in: Behavior, Character

• Last updated: July 1, 2023

Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science

There’s a giant vacuum nozzle that hangs over your head day and night. Manufactured by  Some Day Incorporated, this vacuum is powered by procrastination and stands by ever waiting (and indeed, the operative word is waiting), to suck up good things from every area of your life.

Procrastination siphons off your money. Think of all the added fines you’ve accrued because you failed to pay your bills on time. Or all the investment returns from the miracle of compound interest you’ve missed out on because you never opened that retirement account. Or the problem with your car that could have been fixed far more cheaply if it had been addressed when you first heard that funny little noise, rather than when your engine finally went kaput.

Procrastination steals your opportunities. If only you spent a bit more time studying for that test instead of cramming the night before, you could have passed the class. If only you turned in that application on time, you could have landed that plumb internship. If only you asked out that girl you were crushing on (who a decade later you’ll find out was crushing on you back) before graduation, she could have been your life’s great love.

Procrastination holds hostage your health. Maybe if you had started that exercise and diet program sooner, you wouldn’t now be staring down diabetes. Maybe if you had gone in to see your doctor about that niggling pain right away, you’d be facing a diagnosis of Stage 2 cancer rather than Stage 4.

Finally — and this effect is perhaps the least acute but the most onerous as it weighs on your mind — procrastination costs you a sense of peace and satisfaction in progress. When you look around and see the laundry still piled up on the couch unfolded, hear the drip-drip-drip of a still unfixed faucet at night, and remember for the 18th, and still unacted upon time, that you need to call to make a dentist appointment, it’s hard not to feel demoralized that you’ve been beaten in life by simple minutiae. 

Fortunately, while procrastination does indeed truly suck, its solution is as simple as the problem itself: an equation developed by a researcher who’s done more than ponder its pull and offer anecdotal hacks for its defeat, but has scientifically studied all its thieving angles.

The Procrastination Equation

Why do we humans almost universally experience a mighty struggle with procrastination? It’s because we’re seemingly hardwired to favor short-term pleasure over short-term annoyance/effort, even if the latter leads to greater long-term gains. We like to do whatever feels good in the moment.

The key to overcoming procrastination is thus to increase your motivation for tackling a task, so you feel more inclined to do it now, and less inclined to put it off.

That’s the conclusion reached by Dr. Piers Steel, the foremost researcher of procrastination. In The Procrastination Equation, Steel explains that our given level of motivation for something is determined by four factors that interact in the following formula:

Motivation = Expectancy x Value / Impulsiveness x Delay

Let’s unpack the role each of these variables play in causing us to be more motivated (Expectancy and Value) or less motivated (Impulsiveness and Delay).

Motivation Multipliers

Expectancy: How much you expect to succeed at doing a task. Several elements influence Expectancy. Steel’s research shows that an individual who has a higher sense of personal agency — that is, confidence in their ability to get things done — will have higher levels of Expectancy than an individual beset with learned helplessness — the belief that you don’t have control over your environment. 

Another factor that can influence Expectancy is the difficulty of the task. I picked this up from behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits. If you set “lose 100 pounds by the end of the year” as a goal, the daunting enormity of the task will weaken your confidence in being able to achieve it, likely resulting in you giving up before you even get going. A goal like “walk for 10 minutes each day,” on the other hand, is much easier to accomplish, which ups your Expectancy quotient, in turn increasing your level of Motivation and your chances of sticking with it.

Value: How much you enjoy doing a task and how much you’ll enjoy the reward you’ll get for completing it (or dislike the punishment you’ll receive for failing to). Like Expectancy, several factors can influence Value. Your personal tastes have a significant impact on whether you value a task, and thus your likelihood of doing it. If you want to start exercising, and hate running, but set a goal of running every day, you’re probably not going to run. However, if you do enjoy rucking, and instead make it a goal to ruck every day, you’re far likelier to follow through on your intention. 

