Never put off till tomorrow,
what you can do the day after tomorrow.
This book is about every promise you made to yourself but broke. It is about every goal you set but let slide, never finding the motivation. It is about diets postponed, late-night scrambles to finish projects, and disappointed looks from the people who depend on you—or from the one you see in the mirror. It is about being the slacker in your family and the straggler in your circle of friends. It is about that menacing cloud of uncompleted chores, from the late bill payments to the clutter that fills your home. It is about that doctor’s appointment you have been putting off and the finances still in disarray. It is about dawdling, delay, opportunity lost, and more. Much more. This book is also about the other side, the moments of action when procrastination gives way to crystal clarity and attention, work is devoured without hesitation, and giving up never even occurs to you. It is about personal transformation, about unencumbered desire free of internal competition, and the guiltless leisure you can enjoy when your daily tasks are done. This book is about potential, wasted and fulfilled; about dreams that fade into obscurity and dreams we can make come true. Best of all, this book is about shifting the rest of your life away from putting it off to getting it done.
The pivot point that tips us away from accomplishing what we want and need to do is procrastination. It isn’t a question of laziness, although the two are easily confused. Unlike the truly slothful, procrastinators want to do what they need to do—and usually do get around to it, but not without a lot of struggle. I will show that this dillydallying is in part hereditary, and that we are hardwired to delay. Our tendency to put things off took a hundred million years to form and is now almost etched into our being. But research shows that, despite its ingrained nature, we can modify our habits and change this behavior. Procrastinators who understand the processes behind their inaction can master them and become less stressed about their deadlines and more able to meet them.
This book tells procrastination’s story. It stretches from Memphis of ancient Egypt to modern New York City, from the cancer ward to the stock market floor. I hope to enlighten you about why we procrastinate, what comes of procrastination, and what strategies we can employ to do something about it. We will start off simply, establishing what procrastination is, helping you decide whether you are a procrastinator, and if so, how you likely experience a bout of procrastination. If you are a procrastinator—and the odds are good that you are—you are part of a very large community indeed. It is time we all got to know each other a little bit better.
WHAT PROCRASTINATION IS AND ISN’T
There is so much confusion about procrastination that it is best to lay our subject bare on the dissecting table and start immediately separating the dilly from the dally. By procrastinating you are not just delaying, though delay is an integral part of what you are doing. Procrastination comes from the Latin pro, which means “forward, forth, or in favor of,” and crastinus, which means “of tomorrow.” But procrastination means so much more than its literal meaning. Prudence, patience, and prioritizing all have elements of delay, yet none means the same as procrastination. Since its first appearance in the English language in the sixteenth century, procrastination has identified not just any delay but an irrational one—that is, when we voluntarily put off tasks despite believing ourselves to be worse off for doing so. When we procrastinate, we know we are acting against our own best interests.
Still, you will find people mischaracterizing wise delays as procrastination. Seeing a co-worker stretched out in his office chair, arms crossed behind his head, relaxed, you ask what he is up to and get a cheerful response of “Me? I’m procrastinating!” But he isn’t. He is happily putting off a report because he knows there is a good chance that the project is going to be cancelled later this week, and if it isn’t, well, he can still definitely write it at the last minute anyway. This is smart. In this scenario, it is the person who compulsively has to finish everything as soon as possible who is irrational, tackling work even when it is destined to become irrelevant. The obsessive who completes every task at the first opportunity can be just as dysfunctional as the procrastinator who leaves everything to the last moment. Neither one is scheduling time intelligently.
Consequently, it isn’t procrastination if you fail to arrive at a party far earlier than everyone else or if you don’t get to the airport for your flight three hours in advance. By delaying a little bit, you save awkward moments with your host, who is likely still getting things ready, and you will be spared uncomfortable hours at your gate waiting for your plane to take off. Neither is it procrastination to respond to emergencies by dropping (and putting off) everything else. Insisting that you should finish mowing the front lawn before attending to your house, which has just caught fire, isn’t smart. Sure, you didn’t put off trimming the grass, but the charred ruin of your home is too high a price to pay. Alternatively, flexibly adapting your schedule to respond to the pressing needs of a spouse or a child will likely save you from ruining your family. Not everything can happen at once; it is in your choice of what to do now and what to delay that procrastination happens, not in delay itself.
YOU THE PROCRASTINATOR
Now that we understand what procrastination is, do you practice it? Where do you land in the ranks of procrastination? Are you a garden-variety dillydallier or are you hardcore with “tomorrow” tattooed across your back? There are some entertaining methods that may reveal your propensity to procrastinate. To begin, check your handwriting. If it is sluggish and disjointed, it may indicate you are likewise. Alternatively, look to the stars . . . well, really the planets. Astrologers note that when Mercury is in retrograde or in opposition to Jupiter, procrastination tends to be on the uptick.1 Or try a tarot card reading. The “Two of Swords” often indicates you are split with a dilemma and procrastinating on your decision. Personally, I prefer a more scientific approach.
You can go to my website, www.procrastinus.com, for a comprehensive test that I’ve administered to tens of thousands of subjects, and compare your level of irrational delay with those of individuals around the world. However, if time is pressing and you wish not to delay, you might try the shorter quiz provided below. Complete the mini-version here by circling your response to each of these nine items and then calculating the total. Note that questions 2, 5, and 8 are scored in the opposite direction from the other items:
