Photo by Pat Kay

The Procrastination Equation: There Are 4 Reasons Why We Procrastinate

Confession: Sometimes I procrastinate on my work by researching techniques for overcoming procrastination.

In the case of writing this article, for example, I spent an embarrassing amount of time procrastinating on researching procrastination — and that was before I even started to procrastinate on writing about procrastination!

But I get a little consolation by reminding myself that I’m not alone in my difficulty with procrastination: “How to stop procrastinating” turns up 1,560,000 hits in Google, and searching for “procrastination” on Amazon offers up 2,581 books on the topic.

We’re awash with advice on how to overcome procrastination, but somehow it feels like we’re struggling more than ever.

What gives?

Maybe there isn’t one, single cause of procrastination

Read enough How to Stop Procrastinating articles and you’ll start to notice a trend: We tend to assume that there is a single cause of procrastination and therefore a single solution.

Every productivity guru and life hacker out there has their pet theory about what causes procrastination along with a custom-built solution based on that theory.

But think about it: For a problem as complex and persistent as procrastination, how likely is it that there’s one single cause of procrastination for everybody?

I believe this is a major part of why we struggle so much to stop procrastinating: By desperately clinging to the idea of a silver bullet solution for procrastination, we end up never really making any headway because no one strategy is really sufficient to really help.

The idea that nobody really knows what they’re talking about or doing when it comes to overcoming procrastination was starting to get a little discouraging until I stumbled upon a very interesting research paper…

The Science of Procrastination

In 2007, University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel wrote paper called The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure.

The paper was fascinating because it showed scientifically what I was starting to sense intuitively — the causes of procrastination are actually multiple, and many of the popular notions of what causes procrastination were either simply not true or had extremely small effects.

Nerdy Side Note: Steel used a technique called meta-analysis which allowed him to combine all the data from decades worth of research on procrastination and show which factors are significantly and reliably associated with procrastinating.

Interestingly, Steel’s research showed that the two oldest psychological theories for why we procrastinate — anxiety and rebelliousness — in reality had only a weak connection with the tendency to procrastinate.

On the other hand, four primary factors stood out as by far the strongest predictors of procrastination:

  1. Low Self-Confidence. A person’s belief and expectation that they are capable of completing a task. When we don’t have much confidence in our ability to complete a task (or to complete it well), our likelihood of procrastinating goes way up. This shows up most commonly when we’re uncertain about how to start a task.
  2. Un-pleasureable Work. How enjoyable or painful is the task at hand? In general, the more enjoyable or meaningful a task, the less we procrastinate on it. Although, it seems that mildly painful and boring tasks are actually more likely to lead to procrastination than extremely difficult tasks — which helps explain why we tend to procrastinate so much on busywork.
  3. Distractibility. Difficulty maintaining focus in the face of immediate and more appealing distractions. If we’re impulsive by nature and/or tend to work in a highly distracting environment and have a hard time resisting those distractions, we’re much more likely to procrastinate.
  4. Distant Deadlines. How much time there is in between the decision to take on a task and the point when it must be completed? Basically, the longer you have to finish a task, the more you’ll procrastinate and wait to get started on it until the last minute.

While it would be simpler and easier if there was a single cause of everybody’s tendency to procrastinate, Steele’s analyses offer up a much more solid scientific foundation on which to design more effective anti-procrastiantion strategies and techniques.

A Scientific Equation to Overcoming Procrastination

Besides clarifying these four factors as the most influential ingredients in procrastination, Steel’s research also showed that they work together in particular way — what he calls, The Procrastination Equation.

The Procrastination Equation says that our likelihood of not procrastinating on a given task will be equal to the product of our self-confidence and the pleasantness of the task divided by the product of our distractibility and time until the deadline.

What this equation shows is that if you’re struggling with procrastination, you have 4 options for working on it:

  • Increase your Self-Confidence.
  • Increase your Enjoyment of the task
  • Decrease Distractions while working.
  • Decrease the time until the Deadline.

Before we get to how to effectively adjust each of these variables, there’s a crucial point to understand: For most of us, we don’t struggle with all four factors equally. In fact, we may have a strength in one factor, but a weakness in another.

