Even though no less a thinker than Adam Grant argues that procrastination can be helpful — one New Year’s he resolved to procrastinate more, not less — still: For many of us, starting fast and finishing slow isn’t always the best route to take.
Constantly putting things off not only means you get less done, it’s also really stressful.
With all the downsides, why do so many people — and by “people,” I also mean “me” — procrastinate? Turns out math is involved.
According to Piers Steel and Cornelius Konig, your motivation for a particular task can be calculated using the following formula (this is the simple version):
Motivation = (Expectancy X Value) / (Impulsiveness X Delay)
- Expectancy: How likely you feel you’ll succeed
- Value: What you’ll gain from succeeding
- Impulsiveness: Your natural inclination to put things off
- Delay: How much time you have to complete the task
Add it up, and boom: The result is your current level of motivation. The less confident you are, the less exciting the outcome, the longer you have to get it done … the more likely you are to put it off.
But as a deadline gets closer, your confidence level start to matter less and the downsides of not completing the task start to matter more. As the developers of temporal motivational theory write, “The perceived utility of a given activity increases exponentially as the deadline nears.”
And therefore, you’re more likely to get started.
Granted, you didn’t need math to explain the procrastination phenomenon. Or social psychologists.
But they can help you overcome it.
Ask Yourself the Same Four Questions. Frequently.
In a study published in December in Applied Psychology: An International Review, researchers sent students (the kings and queens of procrastination) texts twice a day that asked them to reflect on four questions:
- “Our analyses suggest that students who do best in this course start early and submit their lab report the day before it’s due. To demonstrate you have read the above statement, in the following box, please repeat what students who perform the best do:”
- “Imagine yourself the day before this assignment is due, and you haven’t started working on it. How do you feel?”
- “Research has found breaking larger tasks into smaller tasks can help with motivation. What is your next small step?”
- “If you could do one thing to ensure you finish the lab report on time, what would it be?”
Why those questions? The researchers hoped thinking about the inputs on the motivation equation would increase expectancy and value and decrease impulsiveness and delay. Take “What is your next small step?” and “If you could do one thing, what would it be?”
Breaking a big project down into smaller steps can feel a lot less daunting. So is committing to doing one thing rather than setting out to accomplish the whole thing.
At the end of two weeks, students who received the four questions were significantly more likely to start their assignments early than those who did not.
But there was a catch: The effect wasn’t immediate. As with advertising, repeated exposure was key. Most needed at least a few texts — at least a few moments of reflection — before they stopped waiting and started doing.
And oddly enough, the students didn’t mind the repeat reminders, probably because those repeat reminders eventually made a difference.
Try it. The next time you have a project — or, more likely, set a goal — you know you’re likely to put off starting, use a version of the four questions. In basic terms, they could look like this:
- “How would successful people achieve this goal?”
- “How will I feel if I don’t complete the task? Or run out of time to make it great?”
- “What is one thing I can do to make sure I finish on time?”
- “What is the first (or next) thing I need to do?”
Then put the prompts in your calendar. Send it to yourself twice a day. And, most important, take a few minutes to actually think about the answers to each question.
While it might take a day or two, eventually the drip effect will start to work. The self-reflection will start to pay off.
And the procrastination math will start to work in your favor.