“The Procrastination Equation” by Dr. Piers Steel (Book Summary)
The Procrastination Equation by Dr. Piers Steel is one of my favorite motivation and procrastination books.
Steel is one of the world’s leading researchers on the science of motivation and procrastination. He’s also the inventor of the procrastination equation – an equation that is able to explain every scientific finding on procrastination ever.
For me, the book isn’t so much about overcoming procrastination as it’s about hacking motivation and getting ourselves motivated for anything we want. Nonetheless, it’s a great read with lots of practical advice for improving our lives.
Who Is The Procrastination Equation For?
- Anyone struggling with procrastination.
- Anyone who wants to get more motivated.
- Anyone interested in becoming more productive.
1. The Procrastination Equation
The Procrastination Equation:
MOTIVATION = EXPECTANCY x VALUE / IMPULSIVENESS x DELAY
“And there it is: the Procrastination Equation—inspired by the common elements that determine when we procrastinate, and crafted together from the most deeply researched elements of social sciences’ strongest motivation theories. The Procrastination Equation accounts for every major finding for procrastination. As the deadline for any task gets pushed further into the future, Delay increases and our motivation to tackle the tasks decreases. Impulsiveness multiplies the effects of Delay, and so impulsive people feel the effects of time far less acutely, at least at first. Consequences have to be on their doorstep before they start paying attention to them—unless they are particularly large. And what makes consequences large? Expectancy and Value. The bigger the payoff and the greater the likelihood of receiving it, the sooner it will capture your attention.”
The procrastination equation explains procrastination through the lens of motivation. Essentially, we are constantly making decisions between various courses of action – “Should I go to the gym or watch television? Should I study for my upcoming exam or play video games?” – and we always choose the action for which we have the highest motivation.
In other words, we procrastinate on tasks because they’re not our highest motivation. Motivation, according to Piers’ equation is the result of: Expectancy X Value / Impulsiveness X Delay
Let’s unpack those different variables:
Expectancy. Do you expect to succeed? Are you confident in your ability to achieve a great outcome in whatever you aspire to do? If your expectancy is high, then you’ll be more motivated and you’ll procrastinate less. It’s only natural: you’re more motivated to pursue something that gives you a good chance of having a pleasing outcome.
Value. Do you care about the specific task? Do you value it? The more rewarding an outcome is, the more motivated you’ll be to pursue it.
That’s the numerator of the equation. The more rewarding the outcome, and the higher your expectancy of achieving that outcome, the more motivated you’ll be. To beat procrastination, we want to get the numerator as high as possible. The higher it is, the more motivated you’ll be and the less you’ll procrastinate.
Impulsiveness. This refers to your sensitivity to delay. The more impulsive you are, the less willing you are to delay gratification. The more impulsive you are, the more you value immediate rewards over long-term rewards.
Delay. This indicates how long you must wait to receive the expected rewards, benefits, payouts. The longer you have to wait, the less motivated you’ll be and the more likely you are to procrastinate.
If you want to procrastinate less, you need to increase your expectancy, increase the value of an activity or task, decrease your impulsiveness, and decrease the delay of the expected reward.
The book is all about showing us ways to improve the four aspects of this equation.
2. An Example
Let’s consider a common example together: college essays. Mike has been assigned an essay on September 15th (beginning of semester) and it’s due on December 15th (end of semester). Mike, like any normal student, likes to get good grades but he also likes to socialize.
The figure below shows the changes in his motivation over the course of the semester regarding his two choices of studying versus socializing.
The reward for socializing is always immediate and so remains the same over the entire semester. The reward for writing, on the other hand, is distant at the beginning of the semester. This means Mike has more motivation to socialize and procrastinates on writing the essay at the beginning of the semester. The closer the deadline comes, the closer the reward of writing the essay comes as well. On December 3rd, the motivation for writing the essay supersedes the motivation for socializing. Mike stops procrastinating and starts working.
That’s obviously a very hypothetical example, but it illustrates the point nicely.
3. Where Does Procrastination Come From?
“This division has been rediscovered by dozens of other investigators, each with their own angle, emphasis and terminology for the same divided self: emotions versus reason, automatic versus controlled, does versus planner, experiential versus rational, hot versus cold, impulsive versus reflective, intuitive versus reasoned, or visceral versus cognitive.”
“This interplay of instinct and reason has made the human race able to create the world in which we live. But it also has created procrastination.”
“In essence, procrastination occurs when the limbic system vetoes the long-term plans of the prefrontal cortex in favour of the more immediately realizable, and the limbic system, aside from being the quicker of the two and in charge of our first impulse, is often the stronger.”
Procrastination exists because there are two distinctly different personalities living inside all of us. There’s the primitive and impulsive side of us and there’s the rational and thought-through side of us. Those personalities line up with different brain regions: the limbic system (seat of our impulses) and the prefrontal cortex (seat of our reason and willpower).
In my own book on procrastination, I refer to the primitive side of us as ‘the monkey’.
Procrastination is basically the fight between what you want (your rational side) and what the monkey (your impulsive side) wants. You want things that are good for your future. The monkey wants things that feel good now and bring immediate gratification.