1. VERY SELDOM OR NOT TRUE OF ME
2. SELDOM TRUE OF ME
3. SOMETIMES TRUE OF ME
4. OFTEN TRUE OF ME
5. VERY OFTEN TRUE OR TRUE OF ME
1. I delay tasks beyond what is reasonable.
1 2 3 4 5
2. I do everything when I believe it needs to be done.
5 4 3 2 1
3. I often regret not getting to tasks sooner.
1 2 3 4 5
4. There are aspects of my life that I put off, though I know I shouldn’t.
1 2 3 4 5
5. If there is something I should do, I get to it before attending to lesser tasks.
5 4 3 2 1
6. I put things off so long that my well-being or efficiency unnecessarily suffers.
1 2 3 4 5
7. At the end of the day, I know I could have spent the time better.
1 2 3 4 5
8. I spend my time wisely.
5 4 3 2 1
9. When I should be doing one thing, I will do another.
1 2 3 4 5
TOTAL SCORE _______
19 or less
COMPARED TO EVERYONE ELSE
You are in the bottom 10%
Your mantra is “first-things-first”
COMPARED TO EVERYONE ELSE
You are in the bottom 10-25%
COMPARED TO EVERYONE ELSE
You are in the middle 50%
COMPARED TO EVERYONE ELSE
You are in the top 10-25%
37 or more
COMPARED TO EVERYONE ELSE
You are in the top 10%
Tomorrow is your middle name
Where did you end up? Are you legendary for leaving things to the last minute or do you only put off exercising and taxes, like almost everyone else?
The higher you scored on that procrastination test, the greater the chance that you are procrastinating right now. Certain other tasks should be occupying your attention—which sadly means you have better things to do than reading this book. These tasks are likely unpleasant, possibly administrative and boring, and perhaps difficult to visualize as being successfully accomplished. Let me make a few guesses about what is on your plate:
• Is your laundry basket overflowing?
• Are there dirty dishes in the sink?
• Do your smoke detectors need new batteries?
• How about your car battery? What is the air pressure in your tires and how long has it been since the last oil change?
• Isn’t there a ticket to book, a room to reserve, a bag to pack, a passport to renew?
• Have you informed your boss about your vacation plans?
• Have you bought a gift for that upcoming birthday?
• Have you filled out your time sheets, performance reviews, and expense reports?
• Did you hold that difficult conversation with the employee whose work is not up to par?
• Have you scheduled the meeting you are dreading?
• What about the big project your boss gave you? Are you making progress?
• Did you make it to the gym this week?
• Have you called your mom?
How does that list strike you? You can add to it, of course. Even if I didn’t score a direct hit, you were likely procrastinating somewhere else, pushing a task into the future. On its own, each of these postponed tasks has few repercussions. Together, they can culminate in misery by nibbling away at your life. The major project, the one with the hard deadline, is the mother of all such concerns; it can keep you awake at night and make it difficult to accomplish any of the other tasks on your list. At one time or another, we have all felt motivationally marooned and unable to get around to the report, the research, the writing, the presentation to prep, or the exam to ace.
There is a common pattern to all procrastination and it goes something like this. At the start of a big project, time is abundant. You wallow in its elastic embrace. You make a few passes at getting down to it, but nothing makes you feel wholeheartedly engaged. If the job can be forgotten, you’ll forget it. Then the day arrives when you really intend to get down to work; but suddenly it’s just something you don’t feel like doing. You can’t get traction. Every time you try to wrap your mind around it, something distracts you, defeating your attempts at progress. So you forward your task to a date with more hours, only to find that every tomorrow seems to have the same twenty-four. At the end of each of these days, you face the disquieting mystery of where it went. This goes on for a while.
Eventually, time’s limited nature reveals itself. Hours, once tossed carelessly away, become increasingly limited and precious. That very pressure makes it hard to get started. You want to get going on the big project but instead you take on peripheral chores. You clean your office or clean up your e-mail; you exercise; you shop and cook. Part of you knows this isn’t what you should be doing, and so you say to yourself, “I am doing this; at least I am preparing by doing something.” Eventually, it is too late in the day to really get started, so you may as well go to bed. And the cycle of avoidance starts again with the dawn.
Sometimes, to quell your anxiety, you give in to total diversion. You take a moment to check your e-mail or the sports scores. From there, why not respond to a few messages or watch a few minutes of TV? Soon these temptations have seduced you. The task still waggles itself in the periphery of your vision, but you don’t want to look it in the eye—it will have you if you look—so you burrow deeper into your distractions. You write long passionate comments on online forums, troll for news tidbits, or manically switch TV channels at the first ebb of interest. Pleasure turns to powerlessness as you become unable to extract yourself.
As the deadline approaches, you make the diversions more intense so that they will sufficiently distract you. Banishing anything that reminds you of the dreaded thing, you shun calendars and timepieces. In a willful distortion of reality, you shift your plans from what you once could solidly accomplish to what is minimally possible. When you should be working harder than ever, you are sleeping in, daydreaming of alternative worlds, of winning the lottery, of being anywhere but here. As anxiety mounts, you want immediate relief, escape, rewards—anything that gives you the illusion of safe harbor. If friends or relatives or co-workers try to separate you from your diversions, you meet them with an annoyed: “Just a minute! I’LL DO IT AFTER THIS!” Unfortunately, “this” never ends. Secretly, you are full of self-recrimination and self-doubt, envious of those who simply get things done.
Energy builds until finally a threshold is crossed and something clicks. You start working. Some inner mind has quietly boiled the task down to its essence, as there are no more moments to spare. You wade into the work, making ruthless decisions and astonishing progress. In place of that menacing cloudiness, a glittering clarity comes over you. There is purity to your work, fueled by the real urgency of now or never. For a lucky few, this surge of efficiency will enable them to get the project done. For others, this initial rush wanes before the cursed thing is completed. After too many hours of sleepless concentration, brains shut down. Caffeine and sugar only offer an unsatisfying buzz. Tick, tock . . . the time has run out. You limp across the finish line with insufficient preparation, giving the world your second best.
This is so common as to be unremarkable—except to the person who has suffered through the experience and knows the performance was not up to par. The relief at getting a job done doesn’t always make up for doing a sloppy job. Even if you managed to perform brilliantly, the achievement is tainted with a whiff of what might have been. And this kind of procrastination has likely cast a cloud on an evening out, a party, or a vacation, which you couldn’t fully enjoy because half of your mind was elsewhere, obsessing about what you were avoiding. You resolve that this will never happen again; the cost of procrastination is too great.
