Outline Summary: The Procrastination Equation

by iarwain16 min read26th Mar 20144 comments

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Personal Blog

Lukeprog has written an excellent summary of The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel. However, since everybody has a different style that they enjoy, I thought I'd post my own summary in the style that I like best: the bullet-point outline. In fact I'm hoping this post can also serve as a test of whether others find this style useful as well. So please comment on the style as well as on the content.

Disclaimers

  • This summary is by no means comprehensive.
    • I've focused on the areas that primarily interest me, which is mostly just the practical suggestions. There is a lot more to the book than this though.
    • I've skipped some things that appeared redundant to me, or because I didn't understand them, or because they just didn't resonate with me.
  • Don't trust my interpretation.
    • I didn't double-check that everything in this summary faithfully adheres to the book.
    • I have very little expertise in this area outside of reading the book and my own personal experience.
    • On occasion I felt that what the author said didn't make so much sense to me, so I re-wrote it based on a combination of what the author was saying and my own understanding. However, since I originally wrote this summary a while ago, I don't necessarily remember anymore where all of the places I did this were. Where I do remember that something was my own comment I've put it in [brackets].

 
The Procrastination Equation

  • Different people procrastinate for different reasons, corresponding to the different variables in the Procrastination Equation: Motivation = (Expectancy x Value) / (Impulsiveness x Delay). Procrastination results from lowering Motivation too much.
    • Expectancy = how likely you think you are to reach your goal
    • Value = the value you place on the goal
    • Impulsiveness = how influenced you are by short-term vs. long-term gratifications
    • Delay = how far into the future the goal is
  • Understanding why you procrastinate is a major first step towards reducing procrastination.
    • The book has an assessment tool you can use to help you identify why you procrastinate.

 
Reasons for procrastination with suggestions for improvement:

  • Low Expectancy (= lack of optimism): Some people procrastinate because they lack the optimism that they'll be able to achieve their goals, so why try too hard? The following are some suggestions:
    • Success Spirals - one difficult accomplishment leads to another. If you can set yourself a challenging goal and achieve it, you will likely feel more optimistic about your chances in other areas of life. This will likely lead to another (maybe even bigger) accomplishment, leading to yet another, etc.
      • Outward Bound and similar programs have good track records for this
      • Try splitting really big goals into smaller achievable ones so that you can succeed at those. The smaller achievement will likely lead to eventually accomplishing the larger goal.
      • Try getting in achievements in areas like volunteering, hobbies, contests, etc.
    • Vicarious Victory - by seeing how others persevere and achieve you gain the confidence to do so yourself.
      • Inspirational stories of people you can identify with in some way
      • Peer groups (clubs, support groups, friends, etc.)
    • Mental contrasting - imagine positive future vividly, then contrast to a stark realization of current situation (focus on gap). If the positive picture is powerful enough to overcome the realistic assessment of where you are then you'll end up very motivated. The following is a step-by-step for this:
      • Clear your mind in a quiet place & think of the life you want
      • Focus on just one aspect of that life (relationship / job / health / etc.)
      • Vividly flesh out what makes it attractive - can do it mentally, visually (e.g., collage), or in writing
      • Mentally contrast this with where you are now - focus on and vividly think about the gap
      • If you're still optimistic it'll increase motivation
  • High Expectancy (= overconfidence): This is the opposite of lack of optimism. People with this issue delay because "I can always do it later". Suggestions:
    • Try to be pessimistic / realistic
      • Think about / discuss / research what could go wrong
      • Have a disaster / failure plan before you start
    • Realize that you can always find excuses, which lead to more, etc. - so don't start the cycle
      • Reflect on how many times you've failed due to this in the past. You can keep a log to help you remember.
      • Helps just to acknowledge that coming up with excuses is your main issue.
  • Low Value (= lack of enjoyment): Many people procrastinate because the goal isn't high enough value to make them want to do the unenjoyable steps that lead up to it. Suggestions:
    • Make the process a game
    • Tie the goal to more powerful goals ("increase willpower" might itself be a good goal)
    • Tell people about it
    • Use positive rather than negative goals ("do x" vs. "don't do the opposite of x")
    • Try making some tasks at least relatively enjoyable - perhaps accept procrastination of a less-enjoyable activity in exchange for tackling a more-enjoyable but still needed (& procrastinated) other task
    • Reward yourself (can be positive self-talk) - eventually the activity leading to the reward becomes pleasurable too
    • Mix a pleasurable activity with the unpleasant (e.g. work with a friend), but make sure it doesn't cancel out the benefit (e.g., spending too much time talking rather than working)
  • Tiredness (#1 reason for procrastination): This is really just a special case of the work being unenjoyable - people who are tired just want to relax and/or rest, not work.
    • [I'd add that tiredness can also increase depressive tendencies, thereby reducing expectancy. Also, tiredness can reduce self-control, which increases impulsiveness.]
    • Determine circadian rhythm (are you a morning lark or a night owl?) and schedule your biggest  / most important / hardest tasks for peak energy times (= usually about a 4 hr. period towards the earlier part of the day)
      • Try to do only those big / important / hard tasks during your peak energy time
      • A 20 min. nap can extend this period; a brisk walk can also help
      • Later in the day should usually be for less IQ-intensive tasks
    • Keep from getting hungry
    • Exercise
    • Get enough & predictable sleep
  • Impulsiveness: People who are impulsive find it hard to focus on long-term goals and to keep from getting distracted or tempted along the way.  Suggestions:
    • Precommitment: Throw away the key (= lock up temptations)
    • Precommitment: Keep yourself satiated to reduce temptations getting the better of you when you least want them to.
      • If you feel a need to play - create an "unschedule" (schedule times for play before fitting in time for work) to keep satiated
      • [Problem is some things need way too much to be satiated, or indulging a little actually increases the temptation to try to get more]
    • Precommitment: Punishment
      • Have an accountability partner who will punish you for not sticking to your goals
      • StickK.com, [Beeminder.com], etc.
    • Focus on the abstract or (better yet) harmful / disgusting aspects of the temptation
      • The more vivid and terrible you can make it the better
      • Only works temporarily though
    • Get rid of cues for distractions / temptations
      • Turn off the phone before getting to the office, etc.
      • Organize / clean up (itself a strongly procrastinated chore, of course)
    • Increase cues to remind you of your work and its importance
      • Sticky notes, inspirational quotes, etc.
      • Dedicate a work-only area (relax elsewhere) so that the area itself becomes a subliminal cue

