How to Beat Procrastination
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
My own behavior baffles me. I find myself doing what I hate, and not doing what I really want to do!
- Saint Paul (Romans 7:15)
Once you’re trained in BayesCraft, it may be tempting to tackle classic problems “from scratch” with your new Rationality Powers. But often, it’s more effective to do a bit of scholarship first and at least start from the state of our scientific knowledge on the subject.
Today, I want to tackle procrastination by summarizing what we know about it, and how to overcome it.
Let me begin with three character vignettes...
Eddie attended the sales seminar, read all the books, and repeated the self-affirmations in the mirror this morning. But he has yet to make his first sale. Rejection after rejection has demoralized him. He organizes his desk, surfs the internet, and puts off his cold calls until potential clients are leaving for the day.
Three blocks away, Valerie stares at a blank document in Microsoft Word. Her essay assignment on municipal politics, due tomorrow, is mind-numbingly dull. She decides she needs a break, texts some friends, watches a show, and finds herself even less motivated to write the paper than before. At 10pm she dives in, but the result reflects the time she put into it: it’s terrible.
In the next apartment down, Tom is ahead of the game. He got his visa, bought his plane tickets, and booked time off for his vacation to the Dominican Republic. He still needs to reserve a hotel room, but that can be done anytime. Tom keeps pushing the task forward a week as he has more urgent things to do, and then forgets about it altogether. As he’s packing, he remembers to book the room, but by now there are none left by the beach. When he arrives, he finds his room is 10 blocks from the beach and decorated with dead mosquitos.
Eddie, Valerie, and Tom are all procrastinators, but in different ways.1
Eddie’s problem is low expectancy. By now, he expects only failure. Eddie has low expectancy of success from making his next round of cold calls. Results from 39 procrastination studies show that low expectancy is a major cause of procrastination.2 You doubt your ability to follow through with the diet. You don’t expect to get the job. You really should be going out and meeting girls and learning to flirt better, but you expect only rejection now, so you procrastinate. You have learned to be helpless.
Valerie’s problem is that her task has low value for her. We all put off what we dislike.3 It’s easy to meet up with your friends for drinks or start playing a videogame; not so easy to start doing your taxes. This point may be obvious, but it’s nice to see it confirmed in over a dozen scientific studies. We put off things we don’t like to do.
But the strongest predictor of procrastination is Tom’s problem: impulsiveness. It would have been easy for Tom to book the hotel in advance, but he kept getting distracted by more urgent or interesting things, and didn’t remember to book the hotel until the last minute, which left him with a poor selection of rooms. Dozens of studies have shown that procrastination is closely tied to impulsiveness.4
Impulsiveness fits into a broader component of procrastination: time. An event’s impact on our decisions decreases as its temporal distance from us increases.5 We are less motivated by delayed rewards than by immediate rewards, and the more impulsive you are, the more your motivation is affected by such delays.
Expectancy, value, delay, and impulsiveness are the four major components of procrastination. Piers Steel, a leading researcher on procrastination, explains:
Decrease the certainty or the size of a task’s reward—its expectancy or its value—and you are unlikely to pursue its completion with any vigor. Increase the delay for the task’s reward and our susceptibility to delay—impulsiveness—and motivation also dips.
The Procrastination Equation
This leaves us with “the procrastination equation”:
Though we are always learning more, the procrastination equation accounts for every major finding on procrastination, and draws upon our best current theories of motivation.6
Increase the size of a task’s reward (including both the pleasantness of doing the task and the value of its after-effects), and your motivation goes up. Increase the perceived odds of getting the reward, and your motivation also goes up.
You might have noticed that this part of the equation is one of the basic equations of the expected utility theory at the heart of economics. But one of the major criticisms of standard economic theory was that it did not account for time. For example, in 1991 George Akerlof pointed out that we irrationally find present costs more salient than future costs. This led to the flowering of behavioral economics, which integrates time (among other things).
Hence the denominator, which covers the effect of time on our motivation to do a task. The longer the delay before we reap a task’s reward, the less motivated we are to do it. And the negative effect of this delay on our motivation is amplified by our level of impulsiveness. For highly impulsive people, delays do even greater damage to their motivation.
The Procrastination Equation in Action
As an example, consider the college student who must write a term paper.7 Unfortunately for her, colleges have created a perfect storm of procrastination components. First, though the value of the paper for her grades may be high, the more immediate value is very low, assuming she dreads writing papers as much as most college students do.8 Moreover, her expectancy is probably low. Measuring performance is hard, and any essay re-marked by another professor may get a very different grade: a B+ essay will get an A+ if she’s lucky, or a C+ if she’s unlucky.9 There is also a large delay, since the paper is due at the end of the semester. If our college student has an impulsive personality, the negative effect of this delay on her motivation to write the paper is greatly amplified. Writing a term paper is grueling (low value), the results are uncertain (low expectancy), and the deadline is far away (high delay).
But there’s more. College dorms, and college campuses in general, might be the most distracting places on earth. There are always pleasures to be had (campus clubs, parties, relationships, games, events, alcohol) that are reliable, immediate, and intense. No wonder that the task of writing a term paper can’t compete. These potent distractions amplify the negative effect of the delay in the task’s reward and the negative effect of the student’s level of impulsiveness.
How to Beat Procrastination
Although much is known about the neurobiology behind procrastination, I won’t cover that subject here.10 Instead, let’s jump right to the solutions to our procrastination problem.
Once you know the procrastination equation, our general strategy is obvious. Since there is usually little you can do about the delay of a task’s reward, we’ll focus on the three terms of the procrastination equation over which we have some control. To beat procrastination, we need to:
Increase your expectancy of success.
Increase the task’s value (make it more pleasant and rewarding).
Decrease your impulsiveness.
You might think these things are out of your control, but researchers have found several useful methods for achieving each of them.
Most of the advice below is taken from the best book on procrastination available, Piers Steel’s The Procrastination Equation, which explains these methods and others in more detail.
If you don’t think you can succeed, you’ll have little motivation to do the task that needs doing. You’ve probably heard the advice to “Be positive!” But how? So far, researchers have identified three major techniques for increasing optimism: Success Spirals, Vicarious Victory, and Mental Contrasting.
One way to build your optimism for success is to make use of success spirals.11 When you achieve one challenging goal after another, your obviously gain confidence in your ability to succeed. So: give yourself a series of meaningful, challenging but achievable goals, and then achieve them! Set yourself up for success by doing things you know you can succeed at, again and again, to keep your confidence high.
Steel recommends that for starters, “it is often best to have process or learning goals rather than product or outcome goals. That is, the goals are acquiring or refining new skills or steps (the process) rather than winning or getting the highest score (the product).”12
Wilderness classes and adventure education (rafting, rock-climbing, camping, etc.) are excellent for this kind of thing.13 Learn a new skill, be it cooking or karate. Volunteer for more responsibilities at work or in your community. Push a favorite hobby to the next level. The key is to achieve one goal after another and pay attention to your successes.14 Your brain will reward you with increased expectancy for success, and therefore a better ability to beat procrastination.
