The Procrastination Equation – The Mathematics of Getting Things Done (Part II)

 In Habits, Productivity

Last month, we did a review of Piers Steel’s book ‘The Procrastination Equation’ and the concepts he outlines in this book.

In our review, we went over the theory behind procrastination. But in the end, this is still just theory. It doesn’t offer much practical help in overcoming your own struggles with procrastination. That’s why we present you with part two, where we’ll talk about how to make the procrastination equation work to your advantage.

Quick recap…

Okay, so for those of you who are just now tuning in, here’s what this so called ‘procrastination equation’ is all about.

Basically, our tendency to procrastinate on a certain task is governed by four different factors. At the center of it all is motivation, and this motivation is the outcome of these four elements put together in a mathematical formula.

First of all, there’s expectation: are you expecting a positive end result of the task you are doing, or do you believe failure is the most likely option? A high fear of failure will stop you from doing anything, while a high likelihood of success will drive you towards taking action.

Second, value: what’s in it for you? What’s the reward? Is there any reward whatsoever? If you’re doing it for naught, chances are big you’ll end up doing nothing either. If you’re getting a big bag of gold in return for your efforts, you’ll be more inclined to start right away.

Third, impulsiveness. Are you easily distracted? Or are you someone who weighs the pros and cons of your actions carefully and with reason? Someone who can keep his focus on a task at hand without effort? The answer to this question could be decisive.

Fourth, there’s delay. How much time have you got to complete a task? Is your deadline tomorrow, or do you still have a month or two left? The luxury of time is joined by the sin of sloth.

These four add up to:

And this is what decides whether you’ll procrastinate on a task or not.

Your fate is in your hands

You might be wondering: that’s a great theoretical insight, but how does this help me?

First of all, being aware of these elements breaks down procrastination, a previously vague abstract construct, into very concrete parts that you can measure and then influence. As the famous management guru Peter Drucker once said: “What gets measured, gets managed.”. What we will do now, is try to figure out ways to manage your tendency to do absolutely nothing until the last possible moment.

So, without much further ado, let’s go and unwind the knots.

Expectancy (Or How To Become An Optimist)

As we’ve said, expectancy is all about your own expectations. It’s about what you think will happen at the end of the road. As it happens, you can influence your thoughts and master them. So changing expectancy shouldn’t be too hard in theory, should it?

Let’s go a bit more into depth on this. And we’ll start by talking about your outlook on life.

In life, there are people who have a consistently negative view on the future. These are pessimists – people for which the glass is half empty. On the other side of the spectrum, there are optimists – people who think their glass is half full. Both can have a misplaced view, of course. Pessimists might say things will always turn out bad, which might not necessarily be the case. An optimist might say everything will turn out for the best, wearing their rose-tinted glasses, while in reality their chances are meagre. This means both mindsets can lead to an unrealistic view on life.

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. … For myself I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.” – Winston Churchill

While that may be true, pessimists won’t likely ever win any trophies (minus some exceptions), because why even bother to put in any effort if failure is a sure thing?

An optimist on the other hand, has a better chance of succeeding, as he’s more positive on his ability to succeed, and is thus more likely to put in an effort. This can backfire of course, as you could argue that an optimist might not put in any effort because he’ll believe everything will work out fine anyway – which obviously it won’t. But leaning more towards the optimist side of the spectrum is sure to be the more productive attitude, as long as you are optimistic about the right things: not that a positive end result is absolutely guaranteed whatsoever, despite putting in no effort at all. But instead, that the large efforts you put in will lead to such a positive end result.

Don’t believe you’ll pass your exams without needing to study (that’s bad optimism, or even delusion), but believe that you’ll pass your exams if you study hard (good optimism). Definitely don’t ever think that you’ll never pass your exams (pessimism).

You won’t win a war by thinking you’ll lose anyway. But you’ll not be likely to win one if you think you won’t need to fight either.

One last problem: how do you turn yourself into an optimist?

One might think: just endlessly repeat ‘I can do it!’, or ‘Be Positive!’.

Nope. That doesn’t work at all. No worries though, because there actually are ways to instill yourself with the optimist spirit. One such way is using success spirals. You do this by creating a small goal for yourself – one that is easily attainable. When you accomplish this goal, you’ll gain self-confidence, even if it’s a little bit. Then make another goal, this time make it a bit harder, but still well manageable. Keep succeeding and build up your trust in yourself, and optimism will be a natural result.

Value (What’s In It For Me?)

In life, we get few things for free. Sunlight, and the air we breathe. The rest, well, that usually requires a bit of effort to obtain.

