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.


Improve Your Life in 100 Days

A well meaning friend sent me a link to an article on the

I should have just clicked on the article about “Seven Reasons Why Bentos are Good for You” or “7 Ways to Make Commuting Suck Less” but the link pointed me to “60 Small Ways to Improve Your Life in the Next 100 Days.”

60 ways and 100 days is a lot of changes.

Unfortunately, I am a compulsive To Do list maker and always ready to start another campaign at self-improvement.

The article’s author is Marelisa Fábrega. She blogs about creativity, productivity, and getting the most out of life over at Abundance Blog. She has a book “How To Live Your Best Life – The Essential Guide for Creating and Achieving Your Life List”.

Maybe if I lived with Marelisa, I would put be better at doing what my To Do lists tell me to do. I’m excellent at making the lists. Not great at completing them.

The appealing thing about the article is that I agree with the premise that “you don’t have to make drastic changes in order to notice an improvement in the quality of your life.” Small steps, taken consistently, for 100 days will show results. So, what might I try between now and September?

You might want use a calendar and just use one of the categories. How about a plan to do a little bit of decluttering every day? Day 1: Declutter Magazines, Day 2: Declutter DVD’s, Day 3: Declutter books…

I actually got a start on that when I boxed up 6 cardboard boxes full of books from my collection and donated them for an environmental center’s book swap day. Check one off the list of 100.

Or, you might choose the 100 days to happiness calendar. Write down 5 things that you’re grateful for each day, or make a list of 20 small things that you enjoy doing, and make sure that you do at least one of these things every day for the next 100 days. You want little things like eating your lunch outside, calling a good friend to chat, taking time to read each day.

One suggestion is to “keep a log of your mental chatter, both positive and negative, for ten days.” This one sounds anti-happy to me. “How many times do you beat yourself up during the day? Do you have feelings of inadequacy? Are you constantly thinking critical thoughts of others? How many positive thoughts do you have during the day?” Sounds like therapy. Yes, you’re supposed to spend the next 90 days changing your emotions for the better by modifying this negative mental chatter. Good luck.

Maybe you’re one of those people who rips through a good book over the weekend. I am not. In fact, I have gotten so much slower and much more distracted in my reading since my English major undergraduate years. So, a plan to pick a book that requires some real effort and concentration (though that already sounds like work) and read a little of it every day with a plan to finish in 100 days, sounds doable to me.

Here’s another one that’s doable for some of you. “Set your alarm a minute earlier every day for the next 100 days. Then make sure that you get out of bed as soon as your alarm rings, open the windows to let in some sunlight, and do some light stretching. In 100 days you’ll be waking up an hour and forty minutes earlier than you’re waking up now.” I’m not a morning person. I don’t want to wake up 100 minutes earlier. What I need to do is go to bed a minute earlier each night. Too many nights of post-midnight reading, watching and writing.

There are others: learn something new each day (You better write them down so you don’t forget what you learned.) There are a group of financial plans: Create a spending plan and track every cent that you spend for the next 100 days to make sure that you’re sticking to your spending plan. Scour the internet for frugality tips, choose ten of the tips that you find, and apply them for the next 100 days. Go to the grocery store with cash and a calculator. Pay for everything with paper money and keep any change that you receive. Then, put all of your change in a jar and see how much money you can accumulate in 100 days.

Track how you spend your time for 5 days. Note the ways in which you regularly waste time. Set a time budget to limit those things like no more than half-an-hour for television, or social media sites, such as Facebook, or video games.

Record every night what happened that day. A business-like diary. What did you accomplish? What went wrong?

What went right?

Of course, there are the obligatory health suggestions too. Reduce your caloric intake by 175 calories a day for the next 100 days, you’ll have lost 5 pounds in the next 100 days. Push yourself to eat five servings of vegetables or three servings of fruit of every day, or pick the one food that constantly sabotages your efforts to eat healthier and go cold turkey for those 14 weeks.

I actually started up again on the idea of wearing a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps a day. The only problem is that most of my walking during the day is too slow to really make much of a difference.

My wife would probably like the work on your relationship section. Write down something positive about your partner every day. Create a scrapbook of all the things you and your partner do together during the next 100 days. At the end, give your partner the list and the scrapbook you created.

This is not creating a Life List (not crazy about the Bucket List label). But just to rub it in, Marelisa has already crossed off 50 things from her personal life list including: Visited the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt; Took a cruise down the Nile and visited Abu Simbel; Graduated Cum Laude from Georgetown University; Got her J.D. there too; Passed the New York Bar (on the first try); Lived in Florence, Italy for a year and learned to speak fluent Italian; Visited Shakespeare’s birthplace; Got deported from Malta (Was that really on her list? I think she’s adding things along the way.); Saw the Mona Lisa; Rode in a horse-drawn carriage in New York; Saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Washington, D.C.; Achieved second-degree Reiki, the Japanese technique for channeling healing energy; Published a popular blog and created several sources of income online.

Don’t you feel a bit guilty and inadequate?

I may just start a list of things to accomplish if I live to be 100.

Write Or Consequences

Last weekend I wasn’t very motivated to write here. It happens. Sometimes it’s because things are going so well that I don’t want to be sitting at the keyboard. Sometimes it’s because things are going so badly that I’m afraid of what will come out of the keyboard.

Cyber-friend, artist, teacher and blogger, Bruce Shauble, hasn’t been blogging lately. So, I was pleased when I saw a new post from him on his Throughlines blog. Bruce lives in “Paradelle West” (Hawaii) and there must be many wonderful distractions.

He discovered a web site called Write or Die. It encourages your writing by punishing your tendency to avoid writing. It gives you a text box to type in, and as long as you keep typing, you’re fine. But once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.