Pessimism and optimism are both contagious.15 Wherever you are, you probably have access to community groups that are great for fostering positivity: Toastmasters, Rotary, Elks, Shriners, and other local groups. I recommend you visit 5-10 such groups in your area and join the best one.
You can also boost your optimism by watching inspirational movies, reading inspirational biographies, and listening to motivational speakers.
Many popular self-help books encourage creative visualization, the practice of regularly and vividly imagining what you want to achieve: a car, a career, an achievement. Surprisingly, research shows this method can actually drain your motivation.16
Unless, that is, you add a second crucial step: mental contrasting. After imagining what you want to achieve, mentally contrast that with where you are now. Visualize your old, rusty car and your small paycheck. This presents your current situation as an obstacle to be overcome to achieve your dreams, and jumpstarts planning and effort.17
Guarding Against Too Much Optimism
Finally, I should note that too much optimism can also be a problem,18 though this is less common. For example, too much optimism about how long a task will take may cause you to put it off until the last minute, which turns out to be too late. Something like Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret may be too optimistic.
How can you guard against too much optimism? Plan for the worst but hope for the best.19 Pay attention to how you procrastinate, make backup plans for failure, but then use the methods in this article to succeed as much as possible.
It’s hard to be motivated to do something that doesn’t have much value to us—or worse, is downright unpleasant. The good news is that value is to some degree constructed and relative. The malleability of value is a well-studied area called psychophysics,20 and researchers have some advice for how we can inject value into necessary tasks.
If the task you’re avoiding is boring, try to make it more difficult, right up to the point where the difficulty level matches your current skill, and you achieve “flow.”21 This is what the state troopers of Super Troopers did: they devised strange games and challenges to make their boring job passable. Myrtle Young made her boring job at a potato chip factory more interesting and challenging by looking for potato chips that resembled celebrities and pulling them off the conveyor belts.
It also helps to make sure tasks are connected to something you care about for its own sake,22 at least through a chain: you read the book so you can pass the test so you can get the grade so you can get the job you want and have a fulfilling career. Breaking the chain leaves a task feeling meaningless.
Obviously, tasks are harder when you don’t have much energy.23 Tackle tasks when you are most alert. This depends on your circadian rhythm,24 but most people have the most energy during a period starting a few hours after they wake up and lasting 4 hours.25 Also, make sure to get enough sleep and exercise regularly.26
Other things that have worked for many people are:
Drink lots of water.
Stop eating anything that contains wheat and other grains.
Use drugs (especially modafinil) as necessary.
Do short but intense exercise once a week.
When tired, splash cold water on your face or take a shower or do jumping jacks or go running.
Listen to music that picks up your mood.
De-clutter your life, because clutter is cognitively exhausting for your brain to process all day long.
One obvious way to inject more value into a task is to reward yourself for completing it.27
Also, mix bitter medicine with sweet honey. Pair a long-term interest with a short-term pleasure.28 Find a workout partner whose company you enjoy. Treat yourself to a specialty coffee when doing your taxes. I bribe myself with Pinkberry frozen yogurt to do things I hate doing.
Of course, the most powerful way to increase the value of a task is to focus on doing what you love wherever possible. It doesn’t take much extra motivation for me to research meta-ethics or write summaries of scientific self-help: that is what I love to do. Some people who love playing video games have made careers out of it. To figure out which career might be full of tasks that you love to do, taking a RIASEC personality test might help. In the USA, O*NET can help you find jobs that are in-demand and fit your personality.
Impulsiveness is, on average, the biggest factor in procrastination. Here are two of Steel’s (2010a) methods for dealing with impulsiveness.
Ulysses did not make it past the beautiful singing Sirens with willpower. Rather, he knew his weaknesses and so he committed in advance to sail past them: he literally tied himself to his ship’s mast. Several forms of precommitment are useful in handling impulsiveness.29
One method is to “throw away the key”: Close off tempting alternatives. Many people see a productivity boost when they decide not to allow a TV in their home; I haven’t owned one in years. But now, TV and more is available on the internet. To block that, you might need a tool like RescueTime. Or, unplug your router when you’ve got work to do.
Another method is to make failure really painful. The website stickK lets you set aside money you will lose if you don’t meet your goal, and ensures that you have an outside referee to decide whether your met your goal or not. To “up the ante,” set things up so that your money will go to an organization you hate if you fail. And have your chosen referee agree to post the details of your donation to Facebook if you don’t meet your goal.
Hundreds of books stress SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Anchored.30 Is this recommendation backed by good research? Not quite. First, notice that Attainable is redundant with Realistic, and Specific is Redundant with Measurable and Time-Anchored. Second, important concepts are missing. Above, we emphasized the importance of goals that are challenging (and thus, lead to “flow”) and meaningful (connected to things you desire for their own sake).
It’s also important to break up goals into lots of smaller subgoals which, by themselves, are easier to achieve and have more immediate deadlines. Typically, daily goals are frequent enough, but it can also help to set an immediate goal to break you through the “getting started” threshold. Your first goal can be “Write the email to the producer,” and your next goal can be the daily goal. Once that first, 5-minute task has been completed, you’ll probably already be on your way to the larger daily goal, even if it takes 30 minutes or 2 hours.31
Also: Are your goals measuring inputs or outputs? Is your goal to spend 30 minutes on X or is it to produce final product X? Try it different ways for different tasks, and see what works for you.
Because we are creatures of habit, it helps to get into a routine.32 For example: Exercise at the same time, every day.
So there you have it. To beat procrastination, you need to increase your motivation to do each task on which you are tempted to procrastinate. To do that, you can (1) optimize your optimism for success on the task, (2) make the task more pleasant, and (3) take steps to overcome your impulsiveness. And to do each of those things, use the specific methods explained above (set goals, pre-commit, make use of success spirals, etc.).
A warning: Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t try to completely eliminate procrastination. Be real. Overregulation will make you unhappy. You’ll have to find a balance.
But now you have the tools you need. Identify which parts of the procrastination equation need the most work in your situation, and figure out which methods for dealing with that part of the problem work best for you. Then, go out there and make yourself stronger, score that job, and help save the world!
(And, read The Procrastination Equation if you want more detail than I included here.)
Next post: My Algorithm for Beating Procrastination
Previous post: Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge
1 These are the fictional characters used to illustrate the procrastination equation in Steel (2010a).
2 Expectancy corresponds most closely to the commonly measured trait of “self efficacy.” The relatively strong correlation between low self-efficacy and procrastination (across 39 studies) is shown table 3 of Steel (2007).