The trouble with such resolutions is that procrastination is a habit that tends to endure. Instead of dealing with our delays, we excuse ourselves from them—self-deception and procrastination often go hand-in-hand.2 Exploiting the thin line between couldn’t and wouldn’t, we exaggerate the difficulties we faced and come up with justifications: a bad chest cold, an allergic reaction that caused sleepiness, a friend’s crisis that demanded our attention. Or we deflect responsibility entirely by saying, “Gee whiz, who knew?” If you couldn’t have anticipated the situation, then you can’t be blamed. For example, how would you respond to the following questions regarding your last bout of procrastination?
• Did you know the task was going to take so long?
• Did you realize that the consequences of being late were so dire?
• Could you have expected that last-minute emergency?
The honest answers are likely yes, yup, and definitely, but it’s difficult to answer honestly, isn’t it? And that is the problem.
Some procrastinators will even try to frame their self-destructive inaction as a thoughtful choice. For example, is it wrong to put off your career to pursue more family time? It depends on who you are. Some people relish the work-focused model of success, resenting time taken away from the job, and so they may miss out on family dinners and school plays. Others prosper in the home and community, enjoying the relationships nurtured there, at the expense of tasks at work. To the casual observer, it isn’t easy to tell which choice is procrastination and which is a purposeful decision. Only the procrastinator knows for sure.
In the back of their minds, many procrastinators hope they won’t need excuses. They bank on Lady Luck. Sometimes it works. Frank Lloyd Wright drew his architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater, in the three hours before his patron, Edgar Kaufmann, came to see the sketches. Tom Wolfe cranked out in a midnight panic forty-nine pages of almost unedited prose for an Esquire magazine piece on California’s hotrod and custom car culture. Byron Dobell, his editor, simply removed “Dear Byron” from the top of Wolfe’s memo and printed it under the title “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and a new style of journalism was born. But I don’t need to tell you how rare such outcomes are. By your own standards, if you thought delay was a good idea in the first place, you wouldn’t be procrastinating.
THE PROCRASTINATOR’S PROFILE
If it makes you feel any better, procrastination puts us in good company. It’s as common as morning coffee. Across scores of surveys, about 95 percent of people admit to procrastinating, with about a quarter of these indicating that it is a chronic, defining characteristic.3 “To stop procrastinating” is at any time among the world’s top reported goals.4 Procrastination is so prevalent that it has its own brand of humor. Possibly the best excuse for missing a deadline came from Dorothy Parker. When asked by The New Yorker’s editor, Harold Ross, for a piece that was late, she woefully explained, using her dark and sorrowful eyes to full effect, “Somebody was using the pencil.” And, of course, there is the most infamous of all procrastination jokes. Don’t you know it? I will tell you later.
No occupational category seems immune from procrastination, but writers seem especially prone. Agatha Christie was guilty of it and Margaret Atwood admitted she often spends “the morning procrastinating and worrying, and then plunges into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3:00 p.m.” Newscasters can also suffer from it; witness Ted Koppel’s quip: “My parents and teachers used to be exasperated by the fact I would wait until the last minute, and now people are fascinated by it.”5 Procrastinators come from every letter of the occupational alphabet, from astronauts to Episcopalian priests and from X-ray technicians to zookeepers.6 Unfortunately, whatever the job, procrastinators are more likely to be unemployed or working part-time compared to their non-procrastinating counterparts. Procrastinators can be of either sex, though the Y chromosome has a slight edge. A group of a hundred hardened procrastinators would likely be composed of 54 men and 46 women, leaving 8 unmatched males vying for a female dalliance. You see, procrastinators tend to be available . . . sort of. They are more likely to be single than married but also more likely to be separated than divorced. They put off ending as well as beginning commitment. Age also determines procrastination.7 As we progress from grade school through to the retirement home and the closer we come to life’s final deadline, the less we put off. Those who have matured physically are, unsurprisingly, more mature in character.
This demographic exploration, though interesting, isn’t as useful as identifying procrastinators by their psychological profile. There is indeed a core trait explaining why we put off, but it might not be what you have heard. It is commonly thought that we delay because we are perfectionists, anxious about living up to sky-high standards.8 This perfectionist theory of procrastination sounds good and even feels good. Perfectionism can be a desirable trait, as shown by the canned response to the interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?” When Bill Rancic was asked that question just before winning the first season of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, he replied, “I’m too much of a perfectionist; it’s a flaw,” prompting his interviewer to interject, “Being a perfectionist is a good thing; it means you keep striving.” But the perfectionism-procrastination theory doesn’t pan out. Based on tens of thousands of participants—it’s actually the best-researched topic in the entire procrastination field—perfectionism produces a negligible amount of procrastination. When the counseling psychologist Robert Slaney developed the Almost Perfect Scale to measure perfectionism, he found that “perfectionists were less likely to procrastinate than non-perfectionists, a result that contradicted the anecdotal literature.”9 My research backs him up: neat, orderly, and efficient perfectionists don’t tend to dillydally.10
How, then, did we come to believe that perfectionism causes procrastination? Here is what happened. Perfectionists who procrastinate are more likely to seek help from therapists, so of course they turn up in clinical research about procrastination in greater numbers. Non-perfectionist procrastinators (and for that matter, non-procrastinating perfectionists) are less likely to seek professional help. Perfectionists are more motivated to do something about their failings because they are more likely to feel worse about whatever they are putting off. Consequently, it is not perfectionism that is the problem but the discrepancy between perfectionist standards and performance.11 If you are a perfectionist and are suffering from high standards that are unachievable, you might want to do something about that too, but you will need an additional book: this one is about procrastination.
