How to Overcome Procrastination

Want to beat procrastination? Cover of The Procrastination EquationHere’s a brief summary of the main action points in Piers Steel’s excellent book The Procrastination Equation.[1]

Steel’s work is based on his meta-study of academic publications on motivation theory. You can check out Luke Muehlhauser’s more comprehensive summary, or buy and read the book!

Very Short Summary

The key thing you need to do to overcome procrastination is to set and score goals. Often people think of goals in really vague terms: “get fit,” “do well in studies,” “improve social skills,” and so on – you know the story. I used to think that way. It’s a poisonous way to think, because failure to achieve resolutions – even vague resolutions like these – is demotivating, and the reality is that these “goals” aren’t really goals in any useful sense.

Instead, you need to:

  1. form goals that are specific, concrete, and measurable (the kind you can keep track of using Beeminder),
  2. break those goals down into steps that you are confident you can accomplish, and
  3. work through those steps to achieve the goals.

The Procrastination Equation

The lower our motivation to carry out a task, the greater our tendency to put off doing it.

Researchers in fields like behavioural economics and psychology have found that the main factors that contribute to motivation are:

  • Expectancy – the likelihood that she assigns to actually obtaining the reward.
  • Value – the reward a person associates with doing a task and/or its results.
  • Impulsiveness – the extent to which she tends to be distracted by other things.
  • Delay – the length of time from now until she will receive the reward.[2]

\mathrm{Motivation = \dfrac{Expectancy \times Value}{Impulsiveness \times Delay}}

This is the “Procrastination Equation.”

To overcome procrastination, a person will need to increase expectancy, and/or increase value, and/or decrease impulsiveness. (Delay is usually out of a person’s control or dependent on when the person actually gets around to doing things.)

How to Increase Expectancy

1. Success Spirals: Set goals for yourself that are achievable, challenging, and meaningful. Achieve those goals. Then set increasingly challenging goals, achieve them, &c., and repeat the cycle to boost your optimism.

2. Vicarious Victory: Read and watch inspirational biographies and films, particularly ones that feature people from backgrounds like yours who overcome obstacles and go on to become successful. Participate in communities comprised of optimistic, successful people.

3. Mental Contrasting: Visualise your current situation, followed by what you would like to achieve, and (very importantly!) focus on the difference between where you are now and where you would like to be and the steps you will need to take to narrow the gap.

4. Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best: Be honest with yourself and anticipate problems that may arise as you seek to achieve your goals. Prepare plans in advance to deal with those problems if and when they do come up.

5. Accept that You’re Addicted to Delay: Remind yourself that “giving in” leads to a slippery slope. If you can say that you’ll “do it tomorrow” today, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, and so on and so forth until it’s too late to accomplish the task well, probably you should do it now. Treat any inclination to slip as potentially disastrous.

How to Increase Value

1. Games and Goals: Make boring tasks more challenging – perhaps by creating little games or by competing against other people. Associate tasks with bigger, longer-term goals. Think about goals in terms of what you want to achieve rather than in terms of what you want to avoid.

2. Energy Crisis: Increase your energy where possible, and use the energy that you do have wisely. In particular, exercise, sleep, and eat regularly and at predictable times. If you have too many commitments, cut back or get help. Reserve the times of day during which you have the most energy – and in particular the period starting a few hours after you wake up and lasting for around four hours – for your hardest tasks.

3. Productive Procrastination: Suppose you realise that you’re putting off getting some important task done. Then select a more pleasurable task that’s tangential to that task – preferably, although not necessarily, related – and “trade” working on the initial task for the other. (But you need to be careful to make sure you don’t do this too much, or else you may end up neglecting your most important tasks.)

4. Double or Nothing: Reward and compliment yourself when you achieve your goals. Add incentives to the tasks you do to make them more satisfying.

5. Let Your Passion Be Your Vocation: Find a job/course/&c. that involves doing something that you like and enjoy.

How to Decrease Impulsiveness

1. Precommitment: Put temptations and distractions far away in advance. Satisfy needs and desires before they get too strong – e.g. schedule in leisure and recreation time first. Add disincentives to your temptations and distractions to make them repugnant to you.

2. Make Paying Attention Pay: Use attentional control and covert sensitisation to deal with distractions. Attentional control: focus on the most abstract, “cold” aspects of a thing – e.g. think about cake as a combination of fats, sugars, proteins, &c. Covert sensitisation: imagine ways in which the distraction or its consequences could be disgusting, dangerous, or disastrous. Separate your work area from your leisure and recreation areas. Remove distractions from your work area and replace them with visual reminders of your longer-term goals. Focus on one thing at a time – forget multitasking (it doesn’t work).

3. Set and Score Goals: (Probably the most important recommendation in the book.) Set really specific, concrete goals (what, when, why) – these are much more effective than vague, abstract goals. Break up long-term tasks into small steps. Set up mini-goals to break motivational “surface tension” and get yourself on track to other goals. Develop your tasks into a predictable routine that you will follow without thinking about it.

  1. Steel, Piers (2012), The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, HarperCollins. []
  2. Sometimes a small value – e.g. 1 – is added to Delay to avoid division by zero as a task’s deadline is reached. []