3 In a recent post, Eliezer Yudkowsky claimed that “on a moment-to-moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of procrastinating.” Thus, “when you procrastinate, you’re probably not procrastinating because of the pain of working.” That might be true for Eliezer in particular, but studies on procrastination suggest it’s not true for most people. The pain of doing a task is a major factor contributing to procrastination. This is known as the problem of task aversiveness (Brown 1991; Burka & Yuen 1983; Ellis & Knauss 1977), also known as the problem of task appeal (Harris & Sutton, 1983) or as the dysphoric affect (Milgram, Sroloff, & Rosenbaum, 1988). For an overview of additional literature demonstrating this point, see page 75 of Steel (2007).
4 For an overview of the correlation between impulsiveness and procrastination, see pages 76-79 and 81 of Steel (2007).
5 This is recognized as one of the psychological laws of learning (Schwawrtz, 1989), and plays a role in the dominant economic role of discounted utility (Loewenstein & Elster, 1992). In particular, see the work on temporal construal theory (Trope & Liberman, 2003).
6 The procrastination equation is called temporal motivational theory (TMT). See Steel (2007) on how TMT accounts for every major finding on procrastination. See Steel & Konig (2006) on how TMT draws upon and integrates our best psychological theories of motivation. There are other theories of procrastination—the most popular may be the decisional-avoidant-arousal theory proposed by Ferrari (1992). But a recent meta-analysis shows that TMT is more consistent with the data (Steel, 2010b). An important note is that the full version of TMT places a constant in the denominator to prevent the denominator from skyrocketing into infinity as delay approaches 0. Also, ‘impulsiveness’ here is a substitute for ‘susceptibility to delay,’ something which may vary by task, whereas ‘impulsiveness’ sounds like a stable character trait that might not help to explain having different motivations to perform different tasks.
7 This example taken from Steel (2010a). Academic procrastination is the most-studied kind of procrastination (McCown & Roberts, 1994).
8 Even George Orwell hated writing. He wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
9 See Cannings et al. (2005) and Newstead (2002).
10 Read chapter 3 of Steel (2010a).
11 In business academia, success spirals are known as “efficacy-performance spirals” or “efficacy-performance deviation amplifying loops”. See Lindsley et al. (1995).
12 See Steel (2010a), note 9 in chapter 7.
13 See Hans (2000), Feldman & Matjasko (2005), and World Organization of the Scout Movement (1998).
14 Zimmerman (2002).
15 Aarts et al. (2008), Armitage & Conner (2001), Rivs & Sheeran (2003), van Knippenberg et al. (2004).
16 Levin & Spei (2004), Rhue & Lynn (1987), Schneider (2001), Waldo & Merritt (2000).
17 Achtziger et al. (2008), Oettingen et al. (2005), Oettingen & Thorpe (2006), Kavanagh et al. (2005), Pham & Taylor (1999).
18 Sigall et al. (2000).
19 Aspinwall (2005).
20 A good overview is Weber (2003).
21 Csikszentmihalyi (1990).
22 Miller & Brickman (2004), Schraw & Lehman (2001), Wolters (2003).
23 Steel (2007), Gropel & Steel (2008).
24 Furnham (2002).
25 Klein (2009).
26 Oaten & Cheng (2006).
27 Bandura (1976), Febbraro & Clum (1998), Ferrari & Emmons (1995). This is known as learned industriousness, impulse pairing or impulse fusion. See Eisenberger (1992), Renninger (2000), Stromer et al. (2000).
28 Ainslie (1992).
29 Ariely & Wertenbroch (2002) and Schelling (1992).
30 Locke & Latham (2002).
31 Gropel & Steel (2008), Steel (2010a).
32 Diefendorff et al. (2006), Gollwitzer (1996), Silver (1974).
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Research shows that this doesn’t work for most people (but maybe it does for you). The reason seems to be that most people normally go and get what they want if they can. In order to turn something that you can always have into a reward, you would have to suppress this. Instead of rewarding yourself, you end up punishing yourself.
To use your example, you are not bribing yourself with Pinkberry frozen yogurt at all; you know that you can have your Pinkberry frozen yogurt whenever you want. You are actually denying yourself the Pinkberry frozen yogurt until you’ve finished the task. After the completion of the task you just restore normality. Every time your subconscious asks you, “I want Pinkberry frozen yogurt, why am I doing this to myself?”, your conscious comes back saying “Because I need to motivate myself to do this task I hate.” You begin to associate the task with Pinkberry-frozen-yoghurt deprivation and you start hating the task even more. Motivation goes down.
Furthermore, there’s the side-effect of having Pinkberry frozen yogurt at a time when you would normally not actually want it. You only have it in order to “reward” yourself for that task. Having Pinkberry frozen yogurt now itself becomes a task! You run the risk of compromising your love for Pinkberry frozen yogurt by forcing it instead of letting it happen naturally. Before you know it, Pinkberry frozen yogurt is no longer a reward. As soon as you realise this, you stop having it after the task, then you stop having it altogether because you associate it with the task you hate, and then you hate the task even more for destroying your fondness for Pinkberry frozen yogurt. Motivation goes down.
The only times this “self-imposed reward” system works on me is when the reward is intrinsically unavailable until the task is completed. For example, you could reward yourself for doing the shopping by buying Pinkberry frozen yogurt. You can’t have it until you bought it. But for other tasks (like writing an essay), that doesn’t work.
Concerning rewards, see Procrastinus’ comment here.
Awesome article as always. I really like your recent high-quality posts, Luke.
A few additional notes.
1) I was already more or less aware of this research through the language learning community, mostly the Japanese one. For example, Khatzumoto has been advocating this for some time now, see this article for an explanation or this trilogy in 9 parts for practical advice how to fix it. (Because LW isn’t really about learning languages, I’ll just leave it at this.)
These techniques try not to fix your own attitude (like, giving you lower Impulsiveness, changing the Value you assign or affecting your optimism), but instead change the learning strategies in such a way that they work regardless of these problems. So instead of learning how to tackle larger goals, they instead choose really tiny ones. Khatz for example strongly advocates timeboxes of 90 seconds or less, or changing the learning material to intrinsically fun stuff (manga instead of textbooks). This is something that the traditional procrastination literature doesn’t really address very much. It has helped me a lot, in addition to all the approaches you already described.
2) I strongly agree with this model, but I’m not sure that this covers all of procrastination. I have seen additional (albeit not nearly as common) failure modes where all 4 variables given seem to be just fine, but still nothing got done. For example, I know quite a few experienced meditators that were horrible procrastinators in certain domains (e.g. Shinzen Young, see part 2 of this interview). (This includes myself, too, but I’m not nearly as experienced as I wish I was.) Through strong concentration meditation, you can easily make any task fun by going into Flow at will (or even stronger states than that), through variants of metta meditation, failure becomes no big deal and someone that can sit an hour or more paying detailed attention to pain (physical or emotional) doesn’t really have a problem with Impulsiveness per se. I’m not sure that these factors are really the main cause here.