Whether a task is valuable to you, or provides an appropriate reward, is mostly dependent on your personal thoughts about what constitutes a proper reward. It depends on which things you care about and which things you don’t.

To be precise, the value a task can give you can be both extrinsic (something you receive as a reward) or intrinsic (the task being rewarding in itself). Tasks that have intrinsic value are fulfilling, while tasks that don’t feel like an awful chore. Great examples of intrinsically valuable tasks are creative efforts, while a job that’s basically line work is hardly intrinsically rewarding at all.

The most powerful thing you could do to make work more inherently rewarding is to find is to find something that you really like doing. For example, there are people who play video games and stream it over the internet, getting millions of views and earning a ton of money. It’s highly unlikely that these people ever procrastinate on the job.

John Cleese was studying to become a lawyer. Then he decided to make a living out of being silly. Which worked out pretty well.

You don’t have to look that far, though. Just think of something you really enjoy doing in your free time and figure out a way to monetize it. In this day and age, it has never been easier to do so, and the internet is filled with entrepreneurs who make money by exploiting their passion. If you’re a fitness enthusiast, maybe try becoming a personal trainer. If you like being creative with your pen, take up copywriting. If you like drinking coffee, train yourself to become a barista.

That being said, getting a new job isn’t that convenient for most people. Easier said than done, I know. So if you prefer to stay where you are right now, your strategy should instead be to find ways to make your current job more inherently rewarding.

For example, to make boring, unattractive work more rewarding, it’s a good idea to gamify it. Try to find out ways you can improve your productivity, set little goals to continuously improve, and your mind will rekindle as you’re able to complete these goals (which feels rewarding). In regards to this, it’s also important that you acknowledge your own success. If you did a good job with something, reward yourself. Allow yourself to have a nice, tasty treat whenever you’ve successfully finished a task in time. This will create a strong motivator to do well.

Example: if you’re studying for your exams and you’re finding it hard to keep your attention to your books, you could give yourself a reward for each chapter you finish today. This doesn’t have to be anything big, maybe allow yourself to watch an episode of your favorite show (but only one!). Or have a cup of coffee and some cookies. Whatever floats your boat.

Impulsiveness (Put A Leash On Your Mind)

This, and I’ll be honest about it, is actually a hard one. This is because impulsiveness is mostly a biological trait. It’s mostly set in stone as soon as you are conceived and there’s not much you can do to change it, aside from some state-of-the-art brain surgery that probably doesn’t exist yet, or and I’m not going to advise you to take some prescription drug.

So brain surgery is out, and so are chemicals. What’s left?

Since impulsiveness is a huge factor in procrastination, it’s important that we find a way around this too. And these days, we do a lot of work on our computer, where internet, video games, YouTube, and social media are present to distract us from the task at hand.

When you’re at work, it’s likely that your company’s network automatically blocks websites that could interfere with your work. Aside from that, you also have your boss and your colleagues around you, which imposes a powerful form of social control.

But these are things that we don’t have access to at home. The best thing to do here is to install a program on your computer that blocks these distractions and is hard to get around, such as (insert shameless advertising) FocusMe.

Yes, you don’t like to compare your brain with a dog. But you get the idea. Put it on a leash.

Eliminate pop-ups and notifications, so you’re not encouraged to check your e-mail every half hour. Instead, set fixed times where you’re allowed to do so, and process your mail in bulk.

This will stop your impulsivity from having the chance of inflicting any damage on your productivity. Since you’re not able to do anything but work on your computer, that’s all you can do.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Even if your PC is made distraction free, there’s still your environment to worry about. If you work in a messy room that has all sorts of interesting things lying about (and when you’re working, lots of usually uninteresting things can suddenly become extremely interesting).

When you’re at work, do so in a clean, tightened up room without a TV, without books, no magazines, definitely no video game console, nor anything else that might unnecessary draw out monkey mind.

What you should definitely not do is try to rely on willpower and self-control. These are limited resources and are easily used up. Besides that, they are also very unreliable allies in your fight against procrastination. At times they might work, but they’re hardly a guarantee. It’s much simpler to just not give yourself the opportunity to get distracted.

Delay (It’s Now Or Never)

The key to dealing with delay might be the easiest one on the list. If you’re given a large period of time to finish a task, or you give yourself such a large period, the chances of procrastination increase. That’s why people who tend to procrastinate will do better in jobs that involve lots of close deadlines, like in journalism. A journalist can’t afford himself to report on the news next week, he has to get the word out as fast as possible, by tomorrow at the latest. If he doesn’t, he’s not a news reporter, but a historian.

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, journalism might be the ideal job for you.

