The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel: Summary and Notes

The Procrastination Equation

“proximity to temptation is one of the deadliest determinants of procrastination.”

Rating: 8/10

Related Books: Eat That Frog, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now, The Now Habit

Print Ebook Audiobook

Get all my book summaries here


The Procrastination Equation: Short Summary

Many struggle with procrastination and have no idea how to beat the vice. The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel shows the fight against procrastination is winnable. Apart from dissecting the nature of procrastination, Steel shares time-tested strategies on how to take back control of your life and achieve your wildest dreams. An excellent book, full of actionable advice that will change your life for the better.

The Portrait of a Procrastinator

Procrastination is an irrational delay. It happens when we put off things even when we know that in doing so, we are going against our best interests. Procrastination is characterized by delays and self-deception.

The tendency to procrastinate is widespread, with over 95% of people admitting to the habit. Compared to their peers, chronic procrastinators are likely to be unemployed, working part-time, or lagging in many areas of life.

The number one reason that makes people procrastinate is impulsiveness, not perfectionism. Impulsiveness is the tendency to live in the moment and wanting it all now.

Impulsive people have little ability to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. They are more likely to feel anxious over tasks and go straight to procrastination.

The Procrastination Equation

“What can be done at any time is often done at no time.”

Procrastination has three basic components:

  • Expectancy. When we expect bad things to happen, we tend to procrastinate. For example: salespeople put off calling potential customers because they think their sales pitch will be rejected
  • Value. The less enjoyable a task is, the harder it is to get started
  • Time. The timing of a task is the greatest determinant of whether or not you pursue a task. Immediate rewards are more desirable than rewards that require you to wait

The Expected Utility Theory proposes people make decisions by multiplying Expectancy and Value. But this theory does not consider other aspects of human behavior, such as how long the time is delayed the greater the delay, the less the motivation.

The procrastination equation - Matching Law

This new equation called the Matching Law comes close to explaining why people procrastinate but it doesn’t include our sensitivity to delay. The more sensitive we are, the more we delay. Because without impulsiveness, there wouldn’t be a thing such as procrastination, the above equation changes to:

the procrastination equation - Procrastination equation

This is the procrastination equation, and it accounts for every major finding on procrastination.

For example:

Given an essay to complete, the typical college student will react to a long deadline by pushing the task further in time. As delay increases, so will their motivation to do the task. Impulsiveness will multiply the effects of delay, and so the impulsive student will feel the effects of timeless acutely.

Wired For Procrastination

The human brain is comprised of two systems competing on decision making: The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

Of the two, the limbic system is the oldest and the fastest in decision-making. It is found in all animals and is the source of impulsiveness as it relies on instinct.

The prefrontal cortex is newly evolved, and its function is to plan for the future. Procrastination happens when the limbic system vetoes the decisions of the prefrontal cortex.

“Procrastination increases whenever our more recently acquired prefrontal cortex is compromised. The less potent the prefrontal cortex, the less patient we become.”

Some of the things that compromise the prefrontal cortex include:

  • Stress
  • Sleeplessness
  • Resisting other temptations

Compared to adults, children are more likely to procrastinate because their prefrontal cortex is not that developed.

“Though the young act as if they will live forever, they really are living just for today.”

Impulsiveness also has genetic origins because impulsive people are more likely to procreate early and thus pass their genes along.

Procrastination: How Modern Life Ensures Distraction

“Our love affair with the present moment is at the root of procrastination. The fact that we tend to be more impetuous than reasonable is an evolutionary heirloom handed down through a thousand generations. But we can’t blame our neurobiology entirely. Every distraction the modern world offers also exacerbates the mismatch between who we are and what we need to be.”

When rewards are unpredictable but instantaneous, we work harder to get them. Many of the internet products such as Facebook and video games offer instantaneous rewards making them more addictive. They offer endless chances for impulsive behavior and, therefore, procrastination.

The Personal Price of Procrastination

the procrastination equation - the cost of procrastination

Procrastination comes at a grave cost to the individual. It affects all of life’s domains robbing you of money, health, and relationships.

People who work only when deadlines approach produce feeble and few insights compared to those who get an earlier start.

On average, procrastinators perform worse than everyone else. This applies to students, job-seekers, and in life. They save less and are more indebted.

“At the same time, procrastinators are more likely to delay going for medical checkups and to indulge in behaviors that create the need for treatments in the first place.

“In short, smoking, excessive alcohol use, drug abuse, recklessness, overeating, risky driving, and fighting, not to mention promiscuous sex, are all activities that procrastinators tend to do a little more of rather than a little less. They all tap into procrastinators’ impulsiveness, making gratification the one thing they don’t delay.”