To give a personal example (a fairly common one among advanced vipassana practitioners) of such a failure mode, there’s all-consuming nihilism, where you still have high concentration, lots of pleasure and so on, but find every possible action intrinsically empty, so you can’t be bothered at all to do anything. In the extreme case, people simply lie around all day, doing nothing. (This is distinct from depression in that pleasure and motivation still exist as sensations, but are rejected, although from the outside it looks very similar.) The fix to this is not to try to arbitrarily assign Value to activities again, as the equation would predict (because activities are already enjoyable, but that doesn’t help at all), but instead to turn this nihilism on itself and realize that “wanting meaning” is just as meaningless as everything else. So in that case, more specific insight and the uprooting of beliefs is necessary, not a better technique. (PJ Eby provides plenty of practical examples and great fixes for related situations, imo.)
3) Rewards can backfire horribly if done wrong. I have tried to use operant conditioning for not-so-pleasant, but necessary tasks. (Similar to taw’s point system and strongly influenced by Don’t Shoot The Dog.) The problem is that I came to replace my intrinsic (albeit limited) motivation entirely with an external one. Now once I either found a way to game the system (get the same reinforcements in an easier fashion) or skipped the rewards for some reason, all my motivation was gone completely. (Gabe Zichermann in his talk on gamification gives another example of this replacement.) So I’d highly advice against using reward systems except maybe for short, one-off goals.
(However, I have successfully exploited this to stop behavior. Don’t Shoot The Dog explains this in detail. Essentially, you practice the behavior you don’t want to do, put it on a reward system, give it an explicit cue and then you don’t give the cue, ever. It’s a bit tricky and dark-artsy, but works.)
What a wonderful post!
I considered the benefits of meditation as a procrastination control technique and you will find it in the notes section of the book. I have practiced mindfulness meditation but no longer keep up with it. Though the mindfulness part does give you an option to reduce the power of temptations, you are quite right that it also can expand to eliminate value in general (nihilism). However, the reason I rejected it as viable solution is that it takes so long to master and this is the exact type of discipline that procrastinators will put off aquiring. Good in theory but of little practical value because people won’t take the time to put it into practice. Maybe this is why the Pali Cannon calls procrastination “moral defilement.”
As for self-rewards, I did debate whether to include them. In my original doctoral dissertation, I wrote this “However, it is uncertain whether rewards will be as effective when self-administered. Ainslie (1992) indicates that self-rewards are very susceptible to corruption, where the rules are bent to the extent that they are no longer effective. I suspect that the use of self-rewards will be negatively correlated with procrastination, but weakly.”
Consequently, I tried to express self-rewards in the book in a way that will actually work, which is called “Impulse Pairing, ” as well as acknowledge its inherent limitations, that is”But this method has its risks as well. Engaging a partner to help you finish a report or prep for an exam, for example, can degenerate into an evening-long bull-session with little learning to show for it.”
I really appreciate the level of thought that is being shown here. Impressive.
for others reference, I believe this is Piers Steel.
I’d tend to agree with you here. For me, the same applies to (strength-based) exercise. I loved it when I do it, it improves my work, but when I’m trapped in massive procrastination, I can’t use it at all to get me out of it. I’d consider both more advanced techniques, or maybe maintenance.
However, personally, I don’t have any choice about meditation. Once you get past a certain threshold (aka stream entry), you will continue, if you like it or not. People keep on cycling through multiple stages and progress regardless of their actions, although continued practice makes this much more pleasant and efficient.
Therefore, I would not recommend anyone working on their motivation that hasn’t (in some form or another) crossed stream entry to pick up meditation (at least not primarily), but if you’re already there, more practice helps and is kinda inevitable.
Thank you! You have no idea just how helpful this comment is to me right now. Your answer to all-consuming nihilism is exactly what i needed!
(It’s hardly relevant to the parent comment, but the Shinzen Young interview linked above is behind a paywall nowadays. But it can still be read here.)
What happens when people decide that wanting meaning is also meaningless?
Well done on the article. I have something to add that may or may not help. I have found that the first step to solving any problem is discovering why the problem occurs or what causes it. For over 19 years I have found this to be the case for Australians anyway. There are 4 major reasons why people procrastinate. One of the 4 reasons comes under the category of “Wrong Goals” there is a valuable article written, in easy to understand terms and It can be found at http://bit.ly/wronggoals. (Relax, there is nothing to buy or sign up to) Hope it helps people Sam
Dead link, FWIW.
Pretty much deader than disco, but my inet-fu was able to dig up the following excerpts of the original article (from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/25019/overcoming-procrastination):
Also since I have evidently no life, I mini-doxed Sam in case someone would like to ask him whether he still has a copy of the whole article, lol:
In general, this post looks useful and well researched, so upvoted. This is my only problem with it:
For me personally, this is a really bad idea because it’ll kick me into pain motivation mode and uselessly cause me more stress (decreasing my effectiveness.) You’ve clearly read much more then me on the subject, and so this may work for some people, but I think that it has a chance to significantly backfire for others.
The best way of making this technique is focusing on the negative sides of engaging in temptation, of what would happen if you played video games instead of working for example. This is basic application of Walter Mischel’s attentional control research as well as covert sensitization.
Though everything in the book is backed up with research (that was my standard for inclusion), I like where how you are focusing on it. Any of these techniques can misfire if applied inappropriately or in the wrong way. Devil is always in the details.
Making failure painful is a way of pre-committing. There is some research that shows the effectiveness of pre-commitment, but I’m not aware of experimental studies on that particular kind of pre-commitment, so perhaps you’re right. On the other hand, a great many people have found such “penalty” methods of precommitment very useful. And, if I have to bet on advice between a leading researcher in the field and a guy whose website looks like this, I’ll bet on the former.
The kind of pain is probably important. “Fail and you’ve just proven you’re a really bad person” is not helpful.
I expect that there might be a great deal of difference between an externally imposed threat and a self-imposed threat. “Start working, or I’ll do something nasty to you” never seemed to motivate me very much if the task was at all difficult. Threats tend to make me less inclined to attempt whatever task it is that I am being threatened to do, rather than more.
And it seems stupid to precommit to a penalty for not achieving a goal that I think I’m likely to fail at.
Then induce a penalty for not trying.
It seems like delay is a factor that can be manipulated in some ways. For example, one might set a sub-goal of having the term paper written in an acceptable draft form halfway through the semester, to be reviewed by a teacher or peer. This would be processed differently from the end goal of having the final version ready at the end of the semester.
I completely agree. This is one of many things that I skipped over in order to keep this article shorter than an entire book. Breaking a task into subgoals, and rewarding oneself for the accomplishment of each subgoal, is something I suspect would be effective, precisely because it moderates the effect of delay on motivation.