We all procrastinate a little differently.

Because there are multiple, person- and situation-specific factors that lead to procrastination, the reasons I tend to procrastinate may be very different than the reasons you procrastinate. Which means we all have to custom-build our own solutions to procrastination.

And this is where the Procrastination Equation really comes in handy. It gives us a simple model for thinking about and working on procrastination in an individualized way.

A Few Suggestions for Getting Started Procrastinating Less

1) Identify your unique vulnerability to procrastination.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, think about the four factors in the Procrastination Equation (Self-Confidence, un-Pleasantness, Distraction, Deadlines) and try to determine which one tends to be strongest for you personally.

  • Have plenty of Self-Confidence, but swamped by distractions?
  • Maybe you really love the work you do, but the deadlines and constraints on getting them done are so loose that you can’t help put them off and off and off…?

Start to notice patterns and trends in your own tendency to procrastiante in terms of these four variables. Once you begin to understand your unique vulnerability to procrastination, you’ll be able to address it in a much more specific and targeted way.

2) Use targeted anti-procrastination strategies.

Once you’ve identified which of the four factors is the most impactful in your case, implement a strategy to combat that specific factor.

Here are the four factors along with some suggestions for how to address each:

  1. To address problems of Self-Confidence, create small wins for yourself. Procrastinating on that big report you have to write? Break it down into smaller sections and commit to just completing one doable section. Still procrastinating on your smaller section? Break it down even more. By giving ourselves small, quick wins, we build up our self-confidence and belief in ourselves, which increases our odds of getting started on future elements of the task.
  2. To address problems of Enjoyment, build reinforcement routines. Ideally, all of our work would be incredibly meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable. Sadly, this isn’t the case for any of us all the time. And when a task is not intrinsically enjoyable, the next best thing is to make it artificially enjoyable. Hate processing a weekend’s worth of work emails Monday morning at the office? Create a Monday morning routine where you go to your favorite coffee shop, order your favorite fancy coffee drink, and process your weekend emails there before even getting to the office. Once you pair an aversive task with something enjoyable, it’s overall enjoyableness increases — which means your likelihood of procrastinating on it decreases.
  3. To address problems of Distraction, change your environment. Addicted to facebook but have an important afternoon project to complete?Leave you phone in your car until it’s done. Social butterfly but need to turn in your TPS reports by Friday at 5:00? Work on them in the smelly basement conference room nobody will dare visit you in. TV junkie but need to get your taxes done by the end of the week? Unplug your TV and put it in the garage until they’re done. The key element with all of these is this: Don’t rely on willpower to resist distractions; change your environment instead.
  4. To address problems of Deadlines, set “micro due dates. Similar to Step 2, when the due date on a task is far away, we have to artificially make it sooner. Do this by breaking down a project or task into reasonable chunks, and making each chunk it’s own task with its own specific due date. Then design an accountability system to remind yourself of the new due date and a consequence for not getting it done (bonus points for combining it with a reward for getting it done :)

3) Remember that procrastination is highly situation-specific.

Just like different people tend to be vulnerable to different causes of procrastination in different ways, different situations or contexts can make us differently vulnerable to procrastination.

For example, while low Self-Confidence may typically be your issue when it comes to procrastination, it’s still possible to procrastinate in an area you’re very talented in — in which case the factor you need to address may be Enjoyment rather than Self-Confidence.

Similarly, you may be someone who’s typically pretty good about maintaining focus and avoiding distraction, but when you’re around a specific person, your ability to resist distraction crumbles. Rather than getting down on yourself about this, try to anticipate it and design effective counter-measures.

All You Need to Know

Decades of research shows that procrastination is a complex phenomena with four primary factors that contribute to it: low Self-Confidence, low Enjoyment, high Distraction, and distant Due Dates.

The key to overcoming procrastination is to understand how you are uniquely vulnerable to procrastination given both your own personality and our ever-changing environment, and then to tailor your strategies to those unique vulnerabilities using the Procrastination Equation as a guide.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +426,678 people.

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