A Formula for Doing

Finally, we come to a set of instructions from Piers Steel, dubbed the procrastination equation. He states that motivation = (expectancy + value) / (impulsiveness + delay). First of all, are you even considering each of these four factors when it comes to trying to take action? Are you aware of what’s involved? Next, manipulate these motivating factors into a quantity or order that makes the most sense for you. You’ll quickly find what helps your sense of self-discipline, a term that, like “laziness,” has several layers to it.

  • Practical Self-Discipline: Become a Relentless Goal-Achieving and Temptation-Busting Machine (A Guide for Procrastinators, Slackers, and Couch Potatoes) By Peter Hollins
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An Equation for Doing

Yes, you read that right—someone has formulated an equation of procrastination, one that elegantly works out the interaction of variables that make procrastination more likely to occur.

That someone is Piers Steel, a leading researcher on procrastination. Steel distilled and synthesized 691 studies on the subject to come up with a comprehensive, evidence-based equation that explains motivation and procrastination.

It is known as the “procrastination equation,” and Steel drew up the formula as follows:

In the equation, motivation pertains to your drive to do your intended task. The higher your motivation, the less likely you’re going to procrastinate. The lower your motivation, the more likely you’re going to procrastinate.

As shown in the equation, your level of motivation depends on four variables: (1) expectancy, (2) value, (3) impulsiveness, and (4) delay.

Expectancy refers to your expectation of succeeding at the task. For example, if you need to deliver a sales presentation, expectancy pertains to how much you expect the presentation to be a success, as evidenced by your client buying your product or simply by your effective delivery of the presentation. Note that the expectancy variable is in the numerator of the equation. This means that the higher your expectancy of success, the more motivated you’re going to be to work on your task.

Value pertains to the importance, worth, or pleasantness of the task. How much does your intended task matter to you? How much do you like doing that task? Your answers to these questions speak of the value you attach to the task. If the sales presentation you’re about to do matters very much to you, and/or you actually like working on a sales presentation, then you’re more likely to be motivated to get going on it.

Like the expectancy variable, the value variable is also in the numerator of the equation, which means the more you value the task, the greater your motivation for doing it is.

Now let’s talk about the two variables in the denominator of the equation: impulsiveness and delay.

Impulsiveness refers to your tendency to act on your impulses immediately, without first thinking through their consequences. The more impulsive you are, the more likely you tend to follow your desires and urges at the drop of a hat. From this description, you can imagine just how being impulsive is related to procrastinating.

For example, let’s say that in the middle of preparing for your sales presentation, you feel the urge to check on your social media accounts. If you have an impulsive personality, you’ll feel strongly compelled to act on that urge, thus lowering your motivation to focus on the task and leading you to procrastinate instead. This is the reason why impulsiveness is in the denominator of the procrastination equation. Its relationship with motivation is inverse: the more impulsive you are, the less motivated you’ll be to work on your intended task.

Finally, there’s the variable called delay.

Delay pertains to the interval of time between your completion of a task and your receipt of the reward for doing so. For instance, suppose you’ve been told that the cash incentive for successfully delivering your sales presentation wouldn’t be given to you until your retirement. How would you feel about working on that presentation now?

Such a long delay between your task completion and its reward is likely to decrease your motivation for working on it. The longer you expect to wait for the payoff, the more difficult it is for you to push yourself to get going on the task. This is why the delay variable is in the denominator of the equation. Like impulsiveness, its relationship with motivation is inverse: the greater the delay of the reward, the lesser motivation you’ll feel to work on the task.

In summary, here is what’s at work when it comes to procrastination: the more you expect to succeed and the more you value a task, the more you’re motivated to work on it, and therefore, the less likely you’re going to procrastinate. On the other hand, the more impulsive you are and the more delayed the payoff for the task is, the less you’re motivated to work, and therefore, the more likely it is that you’re going to procrastinate.

And now to answer the million-dollar question: how do you manipulate those variables to beat procrastination?

The beauty of arranging the components of procrastination as variables in a mathematical equation is that you get to clearly see which components you need to increase and which you need to decrease. Let’s take a look at the general equation again:

Given the equation, the formula for increasing motivation—and therefore decreasing procrastination—is simple: increase the numerators (expectancy and value) and decrease the denominators (impulsiveness and delay).

You may choose to implement a combination of those techniques to increase your motivation, depending on what best applies to your situation.

For example, if you already have high expectations of success and attach a high value to the task but tend to be highly impulsive and easily give in to temptations, then you know you’ve got to work on decreasing the impulsiveness variable—so maybe try to eliminate distractions in your environment and practice being more thoughtful rather than being overly reactive.

If you aren’t impulsive but tend to procrastinate because you lack self-confidence and expect failure, then work on increasing your expectancy for success by working to discover your strengths and learning how to apply them to succeed in your task.

Let’s consider how manipulating the procrastination equation would look when applied to our earlier scenario of being tasked to deliver a sales presentation. Remember that given the variables in the procrastination equation—expectancy, value, impulsiveness, and delay—there are at least four ways you can go about increasing your motivation to work on this task.

First, increase your expectancy of success. Put simply, you need to be more optimistic. Think positive! Concrete strategies to help you do so include watching motivational videos, calling to mind situations in the past in which you’ve succeeded, and engaging in visualization.

Believe in your capacity to do the presentation well and visualize a scene in which your audience is interested and captivated by your presentation and your client reacts positively to your pitch. To prevent this visualization from being just a daydream, though, researchers suggest employing a technique called mental contrasting.

After imagining your presentation going well, mentally contrast that with the actual situation you’re in right now. How much work have you really done at this point to be able to realize that vision? This technique is effective at jumpstarting planning and action, driving you to move yourself from your current situation to a successful outcome.

Second, increase the value of the task to you. If doing a sales presentation is something you already highly value because you find it worthwhile or enjoyable, then you don’t need to do much more other than continually remind yourself of why it’s valuable to you. But if doing the presentation is something you dislike or find meaningless, then your task is to find an aspect of it you could like or to create meaning in the task.

The art of self-motivation has a lot to do with managing your own perceptions. To increase task value, you may consider how doing that sales presentation well could have repercussions on your career progression and, ultimately, your quality of life. Reframe the task not as an end in itself but as a means to an end you value, and you’ll find yourself better motivated to get going on it.

Third, decrease your level of impulsiveness. While some people tend to be inherently more impulsive than others, everyone can implement strategies to decrease their overall impulsiveness.

These strategies will need you to modify and structure your environment in such a way that you’ll have fewer opportunities to act on your impulses. Suggested by Steel, this approach needs you to “throw away the key.” For instance, while working on your sales presentation, close all other tabs on your computer that may tempt you to procrastinate (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, Instagram pages). Don’t work in front of the TV.

Eat a good meal before sitting down to work so that you won’t be tempted to get up for snack time again while you’re working.

Finally, decrease the delay of the reward after task completion. While this variable is less likely to be in your control than the other components (e.g., you’re usually not the one who has a say on when you’re going to get compensated), there are still ways you can tweak this variable to your advantage. For instance, break down the task into smaller subtasks and reward yourself for completing each of those subtasks.

That way, you can keep feeding your motivation with little reinforcements throughout the process of working on that larger task. Think of it as continuing to feed the fire with small sticks in order to keep it burning. In making your presentation, for instance, reward yourself with a nice meal or a movie when you complete a subtask, such as completing the presentation outline.

By knowing how to steer each of the equation variables in just the right direction, you’ll have the power to increase your motivation level and decrease your procrastination habits as you please.