The Procrastination Equation

Summary Written by Steve Riley
"The Achilles Heel of procrastination turns out to be impulsiveness; that is, living impatiently in the moment and wanting it all now."

- The Procrastination Equation, page 13

The Big Idea

The Quick Impulsive Test

"The greater the delay, the less your motivation."- The Procrastination Equation, page 29

Time is the one part of the procrastination equation that resonated with me personally. To demonstrate how powerful time (delay) is on motivation, Steel uses this quick test.

Let’s say I put $1,000 cash into your hands (10 crisp $100 bills). You can keep this money and walk right now. However, I also have a certified cheque, post-dated for one year from today. Here is the dilemma. What is the minimum amount that I have to put on that cheque for you to reach into your pocket and hand back the $1,000 cash, take the cheque, and wait a year to cash it. Quick! Immediate gut reaction! How much?!

Steel finds that most people are between $2,000 and $3,000. If you have been taught calculations of common interest rates and give it some thought, you’ll have a much lower answer, but a quick emotional reaction drives that cheque figure much higher. The higher the amount on the cheque, the more impulsive you are; the more that you like to satisfy immediate needs and put off future enjoyment. Really when you think about it, that is why we procrastinate: because we are impulsive. We trade short term pleasure for long term pain.

Insight #1

Frame Your Goals in Specific Terms

"Goal setting – proper goal setting – is the smartest thing you can do to battle procrastination."- The Procrastination Equation, page 191

Like most of you, I set personal and professional goals. We have all heard of the SMART method, where your goals must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Without addressing those specific criteria, goals will usually fail. However, Steel breaks down the SMART theory and adds in some depth to the Timely criteria. Example, frame your goals in specific terms so that you know precisely when you have to achieve them. Instead of “Do my expense report tomorrow”, it should be “Gather all my receipts, itemize them and record them by lunchtime tomorrow.” Instead of “Lose weight this year”, it should be “Limit my calories to 1,700 per day by eating a set menu for each meal and exercising for one hour at 4:30pm each day.” By putting a time-stamp on it and by breaking down the goal into manageable chunks, we tend not to blow it off so easily.

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Insight #2

Visualize and Contrast

"Whether the task is preparing for exams, getting a job, smoking less, or improving personal relationships, she (the researcher) found that the worst-performing group used positive fantasies alone. You are better off not using this technique at all."- The Procrastination Equation, page 129

Basically, just visualizing yourself doing the task (Creative Visualization) isn’t enough, and in some cases it’s actually worse than doing nothing. You need to take a few extra steps to help make your visualization a reality:

  • Break off a manageable piece of your future by focusing on just one aspect of your desire.
  • Elaborate on all that makes this mental picture attractive to you.
  • Mentally contrast this future with where you are now. Focus on the gap. Put the same emphasis on vividly reflecting on this discrepancy as you did on imagining your idealized future.

You should feel optimistic about realizing this ideal future which in turn creates motivation. Motivation is the key in limiting procrastination. The procrastination should disappear as you actively close the gap. You know what to do and you have the drive to do it.

Piers Steel does a great job dissecting procrastination: what it is, its financial costs, the stress it causes, and how we are naturally wired to do it. By using personal examples (that I related to more than I care to admit), he really helped me develop a connection with the book. I was totally impressed with the last chapter where he takes the three fictional characters and implements his solutions into their lives. It makes it real and gives the reader the motivation to take steps in reducing the enormous stress that procrastination puts on our already busy lives.

Read the book

Get The Procrastination Equation on Amazon.

Piers Steel

Piers Steel, PhD, is one of the world’s foremost researchers and speakers on the science of motivation and procrastination. Winner of the Killam Emerging Research Leader award, he is considered the top new professor at the University of Calgary, where he teaches human resources and organizational dynamics at the Haskayne School of Business. Dr. Steel’s research has appeared in countless outlets around the world, ranging from Psychology Today and New Scientist to Good Housekeeping and The New Yorker. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, with his wife and two sons.

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