Come to think of it, breaking something into subgoals is likely to increase value (higher reward frequency, lower dread per goal), increase expectancy (smaller tasks are easier to envision oneself accomplishing), and decrease impulsiveness (since one is less likely to get distracted from smaller goals).
The disadvantage is having more total goals to keep track of, which can itself be a source of problems. There is probably a point at which there is a trade-off between having too many goals to keep track of and having goals which are too easily procrastinated. This could be a reason why writing things down helps some people, as it reduces the working-memory barrier to generating more numerous sub-goals.
I’ve had this page in a tab in my browser for days intending to read it, and still haven’t. Seriously.
It’s nice to know my acrasia has a sense of humour.
Sad but true. Often, I find that it helps to open a new window for things that I need to read, fill out, etc., because 1), it makes it harder to be distracted by the “fun” tabs I also have open, and 2), Firefox (at least) can’t save all of your tabs when you have two windows open, so you have to close one of them, and the “serious” window is a way to force yourself to finish everything in that window before you close your browser and do something else.
Having said that, LW usually takes up most of my saved “fun” tabs...
I think it does save them all if you quit by hitting “quit” rather than closing all windows.
Does that mean I’ve been discarding tabs without realizing it every time I’ve closed the browser with more than one multiple-tab window open?
Probably. In firefox 3 (windows version), if you have two windows open, close one, and then close the other, only the second window’s tabs will appear on the window that’s created when you re-open firefox if you have it set to re-open your last group of tabs when you start it. (You can probably re-open the other window via ‘history > recently closed windows’, but this would be a separate step.)
Ending the firefox process from the task manager will save all sufficiently-recent tabs in all open windows, but is not at all elegant.
I haven’t messed with this in firefox 4 yet, but expect that it works similarly.
File → Exit
File → Quit, at least on Linux
Looks like File > Exit works. Still, though, having to go to the File menu can work as a minor barrier to impulsiveness.
Also, AD, the saved session feature in Firefox 4 is kind of the opposite of Firefox 3--it asks you if you want to open your last session when you start, instead of asking if you want to save when you quit, in case you were wondering.
Doesn’t seem to work for me.
Alt, F, X. (I apparently value my pedantic satisfaction more than your productivity right now, but you were likely to find out eventually.)
Sheesh, who knew even productivity could be destroyed by the truth?
Hee hee. I’ve been doing similar… but have been incrementally reading through it, and now have finished it.
Just finished it… while avoiding doing something else probably more urgent and important.
Thank you so very very much for hosting pdfs of the journal articles you cite. Tracking those down between 20 different academic paywalls would have been very painful for me.
And they even all have beautiful names like Zimmerman-Becoming-a-self-regulated-learner.pdf, rather than the 7168761.pdf that you often get when downloading an academic paper.
I wish I could vote this most awesome article up multiple times.
Note that there’s an Anti-Akrasia technique in here waiting to happen: If you can increase the delay of a rewarding but unproductive task that otherwise has no delay at all then you reduce your motivation to do it.
Internet browsing comes to mind. I think the XKCD author has done something to this effect (check out the comic’s comment here: http://xkcd.com/862/). To quip, he wrote a script that made his computer freeze for thirty seconds every time he opened unwanted material.
When Richard Stallman wants to view a web page, he sends the URL in an email to a server operated by him or one of his friends, and the server mails him back the page. He says that he does it that way “for personal reasons”, and my guess is that it is an anti-akrasia measure.
The beginning of this comment, up to the comma, sounds so very like the beginning of one of those Chuck Norris format jokes. I was honestly surprised when it turned out not to be.
This seems like a good manipulation of trivial inconveniences to dissuade oneself from a task.
Personally I’ve had some success with hiding shortcuts and only using distracting applications and websites on my phone rather than my laptop, as the inconvenient interface and lower speed makes it less pleasurable.
Very nice review here. Any better and I would say you needn’t bother buying the book. About the equation, it is indeed a simplification of the full model—trying to balance completeness with making sure it is understandable. As the book (and for those super keen, Temporal Motivation Theory described in my Academy of Management Review article “Integrating Theories of Motivation”), we add a constant in the denomenator to prevent the entire thing sky rocketing to infinity when delay approaches zero (in joke, one of the characters has a kid named Constance in reference to this).
lukeprog: This is amazing, and I learned a lot from this. You’re awesome.
I think the biggest problem with procrastination is that it results from fairly rational formulae, give or take a little outdated evolved psychology. The rewards that are far in the future are intrinsically less certain as the probability of drastic change accumulates over time, especially for impulsive individuals; the rewards of studying are many years into the future, and the utility of those rewards is very, very low on the biological scale of things, for the people living in rich countries.
As far as biology is concerned, human is a system with 1 ultimate goal: reproduction. Other behaviours (e.g. pursuit of status) are only means to an end. Studying in the developed countries, in particular is an extremely ineffective form of pursuit of status which is particularly unlikely to improve reproductive success, and is likely to decrease it.
It is bloody hard to use rationality to fight for the behaviours (studying) which much of your hardware has rightfully and rationally deemed irrational and not worth the time expenditure.
The conscious ‘mind’ is like a naive figurehead that gets fooled by everyone and everything, which is good for a honest face while repeating the lies (it repeats lies told by CEO, it repeats lies he heard on tv, et cetera). The figurehead got talked into adoption of currently-ineffective yet traditional strategy, but the CEO won’t even bother to listen and produce a counter-argument, or explain it’s choice. CEO just commands. The whole point of having a naive figurehead is to keep the figurehead in the dark. The CEO is a private fella, he sits in his office and lets everyone else think that figurehead is the CEO. The figurehead himself has to think so. The figurehead has barely mind of his own; he can’t compare things and find inconsistencies; he keeps thinking that he’s the CEO even though nothing obeys him (albeit the figurehead does make the coffee and can often wreck damage to the corporation by giving a sleeping pill to the CEO, i.e. taking the ‘anti procrastination’ drugs).
Now, if you are in a developing country and you are facing really bad life if you don’t study—then it is different story. Then your procrastination is fairly irrational and outright dumb.
edit: to be more constructive. You can try thinking harder about what the future is going to be like—running out of oil, runaway technological progress, genetically engineered diseases, and such. Then perhaps you will at least get yourself rational-ish motivation to study hard science, as it may help you survive (a very long shot though and the improvement in survival might be negligible). Still, that won’t make the ‘CEO’ care about the paper that says that someone thinks you ought to have learnt something after having been listening to lectures and preparing for exams (a degree paper). Studying for exam real quick then forgetting what you learnt? Forget about doing this, the only studying that will matter is the one that lasts in your head and this form of studying is much slower and might not even keep up with the courses.