Emmett’s Law: “The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself”

The bill for procrastination comes later in life in terms of regret. In the short-term, we regret what we do; but in the long-term, we regret the things that we don’t get done.

The Economic Cost of Procrastination

Procrastination costs the American economy trillions of dollars a year in terms of lost labor.

The internet and computers have made procrastinating easier as workers spend an inordinate amount of work checking email, playing video games, watching porn, and so on.

“Procrastination doesn’t just diminish our wealth by decreasing our productive hours. It also reduces the benefit we gain from our productivity itself.”

For example:

Americans save less than Singaporeans and have little to look forward to in terms of retirement. And it is not just people. The American government also spends beyond its means and risks the stability of the economy as a result.

Optimizing Optimism

“Beliefs are powerful because they form or directly affect expectancy, making them a motivational keystone of the Procrastination Equation. As you become less optimistic or less confident in your ability to achieve, your motivation also ebbs: the more uncertain you are of success, the harder it is to keep focused.”

Too much optimism can lead to procrastination. Over-optimism is likely to affect our decision-making when we underestimate the time a task is likely to take.

The optimism’s sweet spot: “We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success and use the prospect of failure as an indicator that we should up our game.”

Success spiral: “if we set ourselves an ongoing series of challenging but ultimately achievable goals, we maximize our motivation and make the achievement meaningful, reflecting our capabilities. Each hard-won victory gives a new sense of self and a desire to strive for more.”

People who suffer discouragement and only expect failure can learn from success spirals. The key is to start with small wins. Some examples of confidence-building opportunities include wilderness classes and adventure education.

There is always a path towards progress, no matter how small the increments. The more you can recognize advances towards your goals, the more your confidence will continue to grow.

Action Points to build success spirals:

  1. Think of an area of interest in your life and try and improve just a little bit. Things to consider include volunteer work, and learning a new skill
  2. Seek inspiration from stories. Find someone who faced the same hardships and copy their success
  3. Practice wish fulfillment. Think of what to achieve in life and break it down into achievable steps
  4. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Determine what could go wrong and create a plan for it
  5. Accept that you are addicted to delay. Start from the point of acknowledging your own faults rather than fighting them

Love it or Leave It

the procrastination equation - Love it or Leave It

We postpone the tasks that we hate the most. To make your tasks more interesting, try making things difficult on yourself, but you have to find the right balance between the difficulty of the task and your ability to do it.

When you gain true mastery, boredom becomes the norm as you have done it all before. One way to beat dullness is to play games with yourself by creating a feedback loop that tells you your score.

How to frame your tasks:

  • Avoid boredom by making tasks more challenging
  • Connect tasks to your long term goals
  • Frame your tasks in terms of what you want to achieve rather than what you want to avoid

“Actions that don’t fit self-determined and self-defined goals are amotivational.”

When tasks are relevant, the risk of procrastination diminishes.

Learn to manage your energy levels. You do not have infinite mental energy, just as you don’t have infinite physical energy.

Use your moments of strength to shield yourself from distractions. One way to do this is by prioritizing the most difficult work in the morning when you have more mental energy.

Using stimulants like caffeine to refresh your mental energy can be a good short-term strategy to maintain focus. But in the long-term, the effects wear out and you are left with dependence.

You can meet your procrastination halfway by engaging in productive procrastination. This strategy involves doing other tasks that are more enjoyable than the task you are avoiding. Think of sharpening your pencil as you prepare to write something.

In Good Time

If you are impulsive, you will always risk putting life off. However, you are likely to experience a moderate decrease in impulsiveness as you age.

“As you get closer to temptation, your desire for it peaks, allowing the temptation to trump later but better options. This probably happens to you all the time.”

How to handle your temptations:

  • Bondage. Put your temptations out of reach or far away
  • Satiation. Satisfy your needs before they get too intense and distract you from work
  • Poison. Make your temptations unattractive

The more you think of what you are trying to avoid, the more attention you give to it. So, instead of trying to think of your temptation, put distance to it.

Another strategy to beat impulsiveness is to think of the worst that can happen. People have lost jobs, money, and time with loved ones because of procrastination. Ask yourself whether it is worth it.

Create external reminders of the goals that you need to achieve. These external reminders will focus your energy on what really matters.

Tips on goal setting:

  • Frame your goals in specific terms. Say what you want to get done and by when
  • Break down your long-term goals into short-term objectives. Create mini-goals to give you a sense of progress
  • Organize your goals into routines. Predictability will make achieving your goals easier