What is really the main source of procrastination? Thirty years of research and hundreds of studies have isolated several personality traits that predict procrastination, but one trait stands above the rest. The Achilles Heel of procrastination turns out to be impulsiveness; that is, living impatiently in the moment and wanting it all now.12 Showing self-control or delaying gratification is difficult for those of us who are impulsive. We just don’t have much ability to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.13 Impulsiveness also determines how we respond to task anxiety. For those of us who are less impulsive, anxiety is often an internal cue that gets us to start a project early, but for those who are more impulsive it is a different story: anxiety over a deadline will lead straight to procrastination.14 The impulsive try to avoid an anxiety-provoking task temporarily or block it from their awareness, a tactic that makes perfect sense if you’re thinking short term. In addition, impulsiveness leads procrastinators to be disorganized and distractible or, as my colleague Henri Schouwenburg puts it, to suffer from “weak impulse control, lack of persistence, lack of work discipline, lack of time management skill, and the inability to work methodically.”15 In other words, impulsive people find it difficult to plan work ahead of time and even after they start, they are easily distracted. Procrastination inevitably follows.
So there it is. Procrastination is pervasive. Almost as common as gravity and with an equal downward pull, it is with us from the overfull kitchen garbage can in the morning to the nearly empty tube of toothpaste at night. In the next chapter, I’ll let you in on the research that has helped me understand why we delay things irrationally and why procrastination is so widespread. I’ll reveal and explain the Procrastination Equation, a formula that shows the dynamics of this way of behaving, and then I’ll tell you about the amazing opportunity I had to study this phenomenon in the real world. Subsequent chapters will describe the different elements that are at play in our minds and hearts, and then we’ll look at the price of procrastination in our lives and in society at large. There’s always a good side to the kind of research I present—within the causes we can also find the cures. So the last part of the book will offer ways in which individuals, bosses, teachers, and parents can improve their own motivation and motivate others, in the hope that procrastination will be less of a scourge. The final chapter pushes you to put these proven practices into your own life. The advice here is evidence-based, as scientifically vetted and pharmaceutically pure as it gets; it’s the good stuff from behind the counter, so don’t overdo it.
THE RESULT OF EIGHT HUNDRED STUDIES PLUS ONE
My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself doing what
I really hate, and not doing what I really want to do!
Rejection is wearing thin on Eddie during his first sales job. He attentively attended each sales seminar, read all the recommended books, and dutifully repeats the positive affirmations “I can do it! I am a winner!” each morning in the mirror. Still, after another day without a sale he is looking at his phone with dread. As he picks it up and cold calls another prospect, the only response he anticipates hearing is yet another “I am in a meeting” or “click” as they hang up halfway through his introduction. Indeed, he is brushed off once again. “What is the point?” Eddie asks himself. Demoralized, he organizes his desk, fills out all the paperwork to update his benefits package, and surfs the Internet to get insights about competitors' products. He puts off his phone calls until later—the dregs of the day when most of his potential clients are leaving for home. His boss checks in on him and recognizes the signs. Eddie’s decision to delay is the beginning of the end of his sales career.
Valerie’s face is as blank as her computer screen. She stares at it, knowing that words should be there, words written by her, but nothing appears. Not even a letter. “Why? Why?” she wonders. It is not like she hasn’t done pieces like this before, but for some reason this assignment on municipal politics due tomorrow is mind numbing. “Write,” she thinks, “Press your fingers into the keyboard.” In response, “asdfkh” appears on the screen. Better than nothing. Convincing herself she needs a short break from interminable boredom, Valerie starts texting her friends who direct her to a nifty website spoofing popular bands. After watching a few music videos, she finds a satire site on television shows and texts that link back to her friends. Soon, Val’s virtual group is trying to one-up each other to find the funnier and cleverer clip. Hours go by, then it dawns on her that it is near the end of day and she feels even less inspired than when she first chose to take that “short break.” She dives into the writing but the end product reflects the effort and time put into it. It’s crap.
The vacation plans are set! Tom is for once ahead of the ball, booking time off in advance to fly to the Dominican Republic. Thanks to his foresight he even paid for his flight on points from his frequent-flyer program. The only detail left is to reserve a room at a hotel, but that can be done at anytime. But what can be done at anytime is often done at no time. As the months slip by, Tom pushes the task forward to each sub-sequent week or forgets about it altogether. There is always something more pressing to attend to, like his favorite television show. Finally, as he thinks about what to pack, he realizes that there are no more weeks to push the task forward into and that he has left it far too late. He goes online and, finding little available, makes a hurried and haphazard reservation. When his plane later sets down in the Dominican, he hopes that his hotel is as beautiful as the island. It isn’t. It’s too far from the beach, his room is decorated with dead mosquitoes, adjoins a disgusting bathroom, and the hotel dining gives him food poisoning.
Eddie, Valerie, and Tom are all procrastinators but they are not identical. Just as a car can stop running because of an empty gas tank, a blown tire, or a dead battery, there are a multitude of causes for procrastination—even if the outward behavior is the same. Eddie, Valerie, and Tom all procrastinated for different underlying reasons and each one represents a facet of the Procrastination Equation, the mathematical formula I derived that describes irrational delay. Understanding why Eddie, Valerie, and Tom put off their respective tasks is the essence of this book. To this end, we are going to do a little more assessment. In the last chapter, we established the degree to which you procrastinate. In this chapter, we are going to find out why you put things off. Are you an Eddie, a Valerie, a Tom or some hybrid of all three? Take this test by circling your response to each of the following 24 items and find out:
1. VERY SELDOM OR NOT TRUE OF ME
2. SELDOM TRUE OF ME
3. SOMETIMES TRUE OF ME
4. OFTEN TRUE OF ME
5. VERY OFTEN TRUE OR TRUE OF ME
1. When I put in the hours, I am successful.
1 2 3 4 5
2. Uninteresting work defeats me.
1 2 3 4 5
3. I get into jams because I will get entranced by some temporarily delightful activity.
1 2 3 4 5
4. When I apply myself, I see the results.
1 2 3 4 5
5. I wish my job was enjoyable.
1 2 3 4 5
6. I take on new tasks that seem fun at first without thinking through the repercussions.
1 2 3 4 5
7. If I try hard enough, I will succeed.
1 2 3 4 5
8. My work activities seem pointless.
1 2 3 4 5
9. When a temptation is right before me, the craving can be intense.
1 2 3 4 5
10. I am confident that my efforts will be rewarded.
1 2 3 4 5
11. Work bores me.
1 2 3 4 5
12. My actions and words satisfy my short-term pleasures rather than my long-term goals.
1 2 3 4 5
13. I am persistent and resourceful.
1 2 3 4 5
14. I lack enthusiasm to follow through with my responsibilities.
1 2 3 4 5
15. When an attractive diversion comes my way, I am easily swayed.
1 2 3 4 5
16. Whatever problems come my way, I will eventually rise above them.
1 2 3 4 5
17. When a task is tedious, again and again I find myself pleasantly daydreaming rather than focusing.
1 2 3 4 5
18. I have a hard time postponing pleasurable opportunities as they crop up.
1 2 3 4 5
19. I can overcome difficulties with the necessary effort.
1 2 3 4 5
20. I don’t find my work enjoyable.
1 2 3 4 5
21. I choose smaller but more immediate pleasures over those larger but more delayed.
1 2 3 4 5
22. Winning is within my control.
1 2 3 4 5
23. If an activity is boring, my mind slips off into other diversions.
1 2 3 4 5
24. It takes a lot for me to delay gratification.
1 2 3 4 5
To score, add up your answers to each of the following questions:
Eddie’s Scale = 1 + 4 + 7 + 10 + 13 + 16 +19 + 22 =
Valerie’s Scale = 2 + 5 + 8 + 11 + 14 + 17 + 20 + 23 =
Tom’s Scale = 3 + 6 + 9 + 12 + 15 + 18 + 21 + 24 =
If you scored 24 or lower for Eddie’s Scale, you have some similarities with his situation. On the other hand, if you scored 24 or higher for Valerie’s Scale or Tom’s Scale, you really should give them a call as you have a lot in common. You see, Eddie, Valerie, and Tom represent respectively the three basic elements of motivation: Expectancy, Value, and Time. Once you grasp their situations, you will understand the components of the Procrastination Equation. After this, we will look at how each of these pieces fits together with the others to form the overall formula. Yes, there will be math, but don’t balk. A version of this principle was illustrated within just two glossy pages of Yes! The Science Magazine for Kids. If twelve-year-olds can get it, so will you.
LOW EXPECTANCY EDDIE
Eddie’s story is regrettably common in sales. Rejection is part and parcel of the job, and most sales people receive an ungodly number of “no’s” before they get a “yes,” especially at the beginning of their careers. Many aspiring salespeople, like Eddie, succumb to this steady stream of rebuffs and find themselves lacking the motivation to perform; it takes especially resilient people to rise above relentless negativity. What is sapping Eddie’s motivation and causing his procrastination? It is Expectancy—what he expects will happen. After a series of attempts that all resulted in failure, he began to expect failure even before he started. High expectancy forms the core of self-confidence and optimism: but if you start believing your goals aren’t achievable, you stop effectively pursuing them. Consequently, if during your self-assessment you disagreed with statements like “I am confident that my efforts will be rewarded” or “Winning is within my control,” you are like low-expectancy Eddie.
The results from thirty-nine procrastination studies consisting of almost seven thousand people indicate that while some procrastination stems from overconfidence, the opposite is far more common. Procrastinators are typically less confident, especially about the tasks they are putting off. If you are procrastinating about schoolwork, you likely consider the assignment difficult. If you are procrastinating about getting healthier, by starting an exercise program, for example, or by eating better, odds are that you question your ability to follow through. And, if you are unemployed, you are likely procrastinating on your job search because you are discouraged about your chances of getting hired.
The seminal work of Martin Seligman, one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, demonstrates the connection between lack of self-confidence or optimism and procrastination.1 If you love dogs, as I do, please try to forgive Dr. Seligman; he experimented by jolting canines with electricity.2a The gist of what he did was to yoke together two sets of dogs, and zap them at random intervals. Both sets received the same electric shocks and for the same duration, but the first group could press a lever that terminated the shocks for all the dogs. The second group had no control and was entirely dependent on their counterparts for ending the agony. Seligman then changed the setup; he tested both sets of dogs again but this time in a shuttle-box divided by a low barrier. One side of the box became electrified and all the dogs had the possibility of escaping simply by jumping over the partition. The first group of dogs, who previously had control of the lever, readily learned to jump over the barrier. The second group had also learned something from their previous experience. When the box was electrified, they didn’t jump, but lay down and took the shock. Like low-expectancy Eddie, these dogs had learned that what they did made no difference; they had learned they were helpless.2
Learned helplessness is connected to quickly giving up, whether in a complacent acceptance of a prolonged sickness or in a lackluster school performance. Learned helplessness also helps explain why putting off decisions more than usual is one of the symptoms of depression.3 The underlying cause is reduced self-confidence, which makes it difficult to invest in any demanding work.4 On balance, a degree of learned helplessness is common. Many of us have been in situations where our world was seemingly not set up for our success. For low-expectancy Eddie, it was his sales job; for someone else it may have been a harsh upbringing in which family or classmates enforced rigid roles. Restraining beliefs can become internalized and be carried within us long after we leave the home or schoolyard where they started. Our learned self-perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—by expecting to fail, we make failure a certainty. We never dig in and really try, and the end result is more procrastination.
VALERIE WITHOUT VALUE
How do you feel about what you are putting off right now? As you reflect on the question, you will be channeling Valerie. Like her, with her sluggish attempts at writing on municipal politics, we all tend to put off whatever we dislike. Consequently, that chore you are currently deferring is probably something you don’t especially enjoy. The technical term for this measure of enjoyment is Value and the less of it a task has for you, the harder it is for you to get started on it. We have no problem initiating lengthy conversations with friends over a few drinks and a decadent dessert, but most of us delay starting on our taxes or cleaning out our basement. Similarly, the top reason that students give for essay procrastination is that they “really dislike writing term papers.”2b Although the fact that we are less likely to promptly pursue an unpleasant task may seem pretty obvious, the scientific field lacks your insight. Scientists have committed over a dozen studies involving a good two thousand respondents to reach the same conclusion. Well, at least now we are sure.