So, an extreme option to deal with your tendency to put things off to a later date would be to find yourself a job that involves many tight deadlines. A more reasonable option is to make a promise to your boss that you’ll get the job done a lot faster, so failure to do so on time will have real consequences. You could also find a co-worker and each make a commitment to achieve some particular task you have been putting off (our friends over at Focusmate have an awesome solution for this). Or cut up a large task into smaller pieces that are easy to achieve, and put them in your calendar, or use the Pomodoro Technique to achieve each small chunk.

It’s key here that you set realistic goals and don’t set yourself up for failure. While it’s possible to write a chapter in a few days, writing an entire book in a week will probably be very hard to pull off.

An added benefit: attaining these small goals will help boost your confidence in your ability to get the larger task done (see the part on optimism above) and create a spiral of optimism.

Another important way to deal with delay is to create routine. Routine is something our brain desperately craves, because if you’re not used to doing something on a regular basis, it requires conscious effort and willpower to start.

On the other hand, if you do perform a task regularly, it will become an automatic habit that you will automatically start to do without conscious effort, even if it’s a rather unpleasant task. Your brain will automatically direct you to do this, without the need of your conscious mind to give any instructions. If it’s automatic, there won’t be any delay.

Optimizing the Equation

The above are all very effective strategies for dealing with procrastination. I would, however, like to add a thought of my own. Everything that’s outlined above talks about things in a general fashion. My belief, however, is that you really have to see a specific objective that you have and devise specific strategies, derived from the Procrastination Equation toolkit, and apply these to that objective. Just reading the book and having these things in mind, applying them half-heartedly, won’t help you at all. And you won’t derive the optimal benefit from it.

One example: you want to write a book. But it’s not working, because you’re procrastinating.

My advice: sit down and carefully devise a battle plan using the above strategies.

Objective number one, instill optimism: When you’re eager to write a novel, first know, that if you put in the effort, it will be a great book. Knowing and believing this, create the ‘spiral of success’ by setting miniature goals: write a chapter every week. After you’ve written that first chapter, your sense of optimism will start to bloom and procrastination will drop with every subsequent one you finish.

Objective number two, increase value. You can do this first and foremost by doing work that you actually care about. Make sure you’re in a job you like doing, study a subject that you’re really passionate about. If that’s not an option, create minigames out of your tasks. Second, create an extrinsic reward for completing your mini-goal successfully. If you’re able to finish studying that subject on time, reward yourself with a new video game, a binge-drinking night out, go out to see a movie or have dinner at a nice restaurant.

Pick something that you really would like to have or would really would like to do. And write this down beforehand, so you’ll have a nice bucket list of gifts to yourself (but don’t go overboard and empty your bank account – the best things in life are free, remember). Reward yourself with a vacation when all the work is done – you’ve earned it.

Here’s a picture of a cat doing mathematics. For no special reason whatsoever.

Objective number three: reducing impulsiveness. We went over this one before – it’s something that has a strong genetic element, and the best thing you can do is create a space for yourself that’s completely devoid from distractions. If possible, create a ‘working room’ in your house with only a table for you to sit at, a room that’s clean and tightened up, with no other ways to distract yourself. Make sure your laptop isn’t connected to the internet, don’t have Steam installed, and if possible, install an app like FocusMe (there we go again with the product placement) that blocks all possible distractions and allows you to maximize productivity. Acknowledge that your brain is easily distracted by its very nature, and don’t rely on willpower but optimize your environment for optimal productivity and minimal procrastination.

Objective number four: reducing delay. Divide a large, daunting task into smaller goals, ideally goals that are measurable and manageable. Set a deadline on these goals. Don’t allow yourself a month to finish your school assignment, but at most a week or even just a day (you can always edit later). Make a bet with a friend that if you can’t make that deadline, you’ll give him a decent amount of money. Even better, force yourself to donate to a charity you hate if you fail. Create real deadlines that have consequences when not following through on them. And create a routine, so conscious effort is not required.

This was just an example of how to implement everything just for one specific goal. I’m sure you might have something else you’ve got problems with – studying, work,…

For each of those tasks, you can use the above toolkit to solve your procrastinating issues, and believe it or not: math will be your best friend. The equation will work in your favor instead of against it. Be creative and you’ll be sure to figure out ways to get it done.

Some last words…

In our first post, we went over the theory, now we put everything into practice.

There’s one caveat: although we gave you the Cliff’s Notes, there’s more that’s discussed in the book itself, so we recommend that you pick it up if you have problems getting things done.

That being said, we hope you’ve found this blog article useful, and we hope it will help you in leading a more productive life.

See you next time,

Jon

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