Yeah that sums up my problem
Edit: Apparently not actually pseudomath, only looks like it, due to undefined scale and meaning of parameters. Although still contains a simplification made for rhetorical reasons that makes the formula wrong (see footnote 6).
I don’t believe such pseudomath is a good way of evoking the relevant intuitions, given the downside of being meaningless. Isn’t it strictly better to just say is as follows?
Using the equation allowed Steel (2010a) to predict fairly accurately the behavior of students in an online course at the University of Minnesota.
Even if there is an interpretation where this does make sense, in your own presentation (in this post) you’d still need to define the terms and their units to turn this into a meaningful hypothesis, and state that it’s indeed meaningful, to disambiguate from the rhetorical usage that I suspected in it.
(Correction included in the comment.)
I am using the equation rhetorically, on purpose. The footnote given immediately after the equation explains that the version in this post is pseudomath, and lists the paper that gives the true equation (and its measurement units) and argues for its validity. I even went to the trouble of uploading a PDF of that paper (and 30+ others) so you can read it yourself:
Steel & Konig (2006). Integrating theories of motivation. Academy of Management Review, 31(4): 889-913.
I do not argue for the truth of any of my claims in this article. That would take a book, not an article. I just list the advice, and leave the arguments about truth and conceptual validity for the footnotes and the references, which I have provided, with great effort.
Isn’t the equation just standard expected utility maximization, with hyperbolic discounting? (That is, if Luke hadn’t removed the additive constant in the denominator that was in the original equation.)
This is still +8 even though the objection is wrong and lukeprog’s article is awesome?
The objection is not wrong, it’s only partially wrong in that the pseudomath was inspired by correct math and not just a positive/negative influence list.
I’m not sure whether I agree with you or not. The four terms in the equation don’t have nearly as much predictive power as one might hope to obtain from an equation: specifically, we don’t really know what units any of the four quantities are measured in.
On the other hand, having an equation does give us marginally more data than your preferred presentation does. At least we know that the relationship looks more like (E)(V)/((I)(D)) as opposed to, say, (E+V)/(I+D), or some such. I do feel that having an equation present (with the appropriate mathematical disclaimers) helps me gain an intuitive understanding of the concept presented.
Edit: Fixed order of operations.
I now understand. Thanks.
If this equation is right, then Impulsiveness appears to be a meaningless quantity. A more impulsive person would be less motivated to perform a task, but also would be less motivated to perform competing tasks. Changing Impulsiveness scales all Motivations equally, preserving the same structure of relative Motivation.
Right. Along with the clarification added by Procrastinus above, this is one thing I left out for the purposes of simplification. Technically, the TMT model’s denominator contains a constant, a measure of delay, and a measure of “susceptibility to delay.” ‘Impulsiveness’ is a decent single-word corallary of ‘susceptibility to delay’, but may vary depending on the task, whereas ‘impulsiveness’ is a word that sounds like a stable character trait.
There. I’ve added to footnote #6 to clarify this.
With low motivation for all tasks, a person may end up not doing any task (some of the time) - procrastination.
It should be clarified whether this model considers entertainment activities as ‘tasks.’ If a person has high Impulsiveness, I intuitively see them doing a lot of things with high Expectancy, medium/low value, and little or no Delay. Example: videogames.
However, I do not predict that people with high Impulsiveness will sit around in bed all day actually doing nothing, so I think that the equation is flawed in that we usually understand Impulsiveness as a constant factor for a person, while Expectancy, Value, and Delay are all variable, depending on the activity being considered.
I have a real procrastination problem, and when I don’t have anything specific to do during the day I tend to lay in bed for at least an hour after I wake up. Not doing anything at all, just laying there.
So while laying in bed all day is probably unrealistic (hunger becomes a real motivator after a while) just sitting and doing nothing for a significant amount of time is not unrealistic at all.
Does my new addition to footnote #6 answer your concern?
Actually, the Expectancy (probability of success) component is not that simple: you don’t just maximize it to maximize motivation. As Robert Sapolsky shows in “The Uniqueness of Humans” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrCVu25wQ5s), motivation is proportional to the dopamin spike you get when you start to consider performing a task, and the dopamin spike is highest the closer your estimated probability of success is to (something like) 50%! The amount of dopamin produced when you consider starting a task that you have 25% or 75% chances of succeeding at will be significantly lower than for the 50%-chance task. So it’s not that you need to be certain about your success, it’s that you need to be pleasantly challenged, somewhere midway between “I’m so gonna fail” and “I’m so sure I can do this I find it absolutely boring” (though this sweet spot may not be at exactly 50% for everyone).
Perhaps you’re thinking of the dopamine spike when reward is actually given? I had thought the predictive spike was purely proportional to the odds of success and the amount of reward- which would indeed change with boring tasks, but not in any linear way. If you’re right about that basic structure of the predictive spike I should know about it for my research; can you give a reference?
Well, the relationship Sapolsky described wasn’t linear, it was more like a bell curve. And no, he doesn’t cite any particular study in that lecture, so all I have is his word on this one. I guess you could just ask him. :)
In my personal experience, the most common cause of procrastination and lack of willpower is open-ended tasks.
At school I would complete any short-answer or multiple choice homework in class or as soon as I got home,
but I would procrastinate over and often fail to complete any homework which involved writing essays, and
the more open-ended the essay question the more I would procrastinate over it. Similarly, if I was asked to
show workings out for my calculations I would refuse to do it, whereas I would usually comply when I was
given equally boring rote copying tasks. This is because there is often more than one way to solve a
problem, and more than one way to lay out such a method on paper, whereas rote copying does not offer any
options to choose from.
In conversation, I respond when I am asked a direct question but when I am asked an open-ended question I
procrastinate over coming up with an answer and there is an awkward silence. If I need to approach and talk
to someone who is not a close friend or family, I can motivate myself to overcome my shyness and do it if I
have what I need to say planned out word-for-word beforehand, but if there are many different ways to
phrase what I need to say then I procrastinate over deciding what to say and end up not saying anything.
I find it harder to motivate myself to clean windows than to motivate myself to vacuum. Vacuuming is a more
unpleasant task than cleaning windows—it involves listening to an irritating noise and wearing
uncomfortable heavy duty hearing protection. But when I clean a window, every time I look at it from a
different angle I see more smears. Due to the lack of a definite moment at which the window is clean I will
typically do the vacuuming first while I summon up the willpower for the window cleaning.
As I child, I would refuse to tidy my room when my mum asked me to. Whereas at school, at after-school
clubs and at church services I would always diligently help when I was asked to tidy up. This is because outside the home, there were always unambiguous rules about which tasks had to be done when tidying up.
Whereas at home I was never sure which tidying-up subtasks absolutely had to be done and which subtasks
What do you do if the task is both boring and extremely difficult, rather than boring and easy?
Stop procrastinating on the job hunt
What if the boring and extremely difficult task IS the job hunt!?
Here is the procrastination equation image (since it’s currently broken in the main text).