To the degree that some tasks are universally burdensome, they reveal some touchstones of procrastination.5 Since everyone wants to put off whatever they detest, it is no surprise that we commonly avoid cleaning up, or organizing, or seeing our doctor or dentist.6 Since many find exercising an imposition, 70 percent of us rarely use our long-term gym memberships.7 Similarly, many find Christmas shopping stressful, thus helping to keep Christmas Eve the busiest shopping day of the year.8 On the other hand, to the degree that individuals consider certain chores uniquely unpleasant, the exact bundle of procrastinating tasks will differ from person to person. Depending on the nature of their dillydallying owners, some households contain kitchen counters cluttered with dishes, while others have medicine cabinets stuffed with long-defunct prescriptions. Some have fridges needing to be filled with food, while others have dining room tables needing to be filled with friends.
Given the connection between what is pleasurable and what is promptly pursued, it makes sense, then, that chronic procrastinators tend to detest life’s allotment of responsibilities. Their jobs, their chores, their duties are all irksome, and they avoid tackling these tasks as long as possible. If you agreed with statements like “Work bores me” or “I lack enthusiasm to follow through with my responsibilities,” the absence of pleasurable value is likely a source of your procrastination. Laundry makes you listless, cooking makes you crabby, and washing dishes and paying the bills are hardships rather than innocuous incidentals. You have tremendous difficulty keeping your attention on the mundane. For you, boredom signals irrelevance and your mind slides off to something else.9 This very characteristic has provided me with quite a challenge in writing this book. I am painfully aware of your fickle nature and your unforgiving attention span—meaning that I'd better keep a lively pace at all times. In other words, ever onward.
While Eddie’s Expectancy and Valerie’s Value are contributing factors to procrastination, Tom’s reason is at its core. Tom had to book a hotel room but couldn’t find the motivation until just before the deadline, letting himself get distracted every time he made an intention to act. When he finally did do something, he knew he should have acted earlier and he suffered for his tardiness. In all likelihood, if you procrastinate, you feel some kinship with Tom and have admitted that you too “get into jams” because you are “entranced by some temporarily delightful activity” or that you “choose smaller but more immediate pleasures over those larger but more delayed.” The biggest factor in determining what you pursue is not the associated rewards or the certainty of receiving them, but their timing. You value rewards that can be realized quickly far more highly than rewards that require you to wait; simply, you are impulsive.
As I mentioned in the last chapter, scientific evidence of the connection between impulsiveness and procrastination is unequivocal. Scores of studies based on many thousands of people have established that impulsiveness and the related personality traits of low conscientiousness, low self-control, and high distractibility are at the core of procrastination. I myself have collected personality profiles from more than twenty thousand people to take a closer look. And I found confirmation that of these traits, impulsiveness shares the strongest bond with procrastination. This isn’t surprising if you look at specific aspects of impulsiveness: intense cravings, a lack of caution and reserve, and an inability to see tasks through.10 Though all have their role in why we put things off, the last of these is almost equivalent to procrastination in itself: not seeing tasks through means agreeing to statements like “I'm not good about pacing myself so as to get things done on time.” People who act without thinking, who are unable to keep their feelings under control, who act on impulse, are also people who procrastinate.
The influence of time itself also contributes to the connection between impulsiveness and procrastination. We tend to see tomorrow’s goals and concerns abstractly—that is, in broad and indistinct terms—but to see today’s immediate goals and concerns concretely—that is, with lots of detail on the particulars of who, what, where, and when. Actions or goals framed in abstract terms, like “engaging in self-development,” are less likely to be immediately pursued than goals framed in concrete terms, like “reading this book.”11 Similarly, the broad goal of “exercising” is less motivating than “running for an hour,” and “getting a promotion” is harder to act on than the more immediate goal of “writing this report.” Since we consistently frame long-term goals abstractly, the result is that we are more likely to postpone them, at least until they become short-term goals and we start thinking about them concretely. Psychologists Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope have recently specialized in the scientific study of this phenomenon, but the basics aren’t that new. David Hume wrote about the same thing over 250 years ago in his book A Treatise of Human Nature.12
Right now, if you like, you can experience the influence of time on whether you view events concretely or abstractly. Let’s plan a shopping trip for the distant future, say next year. Take a moment and imagine yourself twelve months from now. What would you buy? Do you have a clear picture or is the vision cloudy and smudged? Now imagine the money currently warming your pocket. If you had to spend it today, this very moment, where exactly would that money go? Likely, what you plan to buy a year from now seems generic, as vanilla as “nice shoes” or “good sports equipment.” Such goals are ghosts, ethereal and with no handles to grab onto. Today’s spending plans, however, are likely concrete and meaty, something you can sink your teeth into. Instead of “shoes,” they are Manolo Blahnik’s “Sizzle,” the python sandal that will make you the envy of every shoe fetishist. Rather than just “sporting goods,” you are obsessing over a TaylorMade Quad r7 425 TP Driver, the one with the oversized titanium sweet spot, used by the pros on the PGA tour. As you contrast these concrete and abstract options, the differences in their ability to excite you should be palpable. This is procrastination’s dark heart. It is largely because we view the present in concrete terms and the future abstractly that we procrastinate.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Eddie’s, Valerie’s, and Tom’s situations—that is Expectancy, Value, and Time—are the basic components of procrastination. Decrease the certainty or the size of a task’s reward—its expectancy or its value—and you are unlikely to pursue its completion with any vigor. Increase the delay for the task’s reward and our susceptibility to delay—impulsiveness—and motivation also dips. Understanding procrastination at this component level isn’t bad, but we can do better.2c
The first step is to figure out how Expectancy and Value fit together. To this end, we can tap into an entire family of formulations called Expectancy Theories, the most famous being Expected Utility Theory. You might not have heard of it by that name but you are more familiar with it than you know. Expected Utility Theory forms the basis of mainstream economics; every successful gambler adheres to its rule. It proposes that people make their decisions by multiplying expectancy and value together. That is:
EXPECTANCY × VALUE
Here is how it works. Imagine there are two piles of money in front of you. The one on the right I will definitely give you—very nice of me—but the one on the left I probably won’t. If you could ask for only one pile, which would it be? My bet is that you would take the sure thing, revealing how expectancy affects your decisions. Expectancy, as you might expect, refers to probability or chance. We prefer more likely to less likely rewards. However, what if I told you the sure thing on the right was a much smaller pile of money than the riskier one on the left? This is actually a pretty common situation, like choosing whether to put your money into riskless but low rate government bonds or to speculate on the stock market. To make sense of your options, now you have to incorporate value into your decision making in order to judge how much bigger the pile needs to be to inspire you to take more risk. As I vary the size of a pile and the probability of you receiving it, your preferences will flip from right to left and vice versa. The formula “Expectancy × Value” does a fair job of predicting which pile you would end up choosing. Multiplying the two together, you go with whatever pile has the highest outcome. Economists try to understand all of human behavior using just this equation. From their viewpoint, every choice you make—from pouring milk on your cereal to wiping your child’s nose—is based on how much pleasure you will receive and the degree of certainty that you will receive it. Unfortunately, they are wrong.
