Procrastination. It’s a term I don’t have to define. We all live it. No matter how organized and motivated you are, you procrastinate.

There is no lack of advice out there in how to defeat it. It may be the most popular self-help topic. That’s especially true if you consider that it plays a big role in every diet book, exercise formula, and beating addiction plan.

According to  The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, the four components of procrastination are expectancy, value, delay, and impulsiveness.

For example, if you decrease the certainty or the size of a task’s reward -that’s  its expectancy or its value – then you are unlikely to pursue that task to completion with much enthusiasm.

If you increase the delay for the task’s reward – and we all have a built-in tendency to delay – then motivation also drops.

Now, impulsiveness is a factor that is part of the larger and most important factor overall – time.  It’s no great revelation to tell you that we are less motivated by delayed rewards than by immediate rewards. The more impulsive you are, the more your motivation is affected by delays.

Author Piers Steel’s website is about procrastination but it’s probably just as much about motivation.

So, what can we do to help the situation?  If you can increase a task’s reward, your motivation goes up. Rewards can include the pleasantness of doing the task and the value of its after-effects.  You can also improve motivation if the perceived odds of getting the reward  are better.

I am okay with all that. But not all tasks have real rewards. For example, why should I finish writing this blog post?  What are the rewards? A few more hits on a counter. A nice comment by a reader. There’s no money in it. No fame. I guess I could think that some day it will lead to some blogger fame and fortune. There are people who make a living at it.

I guess I have to focus on the “pleasantness” of doing it. That’s one I had not thought of much before I read the book. I do enjoy writing these posts. I enjoy writing. I like learning new things. I like sharing what I have learned. (Well, after teaching for three decades, that’s not a big surprise.)

In most cases, you can’t do much about the delay of a task’s reward, so the suggested focus is on the other three components: Increase your expectancy of success; Make the task’s value more pleasant and rewarding; Decrease your impulsiveness.

Are those in our control? The research says they are things you can control.

Optimism breeds optimism. Steel references “Success Spirals” where you give yourself a series of meaningful, challenging but achievable goals. Then, you achieve them and set yourself up for further success which keeps your confidence high.

That was something that was suggested to me in another book because I am a constant “To Do” list maker. Rather than having 10 things on the list and then getting depressed at having accomplished only one at the end of the week, put a header on that list for the one thing you need to really do. Make that thing something that is short-term achievable. Losing 25 pounds is not short-term. Getting out three times in the next week is doable. Keep track of the things that you DO complete on that list. Recognize accomplishments.

Now, you can get silly with those objectives. I’m sure if your To Do list includes items like: take a shower, eat lunch, and watch 2 hours of TV today, that you will succeed. I’m not sure that will offer further motivation.

Unfortunately, pessimism breeds pessimism as much as optimism breeds optimism. You have to avoid the P word, but that’s tough.

I am not a fan of the concept you find in many self-help books of using “creative visualization.” That is the idea of practicing regular and vivid imagining  of what you want to achieve. See that new career, award, finished project.  Steel’s website seems to agree with me and notes some research that shows this method can actually drain your motivation – unless you add an additional step of “mental contrasting.”  I haven’t tried this idea, but it means that after you visualize that goal, you next mentally contrast that with where you are now. It’s a reality check, I suppose.

For me, impulsiveness is the biggest factor in my procrastination. In this age of Attention-Deficit and a plethora of distractions, implulsiveness eats up my life. Starting to write this blog post instead of grading papers or cleaning the garage or visiting my sister or working on a manuscript that has a real deadline is the example of the moment.

I like Steel’s literary allusion to good old Ulysses. He did not get past those beautiful and deadly singing Sirens because he had great willpower. He knew he was weak. He had himself tied to his ship’s mast so there were no other options. This is known as “precommitment” and is a suggested way to handle impulsiveness.

Go somewhere that has no TV, no Internet, fewer actual distractions, put in ear plugs.  Make failure to complete the task hurt. Punish yourself – no Internet for a day, no TV, a forced monetary donation to a cause you don’t support.

At one time, I would have consoled myself by saying that the reason why I procrastinate is that I am a perfectionist. Turns out that’s a myth (see this video). In fact, you shouldn’t try to be perfect. Don’t even try to completely eliminate procrastination. Steel says that “Overregulation will make you unhappy. You’ll have to find a balance.”

I can now check this post off my Sunday list.


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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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