Strategy

How to stop procrastinating and get things done now

A professor and recovering procrastinator offers lessons for resisting the siren call of distractions.

As a teenager, Piers Steel was a chronic procrastinator, literally falling asleep during exams because he’d left studying to all-night cram sessions. The pattern dogged him throughout university as he worked on undergraduate and graduate degrees. So when offered the chance to do a research project with a professor who’d amassed data on procrastination, he realized he’d found his calling.

After 11 years of studying the habit, and a lifetime battling it, Steel — now a professor of human resources and organizational dynamics at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business — has become the world’s leading authority on not getting things done. His findings feature in textbooks and management training courses, and his debut book, The Procrastination Equation, combines the first meta-analysis of the topic (encompassing some 800 studies) with original research, including some for which the professor served as his own subject.

Steel estimates that at least 95% of the population procrastinates in some way, but that 15% to 20% of us do it consistently and destructively. “It can be amusing or trivial, if it’s an amusing or trivial task you’re putting off, like taking out the garbage,” he says. “Or it can devolve into an episode of Hoarders.”

Expressed as an equation, procrastination equals “expectancy times value” over “impulsiveness times delay.” “As the deadline for any task gets pushed further into the future,” he writes, “delay increases and our motivation to tackle the task decreases.” The degree to which we’re impulsive compounds the effect of delay, with those among us most prone to being distracted feeling the least pressure from the passage of time until we’re staring down the barrel of a deadline. What mitigates our behaviour are the consequences of missing that deadline. Steel’s equation weighs those consequences by quantifying expectancy and value. “The bigger the payoff and the greater the likelihood of receiving it, the sooner [the task] will capture your attention.”

His analysis suggests that procrastinators do plan to take care of business but are stymied by an “intention-action gap.” As our environment grows increasingly distraction-laden, the most susceptible go ever further astray.

That said, procrastination itself is a problem as old as society. As Steel explains it, the tendency results from the tension between the cerebral cortex — the thoughtful part of the brain — and the limbic system, from which our more instinctive reactions derive. “Nature fine-tuned us almost perfectly for an environment of hunting and gathering,” says Steel. Extending our focus much beyond two days ahead is an exercise in willpower, whether working on a long-term project, saving for retirement, or doing things with little immediate reward, like going to the dentist. A day or two, he points out, “is about how long it took to hunt down an animal. That’s usually people’s natural time horizon with the limbic system.”

Of course, the self-help section of every bookstore is littered with claims of procrastination cures. But Steel is sceptical of their magic-bullet formulas. “I’m curious about whether someone can be sued for motivational malpractice,” he says. “They over-promise, incredibly so.”

The Procrastination Equation makes no such promises. Instead, Steel offers a dozen “scientifically proven, guaranteed to work” methods to manage the habit. To address the impulsiveness aspect of the equation, for example, he suggests minimizing the distraction of e-mail during the workday. “The limbic system is going to respond to anything shiny, and having that Pavlovian ???ding’ is a danger.” He also recommends changing passwords for social media or gaming sites to random 50-character strings, to make logging into them as onerous as possible. Delaying your access to temptation will weaken the desire for it. Another suggestion: build an “unschedule,” where recreational activities get pencilled first and chores fitted in around them.

While Steel established the soundness of his suggestions in laboratories (and continues to collect data via free diagnostic tests offered on his website, procrastinus.com), he has always been his own Patient Zero, inoculating himself against his bad habits with life hacks like those outlined in his book. “It was fun implementing them over the last 10 years and seeing my own work ethic change,” he says. A former computer-game addict with chronic lateness problems, he pruned distractions from his workspace effectively enough to enable him to write this book on top of his teaching duties. His challenge now is to convince those most in need of his advice to read it, and to that end, he’s distilling the lessons into a series of short “video snacks” for YouTube. They’ll make the perfect distraction for a busy workday.