And the same equation in math:
For me, the equation seems more clearly expressed as:
Procrastination=Expected outcome ⋅ Expected enjoymentImpulsiveness ⋅ Delay until outcome
“we irrationally find present costs more salient than future costs”
Present Bias is not always irrational!
it can be rationalized (as in, “find rational cause” not “make up excuse”) as hedging against uncertainty. the future is never certain. our predictions about the future aren’t even probable. if you save your money instead of spending it, you might lose it all to madoff. if you don’t use that giftcard to some restaurant, your tastes might change and it won’t be worth anything.
in fact, Geometric Discouting maximizes average (undiscounted utility) if, every moment in time, there is some probability that you will transition to a state where you won’t ever be able to get more utility. i think of it as the Apocalypse. then the discount is less about preference and more about an uncertain future.
even better, let’s say you know THAT there is some “Apocalypse probability”, but not WHAT it is. put a beta distribution on it, a natural prior on probabilities. then every day, when you wake up (i.e. the Coin Of Fates lands heads), it’s a little more likely that the daily apocalypse is less likely (e.g. think about how unlikely flipping a fair coin 365 times is, you need to be a fool to not lower your estimate of the tails odds). update by bayes, you get laplace’s rule, and Hyperbolically Discounted reward. it’s like the Anthropic Principle.
i had to put in the math there to say that present bias can be rational and logical, and this can be shown formally and precisely. but really, it comes from common sense. just because a behavioral economist tells you that they’ll give you money tomorrow (and you know he’s telling the truth, since unlike psychology, the journals won’t accept deceptive experiments), doesn’t mean you’ll get the money (the world changes, e.g. they forget or err in mailing the check), and it doesn’t mean you’ll want the money (you change, e.g. you win the lottery). shit happens. people change.
having said all that, it’s safe to say that most of present bias is irrational. this is obvious from the frequent feelings of frustration with our present problems and anger against our past self for not solving them. at least, for me.
it’s just i’ve been smelling this Fetish lately for hating heuristics, biases, and intuition. but really, these things work really well much of the time for many tasks. and that’s often the first thing we hear in informed discussions, but i think people get caught up and forget about it (not saying lukeprog did, just making a big deal about one word he used).
(it’s like Lazy Evaluation. haskell is often fast despite, not because of, it. but sometimes, you really didn’t need to do something, and since everything is like a generator, you save big on computation.)
anyway, great post! (i stopped reading it halfway through because of the silliness of reading the internets to procrastinate my chores, and finished after :) i need to keep rereading it and thinking about it until i can figure out a way to remember and implement these things in my own mind.
ps check out “Strotz Meets Allais: Diminishing Impatience and the Certainty Effect”
Any number of interventions can help with a task you’re procrastinating on. But if you’d prefer to start with an understanding of procrastination as a phenomenon, see my “The Last Word on Procrastination: An integration of ego-depletion theory, construal-level theory, and the irreversibility of writing.”
Oddly enough, I find that the best way to get something done is to read a schedule that I made the day before. I somehow feel more obligated to stick to it than if I written it the day of. I can’t fully explain why this is the case, perhaps due to the fact that I’m more fatigued by the time I’ve written one, but it seems to be the best way I found to hack my own procrastination. Tim Ferriss also advocates making a plan for the day or week ahead, although his reasons might be different than mine.
I really like parts of this, but other parts—like “focus on doing what you love” and “increase your expectancy of success”—strike me as banal or vacuous. Note that I have a very biased view of this stuff, as will be clear from my recent anti-akrasia post on LessWrong: Anti-akrasia tool: like stickK.com for data nerds
So it won’t be surprising that the part of this I really love, and what I think is the part that really matters, is commitment devices and setting goals that are measurable, realistic, and time-anchored (so-called SMART goals).
Btw, I would say that StickK does commitment devices better than Beeminder but everything else about goal setting and goal tracking (per the SMART criteria ) worse. And more and more I feel that getting the commitment contracts perfect doesn’t matter. If you’re the type to cheat and weasel then self-binding websites will have no appeal to you in the first place, since, as a cheating weasel, you’re unbindable!
You would think that career selection and vocational counseling would be obvious to everyone, but sadly only a sliver of humanity take it seriously that career selection is driven by three criteria: i) Demand (is there a need for this, especially in terms of salary), ii) Skills (can you do this or are you willing to get the education), iii) Job satisfaction (will you like it). There are huge differences in what the literature calls person-job fit, so getting these three things right matter. However, people often go into careers knowing little about how they match on these points. Lucky ones get it right.
Of note, on SMART goals “Since the mid-eighties, over five hundred books have stressed S.M.A.R.T. goals, an acronym that has both too many and too few letters. S.M.A.R.T. stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Anchored. There are too many letters, in that Specific is redundant with both Measurable and Time-Anchored while Attainable is redundant with Realistic. There are too few in that it is still missing major concepts.”
A modern day acronym, updated with 30 years of research, would be the “CSI approach.” Challenging, Specifiic, Immediate and Approach. Now SMART goals are good; its just time for an update.
One way to keep the “Delay” high is to not have an external deadline or not commit to your own deadline. This is a real killer for me: without a proper deadline tasks are always too early or too late. When I’m “too early”, the task can be started but doesn’t get anywhere. Then, when I feel it’s “too late”, low expectations take over. Up till now I’ve used to think that the arbitrariness of setting your own deadline kills it (since it’s arbitrary, it can be reset on a whim). Now I see that thinking carefully about a deadline can reduce the arbitrariness.
Personally, I use PICS: Positive, Immediate, Concrete, and Specific. Huge improvement when you actually use it to plan real goals.
PICS or it didn’t happen?
I go with the CSI approach. Challenging, Specific, Immediate and make them approach goals. I think specific and concrete overlap quite a bit, though sometimes I separate them out too. SMART goals are based on a early 1980 paper on project management for teams. Only tangentially relevant for individual motivation.
Is there anywhere I can read about this? Are there academic papers? E.g. what keywords would make a good query to find more about how to set goals.
Thanks! I’m going to try that.
So this may be other-optimizing if you heed my anecdote, but contemplating my own swiftly approaching death (an idea I take from Stoicism) helps my procrastination. In the context of this article, I think it works because it decreases my impulsiveness by forcing me to view my time as a finite resource, thus reducing some (not all) hyperbolic discounting of rewards. When I get up in the morning, if I say to myself something like “I probably have less than 20,000 days left to live, and this is one of those days,” I find it easier to do tasks that my rational brain knows are more valuable to me, versus tasks that generate immediate reward chemicals in my animal brain. This visualization idea drives the point home even harder. When I am dying, I don’t want to look back on my life and see that I wasted days binge watching House of Cards or reading interesting articles instead of doing something worth writing an interesting article about. I think this technique gives an immediate reward through my recognition that I spent an extremely scarce resource efficiently, thus giving some immediacy to long-term goals.