You can’t rely on “Expectancy × Value” alone to describe human nature. For starters, the theory is considered an expression of rational decision making, meaning that it doesn’t leave room for any form of irrational behavior. No matter what you do, from eating an ice cream cone to getting hooked on heroin, it is all reasonable from an economist’s perspective. Consequently, their theory also excludes the possibility of procrastination—irrational delays—and since I am currently writing a book on the topic and you are currently reading one, let’s consider this a weakness.13 The economic model of human nature isn’t so much incorrect as just incomplete. Consistently, we do respond to incentives (i.e., value) to the extent we believe (i.e., expect) that they are obtainable, but that isn’t the entire picture. There is a third factor—time.
Economists need to update how their model of human nature deals with time, and I'm not the only one saying so. Back in 1991, in a lecture aptly titled “Procrastination and Obedience,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof spoke to the American Economic Association about how his field would be better off if it considered how we irrationally find present costs more salient than future costs. In the following year, George Loewenstein, an economics professor from Yale, co-authored Choice Over Time, which reviews how economics can best include time. Since then, behavioral economics, a sub-speciality of economics that integrates time, has opened up, with researchers such as Ted O'Donoghue and Matthew Rabin studying procrastination specifically. These behavioral economists are simply using observations of the world to refine their model, which is like using feedback from your eyes to keep the car on the road. Sounds very, you know . . . rational.
The theory of time that these behavioral economists are most attracted to is from the psychological field of behaviorism. Behaviorists developed a little equation called the Matching Law, which proved pretty good at predicting the average behavior of mice and men. Here it is in one of its simplest forms:
Since the product of Expectancy × Value is divided by Delay, the greater the delay, the less your motivation.
How important is the inclusion of time? Let me invent my own game show called Now Deal or Then Deal. You are a contestant and have won $1,000. It is put into your hands in ten crisp $100 bills, a short stack you stuff into your pocket. However, I also have a certified check—guaranteed money—postdated to one year from now. Here is the dilemma. What is the minimum amount that I have to put on that check to get you to dig into your pocket, hand back all those hundreds, trade me for the check, and wait 365 days to cash it? I have run this little thought experiment with hundreds of people in my classes, and most say that they would wait a year for between $2,000 and $3,000, especially if I ask for an immediate, gut decision. Unless you have been taught a reasonable rate of return and given time to mentally calculate it, thereby preventing yourself from reacting emotionally, it is likely that these responses are not so far off from your own. The more money you require to make the swap, the more sensitive you are to delay; that is, the more impulsive you are. Unfortunately, this sensitivity to delay is still missing from the equation.
Impulsiveness provides the last missing piece of the puzzle, updating the basic Matching Law. Impulsiveness provides a more sophisticated understanding of time by letting the effects of delay grow and shrink. The more impulsive you are, the more sensitive you will be to delay and the more you will discount the future—and, in the game of Now Deal or Then Deal, the more cash you'll require to endure waiting. Without impulsiveness, there wouldn’t be such a thing as chronic procrastination. Popping this into our equation, we have:
And there it is: the Procrastination Equation—inspired by the common elements that determine when we procrastinate, and crafted together from the most deeply researched elements of social sciences' strongest motivational theories.2d The Procrastination Equation accounts for every major finding for procrastination. As the deadline for any task gets pushed further into the future, Delay increases and our motivation to tackle the task decreases. Impulsiveness multiplies the effects of Delay, and so impulsive people feel the effects of time far less acutely, at least at first. Consequences have to be on their doorstep before they start paying attention to them—unless they are particularly large. And what makes consequences large? Expectancy and Value. The bigger the payoff and the greater the likelihood of receiving it, the sooner it will capture your attention. The Procrastination Equation also explains one of the most pernicious aspects of procrastination: the intention-action gap.
Studies show that procrastinators usually make the same plans to get to work as their more diligent counterparts. Where they differ is in acting upon their plans. Unfortunately, what was a heartfelt intention to work next week or next weekend seems a lot less important when the moment of truth actually comes around. Instead of buckling down to work, the procrastinator’s intentions buckle. Unsurprisingly, one of the most common laments of procrastinators is, “No matter how much I try, I still put things off!” This complaint illustrates an intention-action gap: you truly don’t want to slack off tomorrow but you constantly find yourself slacking off when tomorrow comes. This is exactly what the Procrastination Equation predicts and here’s why.