You want to study for exams, exercise regularly, eat healthy, and meditate every morning. The monkey, on the other hand, wants to watch television, play video games, eat cookies, or do anything else that feels good right now.
And so, you’re faced with a decision between what you want and what the monkey wants, between immediate gratification and long-term success. If you listen to the monkey, that’s called procrastination – you put off doing what’s best for you for something that feels better in the present. If you don’t listen to the monkey, that’s an act of willpower – you use the strength of your will to veto the monkey and forego the pleasures of the moment for potential benefits in the future.
That’s procrastination in a nutshell — a battle of impulse versus willpower, emotion versus reason, automatic versus controlled, experiential versus rational, and short-term pleasure versus long-term happiness. It’s a battle between your rational self and your monkey self, between the part of you who wants to be healthy and the part of you who wants to eat candy all day long.
If you’re a procrastinator, it simply means you’re losing this battle too often. Long story short: Procrastination exists because of these two distinct brain regions (limbic system and prefrontal cortex), which manifest as two different personalities.
4. Modern Temptations: Why We’ve Seen a 5-Fold Increase In Procrastination Over the Last Few Decades
“… modernization brings with it procrastination. As our economies have grown over the last few decades, we have experienced a fivefold increase in chronic procrastination. In the 1970s, 4-5 percent of people surveyed indicated they considered procrastination a key personal characteristic. Today, that figure is between 20 and 25 percent, the logical consequence of filling our lives with ever more enticing temptations.”
“Having looked at some historical baselines for comparison, you should be able to see why procrastination has risen to today’s levels. While the pleasure derived from working has remained fairly constant over the decades, the power of distractions only seems to increase.”
So we’ve seen a five-fold increase in procrastination over the last few decades. Why? Because temptations of our modern world are becoming more and more appealing.
Put differently, the motivation for engaging in distractions has become much higher while the motivation for work has stayed more or less the same. The result? Procrastination.
The relationship between procrastination and temptations can be illustrated by the following graph:
You can see that the larger the temptations, the longer we’ll procrastinate. If you want a detailed explanation of the graph, check out this article.
A few decades ago, temptations were a lot less enticing. There were no smartphones, no social media, no 500-channel televisions, no video games, and so on. Of course people didn’t procrastinate so much… what were they going to do with their time anyway?
The point is: As distractions keep getting more and more enticing, we can expect to see further and further increases in procrastination. If you’re serious about procrastinating less, you need to learn how to handle modern-day distractions.
6. The #1 Reason Given For Procrastination
“Whether tiredness is drug-induced or not, being too tired is the number-one reason given for procrastinating; 28 percent of people claim, ‘Didn’t have enough energy to begin the task’ as the cause. When you are tired at the end of day, after your job has already got the best part of you, cleaning out the garbage is the last thing you are going to do. Fatigue increases task-aversion, saps interest, and makes the difficult excruciating.”
The #1 reason given for procrastination is being tired. What does that tell us?
It tells us that energy management is a crucial piece in the procrastination puzzle. It means we should value our sleep – optimize and it make sure we get enough of it. It means we should exercise regularly and move as much as possible throughout our day. It means we should watch our diet and eat as healthy as we can.
It also means we should manage our energy throughout our days: work in sprints, take frequent breaks, maybe get a nap when we slow down, and so on.
The better we are at managing our energy, the less we’ll struggle with procrastination.
7. (Pre-)Commit Now to Bondage, Satiation, and Poison
“Right now, I’m sure you have no shortage of long-term goals: you want to lose ten pounds, stop smoking, get out more, or work harder. Maybe you want to start saving money for retirement or just for a trip. Standing between us and our aspirations are our Sirens. Instead of beautiful bare-breasted babes, they are the dessert trolley, the television, or the amazing video game. We wake in the morning with a clear desire to hit the gym in the afternoon only to succumb to the succubi of the immediately available. We want to diet but when some apple-crumble cake wafts under our nose, our willpower crumbles too. But if you can anticipate these powerful temptations, you can act in advance to ward them off. You can use the concept of precommitment.”
Temptations are often what gets in the way of reaching our goals. We want to lose weight, but succumb to sugary foods. We want to exercise regularly, but give in to watching television instead. We want to study for our upcoming exams, but end up playing video games instead.
What can be done against these temptations? One strategy is called precommitment: you commit to doing something by locking yourself into a virtuous path.
Dr. Piers Steel recommends three types of precommitment strategies:
- Bondage: Put temptations out of reach or at least far away. For example, disconnect your internet connection, block distracting websites, erase your video games, remove the battery from your PDFA, or unplug your television set.
- Satiation: Satisfy your needs in a safe and managed way before they get too intense and stumble out of control. Smokers use nicotine patches. Heroin addicts take methadone. You may schedule some leisure time before starting work.
- Try poison: Add disincentives to your temptations to make them less attractive. For example, set up a commitment contract that forces you to pay a predetermined sum of money if you give in to a specified temptation.
You can check out this or this article for more strategies on handling temptations.