How much you will enjoy/appreciate not only the process of engaging in a certain task, but its end reward, also influences Value. If getting an A+ on your research paper is really important to you, then you’ll probably work hard on your report and not put it off. If you couldn’t care less about getting an A+ and would be happy settling for a C+, you’ll likely be less motivated to get started on your paper. 

Something that Fogg adds to Steel’s idea of the value lent to tasks, is factoring in the punishment of not doing something on time. The bigger the punishment, the more you’ll value doing the task to avoid the penalty. 

Take paying taxes. Most people don’t like doing them, but if you don’t file your tax return or pay your taxes, there can be severe financial and legal consequences. So while you might not enjoy the reward of doing your taxes, you’ll definitely value avoiding the dire consequences of not doing them.

(For more insights on how negative consequences can spur behavior, check out my podcast with John Tierney.)

Motivation Diminishers

Impulsiveness: The degree to which you get distracted versus staying focused. According to Steel, Impulsiveness is a huge divisor of Motivation in the Procrastination Equation. 

While some people are more impulsive than others thanks to genetics, all of us have to grapple with impulsivity to one extent or another. And of course that’s more true than ever in the modern age, in which our smartphones and digital devices clamor for our attention. When you try reading War and Peace on your phone, as soon as you feel a slight niggle of boredom, you can swipe over to Instagram to see what new things are in the feed. 

As Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, discussed on the podcast, if you’ve been using the internet regularly for the past couple decades, you’ve likely experienced an erosion in your ability to concentrate — particularly when it comes to deep reading and reflective thinking, but also in simply being able to hold a conversation or clean up the kitchen without intermittently breaking off to check your phone. These short checks can turn into big time sinks, leading you to continually put off completing the task at hand. 

Delay: The fact that the further away the due date is for the completion of a task, the less motivated you will be to work on it now. The sooner something has to get done, the more motivated you’ll be to get to it. Concrete urgency encourages us to take action; a lack of urgency encourages us to be complacent. 

We’ve all experienced this dynamic at some point in our lives. In college, when you had a research paper due in two months, you felt like you had plenty of time to work on it, and kept procrastinating getting started. Then, when the night before its deadline arrived, you finally did get going, because you had to.

According to Steel, to increase Motivation, you simply have to increase the factors in the numerator of the Procrastination Equation (Expectancy and Value) and decrease the elements in the denominator (Impulsiveness and Delay). 

It’s as simple as that. 

The trick is figuring out brass tacks ways of doing so.

Thankfully, Steel offers some great suggestions in The Procrastination Equation. Below I highlight those of his tips that I’ve found personally useful. I’ve also added my own suggestions based on Fogg’s research on motivation.

Ways to Increase Expectancy

Use Vicarious Victory

Steel suggests priming yourself with the feeling that you can accomplish what you want to achieve by putting yourself in touch with the stories of other successful people. Read biographies of great men doing extraordinary things despite the odds, or watch an inspiring movie or a pump-up video on YouTube.

While binging on motivational memes often comes in for criticism, as long as you use such fodder as a spur to action, rather than a substitute, it really works. I know that when I watch, say, The Men Who Built America, I feel more pumped to get to work!

Use Mental Contrasting

Most motivational books tell you to envision your ideal end result in detail and just focus on that. But research shows that envisioning the positive outcome alone can actually increase the chances of you not completing the desired task. 

Instead, Steel recommends engaging in “mental contrasting.” This requires you to think about your ideal result and then contrast it with your current not-so-great state. By contrasting your current reality with your ideal future reality, you frame the former as an obstacle to be overcome, which can, in turn, increase Motivation. 

Overcome Learned Helplessness

Overcoming learned helplessness involves changing your mental scripts. Instead of telling yourself, “I’m a big giant procrastinator in all aspects of my life, and I always will be!” you challenge that negative self-talk. 

