'The Procrastination Equation'

To some degree, everyone struggles with procrastination -- unless one has entirely abandoned the struggle in favor of watching cat videos on YouTube. And academics, who juggle an array of work responsibilities -- many with apparently elastic deadlines -- are no exception. But recognizing that one is guilty of procrastination, and even that it may have serious consequences for one's career or personal life, never seems to make it much easier to click away from the kitten clip.

May 6, 2011

To some degree, everyone struggles with procrastination -- unless one has entirely abandoned the struggle in favor of watching cat videos on YouTube. And academics, who juggle an array of work responsibilities -- many with apparently elastic deadlines -- are no exception. But recognizing that one is guilty of procrastination, and even that it may have serious consequences for one's career or personal life, never seems to make it much easier to click away from the kitten clip. (Seriously, Stalking Cat? Priceless.)

It's not your imagination, says procrastination expert Piers Steel: in the age of the Internet, video games, and TiVo, it is harder than ever to filter out diversions and focus on the tasks that you really mean to be tackling. In his new book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done (HarperCollins), Steel combs through a mountain of research on procrastination to get at its causes (evolutionary, technological, personal); its impact, on economies as well as individuals; and its antidotes: what methods actually help people change their time-frittering ways.

Inside Higher Ed conducted an e-mail interview with Steel, professor of human resources and organizational dynamics in the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, to find out more about his book (and whether it might help IHE wean our reporters off cat videos).

Q: Can you give a brief explanation of what exactly "the procrastination equation" is, and how it works?

A. In 2007, I wrote a meta-analytical review called “The Nature of Procrastination,” published in Psychological Bulletin. Three big factors reliably popped up. By far the strongest reasons why we put stuff off were that we: i) lacked self-confidence in our ability to complete the task, ii) found the task boring or unpleasant, and iii) were impulsive. A separate paper of mine, “Integrating Theories of Motivation,” published in the Academy of Management Review, covers how many other major disciplines were saying more or less the same thing, from behaviorism to economics to personality, often formulaically. This allows us to put the pieces together a little more formally and create a Procrastination Equation. Here’s a stripped down version of it:

It is just a model of how we behave but it is a pretty good one. We lack motivation and put stuff off when we doubt our abilities (i.e., low expectancy), hate doing the task (i.e., low value), are sensitive to delay (i.e., high impulsiveness), and have to wait for the task’s rewards (i.e., high delay).

Q: What differentiates The Procrastination Equation from other self-help books?

A: Science doesn’t stand still, so nonfiction books, including my own, should eventually go out of date. Unfortunately, in the field of procrastination there have been few updates; pretty much the same books that were around 30 years ago are still around. Consequently, most self-help books on procrastination are based on the belief that we procrastinate because we are perfectionists, a three-decade-old theory that hasn’t been scientifically backed up. Those neat and orderly perfectionists tend to procrastinate less, not more, though they feel worse about it when they do delay.

Also, though I do research on procrastination, I’m also a meta-researcher, helping me to borrow from all the wonderful insights that researchers from other disciplines, including my own, generate. I’m not limited to just what I personally have done, which lets the book take a broader and more encompassing stance. In particular, I’ve been able to incorporate a lot of recent work conducted on how to manage our impulsive nature, which is the biggest single source of our procrastination.

Q: You write that "virtually everyone" procrastinates to some degree, but you do single out a "chronically procrastinating quarter of the population." On what do you base this estimate? Is that figure related to disorders like ADHD?

A: This is a tricky question. It is like asking, “What percentage of people are tall?” There is a subjective element to determining what “tall” is just as there is to saying what is “chronic.” I put chronic as anything over the midway part on a five-point scale, so people consider themselves as procrastinating more often than not. So chronic procrastination occurs when people, by their own standards, believe putting off becomes their default. Of note, the situation appears to be getting worse. Lately, the results I have from my website indicate it is closer to 50 percent chronic procrastination rather than the 25 percent we were getting even 10 years ago. Only some of that increase is likely due to self-selection.

Because procrastination is largely an impulse control issue, disorders which lead to heightened levels of impulsiveness are associated with more procrastination. Consequently, ADHD is the kingpin of procrastination conditions. Reading the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual symptom checklist, it is almost as if those with ADHD were genetically tailored to be prototypical procrastinators: easily distracted, trouble organizing, and often lose things. For ADHD kids, procrastination is even more of a structurally central, load-supporting column. They have difficulty getting started on tasks, often prioritize poorly and start the wrong ones, to which they allot too little time to complete. Once started, they are easily distractible and have to make the decision to work again and again.