Let’s create an intention. Two weeks from now, you will have a choice between staying up late and honing a budget proposal for work, due the next day, or meeting your friends for drinks at the bar. At the moment, you value polishing your proposal far more than seeing your friends, as the former could lead to a sizable pay raise while the latter will only be a fun get-together. You wisely intend to work on the proposal that night, but will you stand fast? Flash forward two weeks to the very night the choice must be enacted, and life suddenly switches from the abstract to the concrete. It isn’t just friends, it is Eddie, Valerie, and Tom. These are your best friends; they are texting you to come down to the bar; Eddie is so funny; Tom owes you a drink and you owe Valerie a drink; and maybe you can bounce some ideas off them. Besides, you deserve a break because you've worked so hard. So you give in, and once you are there, you forget about going back to work. Instead, you pledge to get up early tomorrow morning because “your mind will be fresher then.” The culprit for your intention-action gap is time. When you headed down to the bar, it probably took you just 15 minutes to get there, a minuscule delay compared to the deadline for tomorrow’s task, which is orders of magnitude off into the future—specifically 96 times greater (i.e., 24 hours divided by 15 minutes). As per the Procrastination Equation, that difference causes an almost hundredfold increase in the relative effects of delay. Indeed, there’s no time like the present, and it’s no wonder your intentions fell through.
THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION IN ACTION
To see all the pieces of the Procrastination Equation in action at once, it would be tempting to try swapping in your own scores on impulsiveness, expectancy, and value and checking out the results. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. To accurately apply the equation to a specific individual we would need a controlled laboratory experiment. In the lab we can put everything into an exact and measurable metric by artificially simplifying your choices, having you push a bar, or run a maze to receive a food pellet, for example.
To demonstrate how the Procrastination Equation operates in a realistic setting, a better way is to apply it to the prototypical procrastinator. And nobody—nobody at all—procrastinates like college students, who spend, on average, a third of their days putting work off. Procrastination is by far students' top problem, with over 70 percent reporting that it causes frequent disruption and fewer than 4 percent indicating that it is rarely a problem.14 Part of the reason that colleges are filled with procrastinators is that their inhabitants are young and therefore more impulsive. However, the campus environment must shoulder most of the blame. Colleges have created a perfect storm of delay by merging two separate systems that contribute to procrastination, each devastating in its own right.
The first system is the essay. The more unpleasant you make a task—the lower its value—the less likely people will be to pursue it. Unfortunately, writing causes dread, even revulsion for almost everyone. But welcome to the club. Writing is hard. George Orwell, author of the classics Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, had this to say: “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 was not driven by some demon that one can neither resist nor understand.” Gene Fowler, who wrote about twenty books or screenplays, was equally despairing: “Writing is easy, all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” To write this very book, I have been leaning on William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Sure enough, on page 87, Zinsser confesses, “I don’t like to write.”
Added to the cruelty of assigned writing is the capriciousness of grading—low expectancy. Any essay that is re-marked by another professor may shift remarkably in grade—a B+ could become an A+ if you are lucky, or a C+ if you are not.15 This is not because the marker is sloppy; it is because measuring performance is inherently hard. Just look at the variation in judges' scores at Olympic events or among reviewers critiquing films. From the students' perspective, such discrepancies mean there is no guarantee that their hard work will be recognized. Quite possibly, it won’t be.
The final aspect of the essay system that contributes to student procrastination is the distant due date—high delay. There are often no intermediary steps—you just hand the paper in when you are finished. At first the due date seems months and months away, but that is just the start of a slippery slope. You blink and it has become weeks and weeks, then days and days, and then hours and hours, until suddenly you are considering Plan B. Approximately 70 percent of all reasons given for missing a deadline or bombing an exam are excuses, because the real reason—procrastination—is unacceptable.2e As students themselves report, their top strategy is to pore over the instructions with a lawyer’s eye for any detail that could possibly be misinterpreted, later claiming, “I didn’t understand the instructions.”16
There it is; university essays hit each key variable of the equation. Essays are grueling (low value), their results are very uncertain (low expectancy), and they have a single distant deadline (high delay). And if essays are hard in and of themselves, there are few harder places to do them than a college dorm. This leads us to the second system in that perfect storm: the place where this essay is supposed to be written.
College dorms are infernos of procrastination because the enticements—the alternatives to studying—are white hot. Superior in every aspect to essay writing, these pleasures are reliable, immediate, and intense. Consider campus clubs alone. At the university where I earned my PhD, there are about a thousand of them, catering to every recreational, political, athletic, or spiritual need, ranging from Knitting for Peace to the Infectious Disease Interest Group. These clubs will give you a new set of friends, with whom you will want to socialize—likely in one of the dozens of coffee shops and pubs a short walk from any place on campus. They'll also entice you to go to one of a dozen events occurring every week, from poetry readings to tailgate parties. With all the camaraderie, alcohol, sex, and—headiest of all temptations—the freedom to enjoy them all, university can lure us into the unregulated state of bliss where the liberties of adulthood are combined with only a minority of the responsibilities. From the moment students step into the classroom, inevitable conflicts are set in motion. Even Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, reported of his student days, “Only in the face of a difficult challenge or an urgent deadline would I study and work without laziness.”
We can graph this dilemma using Eddie, Valerie, and Tom when they were back in their university days. They hang together, as they have a lot in common and all of them like to socialize rather than work. Still, there are differences among them. Valerie knows she isn’t especially bright but she has two cardinal virtues—she is levelheaded and responsible. Though she isn’t competitive, she sees the future pretty clearly, and can imagine one day graduating from college and getting her dream job. Tom is more ambitious and more confident of his abilities than either of his classmates but he is also the most impulsive. His cockiness and spontaneity arouse mixed feelings of envy and hate in many people who know him. Eddie, on the other hand, lacks desire as well as self-confidence. He was pressured by his family to go to college and he is unsure whether he can survive much less thrive academically. In fact, he doesn’t really care. At least he is comfortable being a slacker.