8. Take Back Control Of Your Environment
“Part of our decision making occurs subconsciously, in our limbic system. This is not the brightest part of our minds; it takes much of its lead from environmental cues, that is, from the stimuli of sight, smell, sound or touch. A provocative image pops up and we think of sex, a tasty smell wafts our way and we become hungry, or we hear a snippet of a song and start humming the tune. These associative cues cause our mind to wander and we forget the original task. With just a little nudge, our imagination slips down the rabbit hole and we find ourselves mulling over some more personally relevant issue, like what’s for lunch. We have been distracted.”
This is all about priming, which states that everything in your environment triggers a goal or behavior in you. Walking past the gym can trigger the goal of working out. A plate of sweets can trigger the goal of cheating on your diet. A dimming of the lights can increase fearfulness. And so on.
Certain cues in your environment can trigger you to be productive. Other cues can trigger you to procrastinate.
In order to overcome procrastination, we want to purge our environment from all the cues that can trigger a distraction. In addition, we want to fill our environment with cues that can trigger us to work on important tasks.
Here are a few ideas to make this happen:
- Declutter your browser: Get rid of the bookmarks bar (hit Ctrl+Shift+B in Chrome) and install an extension that displays a blank page instead of thumbnails when opening a new tab (I use Empty New Tab Page).
- Declutter your desktop: Delete all quick launch icons from your taskbar and move everything on your desktop into one folder (mine is creatively called “Desktop”).
- Declutter your phone: Delete distracting apps or at least move them somewhere you don’t see them all the time.
- Eliminate all notifications: Whether it’s email or social media notifications, they can all trigger distraction behavior. Just turn them off.
- Remove other triggers in your environment: Hide the remote control for the television, put your phone away, delete your games, and so on.
Check out this article for more on that.
9. Try Some Mental Contrasting
“Professional athletes often use visualization to achieve their goals. Before going to sleep every night, they imagine the perfect golf swing or triple axel landing. The detailed mental recreation of a performance engages mirror neurons that engrave the act in your brain almost as deeply as if you were actually practicing it. Visualization can also combat procrastination through the technique of mental contrasting.”
“People who practice mental contrasting almost immediately start pursuing their dreams, putting a stop on procrastination.”
We’ve talked about mental contrasting before. In short, it’s a powerful visualization technique that has been shown to help people achieve all kinds of goals.
Mental contrasting is a 3-part visualization which involves identifying a wish you want to achieve, then visualizing your desired outcome, and then visualizing potential obstacles that could impede you from achieving said outcome.
You can check out detailed explanations of this technique and a description of exactly how I use it to beat procrastination in this article.
10. Blend Bitter Medicine With Sweet Honey
“… blend bitter medicine with sweet honey. Try to find a compatible pairing between a long-term interest and a short-term impulse. If you combine an unpleasant task with one you find more enjoyable, the mixture may be enough to get you going. Getting together with a workout partner can spur you to exercise. Treating yourself to a specialty coffee can help you focus on your time-sheets or your budget.”
This idea is similar to the strategy of temptation bundling. It’s all about combining a temptation with something you know you should do but are struggling to do.
As a result, aversive tasks are a bit more attractive, resulting in a decrease in procrastination. There’s actually a study proving that this works: People who used temptation bundling were 29-51% more likely to exercise than people in the control group.
So choose a task you’re procrastinating on and marry it with one of your guilty pleasures. Listen to your favorite podcast while exercising, treat yourself to some chocolate after cleaning the house, or watch your favorite show while ironing or doing household chores.
If you enjoyed this summary, you'll probably enjoy other books on procrastination as well. Here are some of my favorites:
- Solving the Procrastination Puzzle by Timothy Pychyl. This is another small but useful book all about overcoming procrastination.
- Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. A super short and concise guide to beating procrastination and getting things done. If you need a kick in the pants, this is it!
- The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. Probably the most famous book on procrastination. Offers a lot of counter-intuitive strategies
- Stop Procrastinating by yours truly. As you may know, I’ve written a book about overcoming procrastination myself. You can grab it on Amazon Kindle here.
And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.
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Great summary, helpful insights and useful metaphors. In my experience I often see myself drifting away to ‘useful distractions’. I understand that the choiche of doing ‘usefull stuff’ like increasing knowledge has to do with less feeling guilty, but I am amazed how much more ‘rewarding/addicting’ this is when I don’t have a big deadline to meat which I am avoiding at the moment. That being said I’m wunder if the focus isn’t to much on the ‘more impulse rewarding’ objects (the Sirens) where I think the direct cause isn’t the environment (of course indirect it is) but the fact that some how ‘not doing the task you should’ is an ‘impuls reward’ on itself. But hey, I’m an ADHD/ADD-er, so after I succeed I found myself empty/little depressed because of the lack of some ‘impuls reward’ that the tasks gives. I hope to find more information on this angle view of procrastination and I’m curious about your perception of this.
Hey Herman, putting off a difficult task surely is a reward in and of itself, I would agree on that point. That reward would probably be a feeling of relief and a joy of not having to do that difficult thing. I remember feeling pretty great when postponing major tasks for a week or a month… or completely ignoring them and just saying, “Fu** it, I won’t do that!” So yeah, that would be interesting to further investigate.