Q: Can you explain the relationship between "disciplinary integration" and procrastination research? And is there something unique about procrastination in this regard?

A: In general, the motivation discipline has progressed glacially as we have divided our voices into so many subtheories with little effort to integrate. There have been a few harsh condemnations of all this splintering. Back in 1983, Arthur Staats wrote the book, Psychology’s Crisis of Disunity: Philosophy and Method for the Revolution to a Unified Science, and every year at [the American Psychological Association's] annual convention we have the Arthur W. Staats Unifying Psychology Lecture. Also, Edward O. Wilson, twice winner of the Pulitzer prize, wrote Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and, within it, he rails against the social sciences who “seldom speak the same technical language from one specialty to the next.”

Procrastination is great to foster integration as so many different disciplines have considered it and examined it from their own standpoint and terminology. Consequently, it serves as a Rosetta stone, allowing us to translate findings from one discipline to another with the ultimate aim of unification. For example, here is just a sampling of the perspectives I consider in The Procrastination Equation: personality theory, behavioral economics, comparative psychology, neurobiology, sociology, evolutionary psychology, genetic research, and behaviorism.

Q: Are academics, as a group, especially prone to procrastination? What are some of the common consequences of being a procrastinating academic?

A: Academe can be best described as giving people enough rope that they can hang themselves. With long deadlines and huge delays between writing a paper and acceptance, you need some other way of getting motivation other than what the environment naturally supplies to be a successful publishing academic. With teaching, it is less of a concern as there are inherently built-in deadlines (e.g., class hours) but it is still problematic. Want to know the quickest way to getting lousy teaching ratings? Try delaying marking or giving feedback to your students.

Assuming that procrastination didn’t already prevent you from getting tenure, here’s what happens. You are going to see people who are not as talented as you, whose ideas are worse than yours, become influential and celebrated. They are going to publish more, do more, and be recognized more. Likely, you will become disillusioned from the entire academic field, which isn’t perfect but it plugs along, and start to define yourself in terms of other activities, such as your leisure hours. Too bad. You had something to contribute.

Q: What makes you say that "[p]rocrastination is the primary culprit" in the case of the very high percentage of Ph.D. candidates who finish everything but their dissertations? And do you have any broad suggestions for reducing that percentage?

A: With 70 pages of citations at the back of The Procrastination Equation, you are going to be hard-pressed to find anything not backed up or documented. My book gives five citations for that particular finding, though few would know about three of those citations – they are from unpublished Ph.D. dissertations, like Pullen’s “Perfectionism, procrastination, and other self-reported barriers to completing the doctoral dissertation.” It simply is what people observe and self-report.

Doing any major task for the first time is extremely hard motivationally as you don’t have a firm mental image of what you are supposed to be doing. For a Ph.D. thesis, initially it is almost exclusively an abstract endeavor and this does not provide motivation. Furthermore, it is such a big endeavor that you can’t do on talent alone, which many grad students have been relying solely upon. You need to break it down. To reduce the percentage of ABD's, the job of Ph.D. supervisors is very much using their experience to change the abstract into concrete tangible tasks. They break down the tasks into manageable pieces. They add some accountability by meeting with students regularly to review progress on each piece. Sometimes pumping up expectancy is required by giving a few pep talks. Finally, it helps to communicate the value of getting a Ph.D. by giving the student the bigger picture. The biggest regret most people have as they look back on their life is that they didn’t try harder at their studies.

Q: Can you suggest some concrete first steps for academics who'd like to break their procrastination habit? (Or at least -- realistically -- reduce it a little.)

A: First, don’t feel guilty about it. It is part of our human nature and we all do it to one extent or another. Second, still do something about it as you are suffering for it. The more we put off, the more likely we are worse off in terms of our health, wealth, and well-being. My best advice is to focus on getting rid of or distancing our temptations. Really, there is usually nothing wrong with our goals except when we are trying to enact them in an environment that is incredibly distracting. Our willpower isn’t perfect and so we succumb to temptations.

Since academics often share the same self-control issues as professional writers, they are a useful group to emulate. Many have daily word quotas they try to fulfill, a useful goal setting strategy. Many more physically disable their Internet connection to one extent or another, by preventing themselves from easily accessing all those distracting websites. Truly dedicating yourself to work, especially between the peak productive power hours of 10:00 and 2:00, can do wonders for your productivity even if you waste the rest of the day.

Really, these suggestions all stem from acknowledging that we do have limitations to our self-control. Once you accept that willpower is finite, then it becomes a choice. Adopt some scientifically proven techniques that extend willpower’s useful duration and become more productive. Or keep with what you have been doing and accept the status quo.


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