Do you really procrastinate in all aspects of your life? No. You finish your work projects on time, you pay your bills on time. You just have some trouble getting going on that big project in the backyard. By pushing back on your negative thinking, you can show yourself that you’re more capable than you think you are, which can increase your sense of Expectancy.  

(We did an in-depth series about overcoming learned helplessness and becoming more resilient. Be sure to check it out.)

Make the Task as Easy as Possible

According to the Fogg Behavior Model, the easier the task is to complete, the more likely you’ll do it; the harder it is, the less likely you’ll do it. That’s just common sense, but common sense often goes overlooked.

If you find yourself procrastinating on a task, see if there’s some way you can increase expectancy by making it easy. Like stupidly easy. This largely comes down to concentrating on the next action you need to take — getting specific instead of general — and breaking bigger/longer tasks into smaller/shorter ones. Fogg would in fact say to make the steps of your goal not just small, but tiny.

If, for example, you’re trying to get into the flossing habit, instead of saying, “I will floss every night,” Fogg suggests setting the goal, “I will floss one tooth every night.” It’s easy to be motivated to floss a single tooth, so you’ll actually do it. Once you start doing one tooth a night consistently, you’ll naturally want to start flossing more of them (but you always keep the same Expectancy-boosting “floss one tooth every night” goal).

If you’re working on a term paper, instead of making it a goal to “Write the first draft of my research paper by the end of the week,” tell yourself, “I will work on the introduction for five minutes.” Writing an entire first draft is difficult, which means you’ll likely put it off as long as possible; writing for five minutes is easy, so you’ll do it. Once you’ve gotten started, you may want to write more, but even if not, at least you’ve gotten the project underway. Next set the goal: “Work on the body of the paper for five minutes.”

Instead of saying, “Save $1 million for retirement,” make your task, “Email HR about auto investing from paycheck.” 

Instead of saying, “Clean up the entire backyard,” make your task, “Weed garden bed for five minutes.”

You get the idea.

Use Success Spirals

Not only does taking small actions get you started on making progress in getting a big task done, it also creates a “success spiral,” which further fuels the Expectancy factor, spurring you to get even more done.

A success spiral occurs when you successfully complete one small goal after another. By seeing yourself achieve small goals, your confidence in your ability to get things done increases, increasing your sense of Expectancy, and your Motivation to do even more. A success spiral builds momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.

When you’re feeling the glow from knocking off a to-do, use that surge of energy and confidence to tackle the next item on the list. 

Ways to Increase Value

Pick Enjoyable Tasks

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and to achieve a goal. Maybe you want to start exercising. Rather than trying to flagellate yourself through discipline to do a type of workout you hate, find a form of exercise that carries significant Value, because you genuinely enjoy it. You may think you hate every form of exercise, but the reality is that you’ve probably only tried four or five, and there are hundreds more to sample. If you don’t like running, try swimming; if you don’t like jiu-jitsu, try tennis; if you don’t like biking try boxing. Or forget all about “official” forms of exercise, and just become a dedicated walker. Experiment, and find something you’ll actually look forward to doing.

Or let’s say you’d like to start reading more books. Rather than forcing yourself to try to read the high-brow material you’re “supposed” to enjoy, but struggle to keep picking up, choose a genre that actually makes it hard for you to put a book down.

There are often multiple ways into the same result; pick one that provides you with plenty of spontaneous-yet-enduring Motivation. 

Make the Task Enjoyable

Of course there are some tasks in life where there’s isn’t a fun-flavored option to choose; there’s only one way in, and that way is onerous. But even in that case, you can still up your Motivation by making a dull, burdensome task, if not outright enjoyable, then at least a little more enjoyable than it’d otherwise be.

For example, as mentioned above, there’s not much fun to be had with doing your taxes. But you can make the process more pleasant by listening to a favorite jazz album while sipping your favorite beverage. Likewise, as many a laundry-folder knows, the job goes down a lot easier if you listen to a podcast while you do it. 

A great way to make a task more enjoyable is to inject some sociality into it. In her book Life Admin, writer Elizabeth Emens takes a deep dive into the un-fun stuff we have to do to keep our day-to-day lives rolling along — filing taxes, filling out enrollment forms, planning parties, scheduling appointments, etc. The kind of stuff we have a tendency to procrastinate on. 

One suggestion Emens gives to make doing “life admin” a bit more enjoyable is to create “Admin Study Halls.” Basically, you invite all your friends to your place, and together you work on all your respective life admin tasks. Working with others provides some accountability, but the big bonus is that sharing in the suffering makes the work more bearable.

Treat Yo Self 

And then there are those tasks that can never be made more enjoyable, no matter how much you try. 

Take getting a colonoscopy. Colon cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer, but if you discover it early, it can often be nipped in the bud. Colonoscopies are what allow for this early detection. Doctors recommend that you start getting them regularly when you reach age 50 (age 40 if you have a family history of the disease), but most people put off the procedure since it’s fairly unpleasant. 

There’s not much you can do to make getting a camera stuck up your butt more enjoyable. But if you can’t add Value to the process itself, you can tie it to the end result by creating a reward for prioritizing the procedure. 

Tell yourself, “If I get a colonoscopy, I’ll buy that new [fill in the blank] I’ve had my eye on.” And then treat yourself to it once you follow through.

The more unpleasant or difficult the task, the bigger reward will likely have to be to sufficiently motivate you to take action. 

If you’ve done the work of breaking your tasks into smaller, easy-to-do steps, the reward for completing those small tasks doesn’t have to be as significant. For example, if one of your tasks is “Work on report outline for 25 minutes,” your reward could be “Surf around on the web for 10 minutes.” If you successfully flossed one tooth, do a celebratory fist pump; I like to mouth the intro guitar riff to AC/DC’s “Back in Black” every time I floss.

According to Fogg, a reward/celebration for doing a task/habit can take any form. It just has to be 1) immediate, and 2) genuinely make you feel good. The resulting after-action glow creates positive reinforcement, increasing the perceived value of getting things done, and making you feel more motivated to keep up your to-do slaying effectiveness.

Punish Yo Self

As discussed above, a counterintuitive way to add Value to a task is affixing a punishment for not completing it. As the penalty increases, you value the task more because you want to avoid the penalty. Don’t underestimate the power of the stick! 

I’ve added Value to tasks by increasing the penalty for putting them off by using a website called StickK. StickK allows you to create “Commitment Contracts” with yourself. You tell the site what you want to accomplish and when, and then — this is the magic sauce — you set a financial penalty for yourself if you don’t complete the task within that timeframe. You can even set it up so that if you don’t live up to your commitment, the money goes to an organization that upholds values you despise. 

To prevent yourself from gaming StickK and saying you completed the task even though you didn’t, you can establish an accountability partner who will be asked to determine whether or not the task has been completed according to the terms of the contract. If your partner gives you the thumbs down, your credit card is automatically deducted for the amount you agreed to.  

As with rewards, the harder the task is to get started on, the bigger the punishment has to be to provide sufficient incentive for completing the task sooner rather than later. 

Connect Tasks to Bigger Meaning

One easy way to increase the Value of a task is connecting it with your, well, values and the bigger meaningful vision you have for your life. 

Setting up a 529 plan for your kid is boring and not fun. But helping your child get a good education may mean a lot to you. If it does, remind yourself of that in order to boost the Value of the task, and thus your motivation for completing it. 

If you’ve got tasks at work that you’ve been putting off, reflect on the way that their completion will, even in small ways, improve your customers’ lives, as well as the fact that your diligence at work allows you to provide a living for your family. Think about how you want to shield them from the worry of financial hardship. If it worked for Homer Simpson, it’ll work for you.

How to Decrease Impulsivity

Eliminate Distractions

The best way to decrease impulsivity is to reduce the stimuli that tempt you to be impulsive in the first place. Pay attention to the things that distract you from your important work. For most people in the 21st century, the internet and smartphones are our biggest distractions. Instead of using pure willpower to suppress those digital distractions, eliminate them altogether. 

Set up a system on your computer and smartphone that blocks distracting websites entirely or for set periods during the day. We go into detail on how to do just that in the following articles:

Improve Your Ability to Concentrate

While your best bet in reducing impulsivity is to eliminate or decrease distractions, strengthening your willpower and ability to focus can definitely help as well. 

We dig deep into ways to strengthen your willpower and your concentration ability in the following articles:

How to Decrease Delay

Break a Final Deadline Into a Series of Mini Deadlines

As discussed above, the further away the deadline is for the completion of a task, the harder it is to get motivated to work on it. 

It might seem like the solution would be to create your own, more immediate deadline for the task. But in practice, this isn’t effective; if a task is big and difficult (Expectancy and Value are low), an artificial deadline will not produce sufficient urgency to overcome these motivational drags. That is, pretending that the deadline for writing a paper is October 15 rather than November 15, won’t make you feel any more inclined to work on it.

Rather than moving the ultimate deadline for a task, a better tactic to decrease delay is breaking the project down into smaller chunks and assigning a series of mini deadlines that lead to the final due date. As already discussed, this move increases Expectancy and thus Motivation. 

I picked up this skill while in law school as I juggled writing and editing law review articles and getting ready for finals. Before any big project, I’d set down and map out my attack plan for it. I’d start from the final, absolute deadline. Then, going backward, I’d create deadlines for completing smaller chunks of that bigger task. I’d work my way back, setting deadlines until I got to the date I was planning out my project. 

I still use this tactic today when writing articles for AoM. Here’s the schedule I set for myself for this one:

September 29: Article publish date
September 24: Edit and finalize draft; send to Kate for editing and revisions
September 22: Have first draft done
September 18: Outline article
September 16: Collect all notes and review
September 14: Review resources and make notes

By breaking down the task into smaller chunks and assigning closer deadlines, I can decrease the sense of delay, which helps me not to procrastinate. What’s more, completing each step in the timeline creates Success Spirals, which can further increase Expectancy.

Your Procrastination Plan

Once you understand the Procrastination Equation and the ways you can manipulate its variables to up your Motivation and take more immediate action, flipping off the switch on the procrastination vacuum becomes a cinch. Increase Value and Expectancy; decrease Impulsivity and Delay.

To make it even easier for you, here’s a suggested attack plan for whenever you find yourself procrastinating. Think of it as a checklist to keep you from ever putting things off:

  1. Recognize you’re procrastinating. 
  2. Ask yourself, “What’s causing me to put this task off?” Go through the different factors of the Procrastination Equation:
    • Is there a way I can increase Expectancy for this task?
      1. Can I experience Vicarious Success?
      2. Can I create a Success Spiral?
      3. Can I make this task easier?
    • Is there a way I can increase the Value of this task?
      1. Can I choose an enjoyable way of getting it done?
      2. Can I make the task more enjoyable?
      3. Can I reward myself for this task?
      4. Can I punish myself for not completing the task?
      5. Can I tie the task to a bigger meaning?
    • Is there a way I can decrease Impulsivity?
      1. Can I eliminate distractions?
      2. Can I strengthen my willpower?
    • Is there a way to decrease Delay?
      1. Can I break this task down into smaller tasks and assign closer deadlines for each?
  3. Take action.

That’s it. 

As mentioned above, I only highlighted a few of the Motivation-increasing tactics Steel suggests in his book. I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Procrastination Equation to dig deeper.

Another useful resource I’ve come across recently is this series of articles on how to use BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model to stop procrastinating. I think there are a lot of great insights there that can be combined with Steel’s Procrastination Equation to create a synergistic procrastination-slaying bullet.

Finally, I’d suggest listening to the podcast episodes I did with Steel and Fogg:


Carpe diem.

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