The Procrastination Equation

Everything you wanted to know about procrastination but put off finding out.

If You Met All Your Goals Today, This Article Is Not for You

An online goal training app to maximize motivation.

When I started to study procrastination, my family thought it was too appropriate and yet not appropriate at all. I was famous for leaving every task under the sun until the seconds before they were due, so doing research on productivity was seen as akin to having serial killers work on crime prevention. In the end, it was transformational. Science gave me a venue and the tools to change my procrastination habit and release a more productive side that I previously thought was beyond me. It changed my life but to explain in all the ways would require me to recount my successes, which I won’t because when anyone does this it becomes indistinguishable from bragging and self-promotion. However, you can figure it out by just thinking how much your life would change if you consistently started doing what you intended to do, finished tasks ahead of time, and starting showing the world your best.

To share what I’ve learned, I have published a swath of scientific articles on procrastination but not many have access to them or inclination to read academia. I then translated that into a popular non-fiction book, The Procrastination Equation, which expanded who I could reach, but not everyone is a book reader. I then moved into more into blog forms, writing my own and providing the material for others, but it still didn’t quite have the impact I wanted. There are lot of articles, a lot of books, and a lot of blogs to compete with and whatever I message I wanted to get out, gets drowned out.

Many years later, but only recently from today, I took on a new graduate student, Chris Morin, who shared an insight with me. Try one more form of communication, something a little more modern. We worked together to create an online app, a goal trainer, that teaches people in real-time and at their convenience, how to make goals that maximizes their motivational value. We bake into this attempt dozens of scientific principles that you won't see combined anywhere else. This is his story of our attempt and product and perhaps the something you have been looking for.

A Study in Procrastination (By Chris Morin)

Two years ago, I began studying motivation as a grad student. To let you in on the joke that my friends and family enjoy, I was an uninspired undergraduate who muddled through to a directionless career. My school days were spent procrastinating, punctuated by frantic all-nighters. If I had plans after graduation, they fell through. I held a series of jobs motivated by convenience rather than any long-term career plan. Those experiences were ironically instructive and when I was finally exposed to the science of motivation I had an intuitive understanding of the principles of the science. Really, no one is better at benefitting from these than those who already intimate with procrastination in the first place.

The Procrastination Intervention

My thesis project was to develop a cure for procrastination. To get my degree, I reviewed motivation research and created an online program to help people set better goals. For those of you who like to see the actual science up front and personal, with all the citations exposed and in proper APA style, you can find if you dig around at our research webpage (procrastinus.com/). If you just want the finished product, you can try the goal trainer at this link: guidedtrack.com

What I learned is that there are some universal principles everyone can apply, based on some of the most consistently supported theories of motivation science. Despite this commonality, there is a fundamental level where goal-setting and goal-striving are intensely personal activities. People need to think about what they want to strive for, and what works best to get them there.

Below are explanations of some of the theories and principles that informed the goal trainer. They begin with some of the universal principles, and end with principles that require some self-reflection and exploration for what strategies work best for you.

Approach versus Avoidance - “Don’t think of a white bear.”

A goal worded as an approach toward a positive outcome is more effective than one worded as avoidance of a negative outcome. As a thought exercise, try not to think about polar bears for 30 seconds. For most, it cannot be done. Even tremendous self-control creates the impression of a “polar bear-shaped hole.” Smokers and dieters who try to change their behavior with thought-suppression encounter similar difficulties. By not thinking about smoking or snacking, a person is effectively thinking about it. For students, this principle is the difference between “I want to ace all my courses,” and “I don’t want to fail my course.” Thinking about failure is flirting with failure. An avoidance focus evokes fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. Success becomes defined as “anything but this.” A positive focus creates a definite direction to work toward. The difference between approach and avoidance goals are “potentially thriving, or merely surviving.”

Challenging and Specific Goals

One of the most consistent findings of motivation science is the high performance associated with challenging and specific goals versus vague or “do your best” goals. Similar to the way a positive goal provides a specific outcome to strive towards; challenging goals demand more from us. If you set the bar too low, effort stops too early, just as they way every runner stops running once they cross the finish line. If you aim higher, you go farther.

In fact, it is not just specific goals that lead to performance. Specific plans-of-action lead to higher performance. Setting a challenging goal to be done “later” isn’t good enough. “Get a good job after graduation” clearly wasn’t specific enough for me. A specific, challenging goal may have been “manage a small department within five years.” I can do better. What, exactly, do I mean by small? Five employees? Twenty employees? More importantly, what department? What industry? What company? These are important questions because qualifications matter. What qualifications do I need? How do I get them? What kind of grades will I need to get started?


This last point is worth reflecting a little further on. While challenging goals inspire higher performance, there is clearly a “sweet spot.” Goals that seem impossible are more likely to be abandoned. A goal should be challenging, but “do-able.” A five-year goal is a long time frame, and you can accomplish a lot, but be careful of doing more than you need to. Education for education’s sake is just spinning your wheels. Accepting a promotion that takes you further away from your goals should be considered carefully. Maybe it is an opportunity you had not considered before, but you may also find yourself pigeon-holed into a role you don’t want to keep. Know where you are going so you know when to start, but equally important is to know when to stop!

On Commitment

The previous points are all considered universal. The question remains: what are your goals? The answers are intensely personal. People do things for all sorts of reasons. Your pay-check is an obvious reason to keep going to work. Sometimes, the pay-offs are intangible and distant, like in the cases of getting an education or visiting the gym. Sometimes we do things to make others happy. Sometimes, we do things to make ourselves happy. Goal-setting theory takes the view that no one does anything “for no reason,” or “just because.” Even when we seem to be “doing nothing,” watching TV, playing games, staring out a window, we are drawing some sort of personal benefit from that activity. As John Lennon said, “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

As you may have noticed, motivation fluctuates from day-to-day. New Year resolutions rarely last through February. Even when we want to achieve a goal more than any other, no one can maintain that drive all day, every day. The research in this area, self-regulation and energy levels, touches on the age-old philosophies of choice and free-will. Modern models of motivation describe it as a single, psychic, but limited energy source. The longer you maintain effort on one task (be it physical, like sprinting, mental, like solving puzzles or even suppressing thoughts and feelings), the sooner you will quit the next task. Motivation is consumable but rechargeable. When asked, “how do you maintain your energy?” people responded with every conceivable pastime from prayer, solitude, and music to shopping, drinking and parties. At least one current study showed that energy sources are whatever you believe them to be. Wherever you draw your “inner-strength” from is true for you. Conversely, if you believe it is OK to quit, or your source of strength is gone for whatever reason, you will be quicker to quit.

Pre-Commitment: Bondage, Satiation, and Poison

As I said, there are universal rules of effective goal setting, but commitment to a goal is intensely personal. Without commitment there is no performance. If you are worried that your commitment will wane, you can “pre-commit.” This is more than a “pep-talk” or daily affirmation. I mean lock-away distractions and throw away the key. I have one colleague who found he spent too much time playing a particular video game and his responsibilities suffered. He asked a friend to hide the disk, to be returned at the end of the school year. It motivates him to promptly return the final grades to his students. This is an example of bondage pre-commitment. It puts your distractions out of reach.

I have heard stories of people who wish to drop bad habits or addictions and give money to a friend in trust. The friend is instructed to donate the money to a despised political cause the first time the addict slips into old habits. This is poisoned pre-commitment: building punishments into actions we wish to avoid.

I happen to respond well to satiation. When I have work to do, I will take a leisurely morning, meet friends for coffee, and enjoy the weather (a benefit of academia). I don’t get started until after noon, but I’ve already had a good day. The late start motivates me to (finally) get to work, and my relaxing morning means that those working hours are generally more productive. If you find that distractions pull you away from your work, you may benefit from satisfying those distractions first so you can focus on work.

I want to highlight that while many of these principles are personal, they work best when they are also social. Share your goals with friends. Ask them to check-in on your progress. Get them involved with commitments and rewards. It is similar to having a gym partner. It keeps you honest. It gives you the push you need to follow through, and it makes everything more fun.

Practice Makes Perfect

The procrastination intervention I developed during my Master’s thesis is available on line at guidedtrack.com/programs. Work through the exercises and get some practice setting effective goals. Work through the exercise a few times and you will find that the principles of effective goal-setting become second nature. Before long, you won’t need the exercise. You will be setting better goals and accomplishing more in less time. 

If you like, or hate it, or want it changed, come back here and let us know. If anything's confusing or ineffective or just especially wonderful, let us know. Odds are, we will be able to make it better with your help.

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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