ability or inability to stay focused.
Impulsivity is activated in the context of:
- Strong, intense cravings
- Tasks that require too many things to do
- Tasks that aren’t predictable or organized into routines
- Ignoring what you have to do, either actively or passively, by doing unimportant tasks
- Low physical or mental energy due to a lack of sleep, nutrition, or exercise
- And finally, temptations that are easily within reach, intense and attractive
I'm sure these are familiar to you. Which seems to exert the most influence on you?
The fourth and final variable is delay. Delay refers to the length of time it takes you to get the reward for completing the task.
Delay makes me think of going on a trip with little kids who ask almost from the start, “Are we there yet?”
Delays are the result of:
- The project is too big or taking too long to complete
- Goals that are too abstract or vague
- Goals are too far away or distant
- Denying responsibility so you distance yourself from what you have to do
- Rewards that come far into the future
Here’s how the equation works: The greater your expectancy and the more value the task produces, the greater your motivation and drive to complete the task. You’re less likely to act impulsively in the interest of quick rewards, so the likelihood of procrastination goes down.
If you want to get more things done on time and crush procrastination, the equation is simple: Increase expectancy and value while decreasing impulsivity and delay.
In practical terms, this means boosting your belief that you have what it takes to succeed, making the outcome more attractive, reducing or eliminating distracting temptations, and reducing the time it takes to get a reward, even a small one.
For example, if you value being healthy, and your expectancy is high in terms of your ability to get enough exercise, eat the right amount of fruits and veggies, and get adequate sleep to produce the health you want, and you reduce distractions while savoring and celebrating even small wins, then doing what it takes to be healthy may not be so hard.
But, if your expectancy and the value of the outcome go down, then it’s easy to be impulsive, get distracted, and go for quick rewards of procrastination.
If it’s easy to meet up with friends for a drink and dinner right after work at a local restaurant bar, then it may be harder to get exercise and pound down your broccoli and brown rice.
We said that the equation is simple, but of course, simple is not easy, and sometimes simple can be really hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
- Procrastination is the result of expectancy, value, impulsiveness, and delay.
- Expectancy answers the “Can I do it and will I get the outcome I want?” question.
- Value answers the “Why do it?” or “How meaningful is this to me?” question.
- Impulsiveness answers the “Why not do something easier, more pleasurable, or more fun right now?” question.
- Delay answers the “Are we there yet?” question.
Here’s your invitation to put this into practice:
- First, jot down the four variables of the procrastination equation and then think of a task that you routinely get done on time. How does the equation work in that case?
- Then, think about a task you routinely procrastinate on. How do each of the variables contribute to your procrastination?
- Finally, visualize what’s happening when you move from procrastinating to finally moving into action. What shifts in the equation propels you into action?
- Reflect on the relative strength of influence each variable exerts on you that contributes to getting things done on time or procrastinating. What do you discover?
- Try this exercise again by choosing two more tasks—one that you get done on time and one that you procrastinate on. What do you discover?
Deborah Teplow is an experienced behavioral scientist and author of the Productivity by Design Guide.