 
Other suggestions

  • Set good goals
    • Goals should be:
      • Attainable but challenging (challenging is the more important)
      • Meaningful (tied to larger goals / values)
      • Short-term
        • [This reduces the Delay part of the Procrastination Equation.]
        • Day goals are good
        • 5-10 min. goals if main challenge is getting started
      • Specific
    • Break down large goals into sub-goals
    • Goals can be inputs (time worked) or outputs (words written) or both (e.g., whichever comes first)
  • Good habit formation makes work routine, subconscious, and effortless
    • Have a predictable environment, especially time and place
    • State an explicit intention to act, even just "if X happens then I'll do Y" (really works!)
    • Habits are hard to start, and only start working after a bunch of repetitions, so keep that in mind when coming up with excuses for the first few times
    • Might be worth extra money to pay someone (coach, personal trainer, etc.) to help get it up and running

 

Some other procrastination resources: [this part's not from the book]

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:41 AM
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Interestingly during the last Hamburg meetup we also had a discussion about the equationness of "The Procrastination Equation". It was argued that the usage of an equation in this case is fallacious. It implies a mathematical dependency that is not there. It suggests optimization steps that may be inapproriate. And it focusses away from other problems. Another way to phrase it: The equation is an extreme case of oversimplification.

For example it suggests that the four variables are independent. They are not. And it suggests linearity which is not there either. And it implies that these variables can be measured. Have you tried this?

In the meetup the general pattern of proposing a simple equation for a complex problem was terms "math fallacy". The erroneous belief that modelling something with an equation solves it. Even if you know that it is an (over)simplification doesn't mean that all people using that equation later know it too.

Now I don't want to argue against the four basic procrastination effects aren't there, but you could have stated the same better without an equation. Why use an equation? Because it is cool (I could understand that)?

See also http://xkcd.com/793/

Interesting. This of course invalidates most of my argument regarding this specific equation.

I think the general idea of a "math fallacy" is correct though.

Love xkcd. Spherical cows and all that. But appropriate parsimony is a desirable feature. Here's a summary of whether the equation does a good job of summarizing the science:

http://studiemetro.au.dk/fileadmin/www.studiemetro.au.dk/Procrastination_2.pdf

Also, from the book "The Procrastination Equation"

The Procrastination Equation attempts to economically describe the underlying neurobiology that creates procrastination. I will tell you right now; the biology and the math won’t match exactly. A road map of a city, for example, no matter how recent or detailed, can’t represent every corner and crevasse of reality; it skips over details like architectural styles or fire hydrant placement. Judiciously focusing on streets and highways allows the map to emphasize navigation. If this big picture doesn’t satisfy you and you want all the details, don’t fret. The next chapter will give you what you are looking for.

The next chapter discusses it from a neurobiological perspective, which ultimately provides deeper understanding. I think as along as people recognize the purpose of the equation, and that it actually is a step up in complexity from what was previously used, as well as not mistaking the map for the land, it works.