The consequences include a “Gentle Mode” which will pop up a box that gently reminds you to continue writing. In “Normal Mode”, if you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write. In the “Kamikaze Mode” you have to keep writing or your work will unwrite itself.

Bruce used it to draft his post. He set the parameters at ten minutes to come up with 200 words. Since he had not written in two months, he decided that this “sticks rather than carrots” method might work.

Write or Die has a Desktop Edition for $10 that allows you to use it offline and thereby avoid “the gigantic kitten of distraction that is our modern Internet.”

The Net is a distraction, but so is Life.

So, why write? George Orwell wrote an essay called “Why I Write” and his answers included egoism, aesthetics, historical impulse and political purpose.

I can’t say that I would list those as my motivations. Still, there must be some egoism involved in seeing my words online and knowing that people are arriving on the page and perhaps reading what I have written. Orwell says his own egoism includes the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.”

Joan Didion, a very different kind of writer, also wrote an essay titled “Why I Write” and said “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

I can identify with that. I rarely know where I will end up when I start writing a post or a poem. I know what direction I am headed, but not the destination.

I certainly want to share what I am thinking with other people. To see 100,000 hits on the blog counter is a good thing, even if I don’t know who the people are, and I rarely get to hear their comments.

Didion says that she took Orwell’s title because she liked “the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:




In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writers sensibility on the readers most private space.”

Well, I don’t like that particular portrait of the writer. But Orwell headed in that same direction. Fearing that his essay might make it “appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited” he ended his essay by saying:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”

I can end with admitting that there is some demon I struggle with that seems to compel me to write. I’m not sure I want to confront that demon face to face. The writing seems to keep it at a safe distance and keep it fed.

Probably the scariest part is that there are also other demons, (They are not angels.) and they are vying for my attention too.

Cover illustration by William Blake from his The Book of Urizen

If I Give You Twenty Bucks, Will You Read This Blog Post?

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, everything you know about what motivates people is probably wrong.

According to his research on the latest discoveries about the mind, the idea that people can only be motivated by the hope of gain and the fear of loss is out of date.

You might find this book either in the  business or the self-help section of the bookstore. There’s one thing that I find those types of books often have in common.  Someone comes up with a fairly simple but new premise and then they make a really good, long article into a “book” by citing lots of studies and examples.

That doesn’t mean these types of books are bad books. I often enjoy them – but I do a lot more skimming and skipping than I normally do when reading.

One assertion by Pink is that we have a “third drive” and its one that causes us to do our most creative and best work without extrinsic motivation.

Think about how parents, schools, and employers all use extrinsic motivation – stickers, awards, bonuses, salaries, titles and all the rest – and then think about how they probably don’t do much or anything to activate the “third drive.”

Why am I writing this blog?  There is no real extrinsic motivation. No pay or awards.  I guess I do it for its “intrinsically pleasing qualities.”

Would extrinsic motivators (like a paycheck) turn off the “third drive” to write here?  If it was my “job” would I find it less appealing?

In the book, Pink points to a lot of studies that show that rewards and punishments can actually reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems.

Is that the idea behind Google’s 80/20 model? Google engineers are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally. The idea is that people work better when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about. Out of that 20 percent time came Gmail, Google News and some thing most of us don’t see like the Google shuttle buses that bring employees to work.

More of the business side of the book comes out in Best Buy’s Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) which has also been experimented with at GAP stores and other employers.  Employees can work whenever and however they choose, as long as they meet specific goals.

So, one your basic needs are satisfied, what motivates you to grow, develop, and strive to reach your full potential?

Daniel Pink also thinks these methods can move from business to personal goals (like fitness) or parenting.

Are you his  “Type X” individual who just wants a reward? Or are you a  “Type I” person in it for the love of it?

Being that I work in education, I want to make the leap that the book doesn’t really make to motivating learning.  If you think about those times when students want to learn and do so on their own without being asked (and yes, this does occur), can you target the why of when that happens?

Pink’s keys seem to be autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  How do you use them to motivate?  Or is “using them” exactly what will make them NOT work?

Which leads me to my second reading from the past few weeks – an article in Time magazine called “Is Cash the Answer?” that is about experiments in paying students to achieve.

The idea sounds radical, and yet it’s not so different from any job. Teachers are usually not in favor of these programs since they think you are rewarding kids for doing what they should be doing of their own volition.

Psychologists caution that money can kill performance by “cheapening” the act of learning.

Parents – perhaps speaking from their own experiences at home with rewards – predict that after the money goes away, so does the motivation.

And, since many of these programs are in inner-city schools, the programs have even been called racist.

The focus of the article is the work of a Harvard economist, Roland Fryer Jr.  His randomized experiment in hundreds of classrooms in multiple cities used mostly private money to pay 18,000 kids a total of $6.3 million in motivation. It’s the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom.

Now, he and his researchers at the education-innovation laboratory is using the scientific method to figure out how to close the learning gap between America’s white and minority kids.

The experiment was run in Chicago, Dallas, Washington and New York using different models of incentives (some kids were paid for good test scores, some for not fighting with one another).

The results varied, including almost a total lack of positive results in some models. But there were also very positive results. Payments can boost kids’ performance as much as or more than many other reform methods. Sure, it costs money, but so do those other approaches, and some cost a lot more than paying the students.

Is money the solution? Not entirely. But, at least for some kids, it seems to be part of the solution.

I guess where the experiments leaves off for now is the important part – What happens when the monetary rewards are gone? Did it create a  self-motivated adults?

What motivated you to read this post to the end?

How many of you reading this last sentence will be motivated to go further on your own and  read the Time article or Daniel Pink’s book?

Books by Daniel Pink
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need
Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself