Piers Steel’s new book The Procrastination Equation made its way to my door last week. I’ll admit, the title taunted me to put off reading it — it’s as if just seeing the word procrastination could create a self-fulfilling prophecy — but, I didn’t. I finished it three days after first picking it up.
Steel has produced an exhaustive look at the research, history, definition, forms, and treatment of procrastination. (Note: Exhaustive may be underselling it, as there are 73 pages of endnotes following the 220 pages of manuscript.) The research, history, and forms of procrastination sections of his book are its strength and most captivating. Until I read Steel’s book, I had no idea ancient Egyptians had eight hieroglyphs referring to delay, one of which specifically implies neglect and/or forgetfulness. Procrastination clearly isn’t a new problem created by modern workers’ addictions to Facebook. Although, I also learned from reading the book that Facebook has such an addictive draw that half of people who personally close their accounts reactivate them.
From a section of the text, “What Procrastination Is and Isn’t”:
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 sixteen century, procrastination has identified not just any delay but an irrational one — this 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.
Steel uses the later sections of the book to talk through his procrastination equation, which is:
Motivation = (Expectancy x Value)/(Impulsiveness x Delay)
He identifies motivation as the opposite of procrastination, and that a lack of motivation is a result of troubles with expectancy (such as you expect to fail at the task, so you don’t do it), value (such as you don’t value the work you’re supposed to do, so you don’t do it), or impulsiveness (I explain this one in more detail below).
The book provides tips for overcoming these three roots of procrastination with “action items.” If you’ve read any books or articles on procrastination in the past, the suggestions Steel provides are all ones you’ve seen before: Watch inspirational movies, visualize a positive outcome, identify that you’re procrastinating, positively frame outcomes, do hardest work when you are most alert, keep up your energy levels, reward yourself for reaching milestones, remove temptations and distractions, use specific language when setting goals, break down long-term goals into multiple milestones, schedule time for tasks, etc. In fact, I don’t think there are but one or two tips we’ve never covered on Unclutterer.
As I mentioned earlier, though, the “action items” wouldn’t be why you would read the book. It’s the first part of the book exploring the research, history, and forms of procrastination that make this book worth your time.
One of the items I found most interesting in the book is the discussion of types of procrastination. Steel’s research led him to discover that the more impulsive a person is, the more likely she is to procrastinate:
People who act without thinking, who are unable to keep their feelings under control, who act on impulse, are also people who procrastinate.
Delayed gratification isn’t an option for many procrastinators. If given the choice between watching television or studying for a test, they’ll watch television because it will be instantly gratifying. Even if performing well on a test will be more gratifying, they are unable to ignore the temptation in the present. I had never thought of procrastination as an impulse control issue until reading Steel’s book. This discovery will certainly color (for the better, I hope) my future advice about fighting procrastination.