Great article. One statement that really caught my eye was the reccomendation to not clutter your life. That’s exactly how I would describe my life at this point. Cluttered. If anybody was any advice on how to declutter and refocus your life that would be greatly appreciated.
I thought it was comical that I clicked the O*NET link and spent a good 10min or so on that site just to come back to the next heading which was “Handling Impulsiveness”
Well played, author! Thanks for the sequence!
These are awesome ideas and techniques, thanks for compiling them Luke! I personally work with a category of people who have a hard time implementing even these—they get into meta depression/hopelessness/angst and are unable to follow through on basic positive reinforcement like smiling after completing a task—it causes them to think about all of the other tasks they haven’t done and they feel bad.
For people stuck in that category, I recommend Internal Family Systems counseling with a good facilitator and/or Landmark. The problem is usually some sort of deep rooted belief about not being good enough or the world sucking, which requires accessing parts of the mind that are different than the analytic parts that can deconstruct and measure things easily.
Sadly I don’t have any studies for IFS yet, Swimmer963 is currently working a study about meta-depression. I’ve been taking data in the form of having several clients suffering from depression track their scores on moodscope.com, so maybe I’ll be able to release some results from that at some point. There were also a few studies in progress that we learned about at Positive Vector early on, so I’ll try following up on how those are going.
This article is very useful and well researched. However, I do have a question regarding:
Is this true? I’ve never actually heard of it before, but I’d like to see the research on it. (I did read through the sources, but I could have missed it) It sounds plausible and would have some interesting implications if it is. So people who have really messy desks are just making life harder for themselves?
I don’t know how true it is in normal cases, but I can tell you that when I had my stroke, which radically truncated my ability to juggle multiple inputs, this suddenly became very concretely true. Every distinct object in my visual field was a constant distraction; keeping my space free of stuff (not just clutter, but also decorations, gifts, books, distinct objects of all sorts) made working on cognitive exercises, or even having a conversation, much much easier.
Interesting discussion and well put. It would be relevant here to mention though that one of the commonest tie ins between impulsivity and procrastination is ADHD. It is something that is well worth considering when anyone is faced with industrial strength procrastination & impulsivity problems—as it is usually missed in Adults. Just as modafinil can be helpful- so can the psychostimulants. They are also much older, better understood drugs with a very clearly understood safety profile.
Equally it is worth noticing on the “value ” end of the equation- that sometimes we procrastinate because we are subconsciously aware that what we are proposing to do is not the most important thing we could/should be doing.
Roughly speaking they are better understood to be worse than modafinil.
Now we are talking. Big debate over this one in key journals like Science. Here’s the scoop n NZT-48 and other “success pills.” Most would take it.
Nice little article.
This explains a lot.
How long have you kept it up?
About a month, I think.
You’ve been using 200mg of modafinil every other day for a full month? I agree with yvain that that explains a lot, but I’m also a little amazed. I would have expected tolerance. But you mention substantial intellectual penalties, which isn’t what I saw with Dual N-Back during my irregular uses of armodafinil, so maybe tolerance is just slowly catching up with you.
And of course, I should write down what my expectations are: http://predictionbook.com/predictions/4051
An article saying students use modafinil and ritalin that also mentions a movie.
You had me excited thinking there was an actual research drug that I could experiment with!
I actually looked it up before reading the article—my thought process being, ‘a nootropic I haven’t heard of? And wait, isn’t that an AIDS drug—I know I’ve heard the name before...’ I was more than a little disappointed. (The article wasn’t too great either; some of the usual muddled intuitions and minimal information. The New Yorker did a better article, for example.)
Here’s the research it cites along with a few hyperlinks to other articles. Did you read it?
Mellers, B. A. (2000). Choice and the relative pleasure of consequences. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 910-924. Ghahremani, D. G., Tabibnia, G., Monterosso, J., Hellemann, G., Poldrack, R., & London, E. D. (2011). Effect of modafinil on learning and task-related brain activity in methamphetamine-dependent and healthy individuals. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36(5), 950-959. Repantis D., Schlattmann P., Laisney O., & Heuser I. (2010). Modafinil and methylphenidate for neuroenhancement in healthy individuals: A systematic review. Pharmacol Res, 62(3), 187-206.
I’m familiar with the drugs cited. As he said, you had wedrifid_2011 excited thinking there was an actual research drug—NZT-48 about which a scoop was to be given.
Temporal construal theory is known on LW as near/far thinking—you may want to mention/link that in fn 5.
Are temporal construal theory and construal level theory the same thing?
Thought you might like to see David Hume outlining the basics of construal theory about 300 years earlier. Here he is reflecting on how the nearby and concrete always seems to supersede the long-term and abstract:
“In reflecting on any action which I am to perform a twelvemonth hence, I always resolve to prefer the greater good, whether at that time it will be more contiguous or remote; nor does any difference in that particular make a difference in my present intentions and resolutions. My distance from the final determination makes all those minute differences vanish, nor am I affected by anything but the general and more discernible qualities of good and evil. But on my nearer approach, those circumstances which I at first overlooked begin to appear, and have an influence on my conduct and affections. A new inclination to the present good springs up, and makes it difficult for me to adhere inflexibly to my first purpose and resolution. This natural infirmity I may very much regret, and I may endeavour, by all possible means, to free myself from it.”
Yes. “Temporal construal theory” was the earlier name that Trope & Lieberman used when they were more focused on temporal distance, but they switched to “construal level theory” in recognition of the fact that there are many other factors that influence psychological distance. You can see that the abstract of the linked article on temporal construal begins:
Ah, OK. Good to know.
Well, the irony that it took me over 6 years to actually get myself into reading this...
As an ADHD person for whom “reduce impulsiveness” is about as practical a goal as “learn telekinesis”, reducing delay is actually super easy. Did you know people feel good about completing tasks and achieving goals? All you have to do to have a REALLY short delay between starting the task and an expected reward is explicitly, in your own mind, define a sufficiently small sub-task as A Goal. Then the next one, you don’t even need breaks in-between if it goes well—even if what you’re doing is as inherently meaningless as, I dunno, filling in an excel table from a printed one, you can still mentally reward yourself for each page or whatever.
The first salesman guy could set himself a task of “make three cold calls” regardless of success, and then feel good about having done them. The third guy could make a checklist at the start where tasks are listed in order and enjoy an uninterrupted checkmark row when he’s not behind on anything. The student could feel really proud for making the front page, then the next part, etc.
I’ve finally learned the key to hacking the impulse part of the equation. Distancing, minimization and distraction are useful. As is self-deception, or perhaps it is enlightened reason: that the desire for a thing is pleasure and reward in itself, there is no need to satiate a craving, just as there is no need to avert a negative feeling or harmful stimuli.
I don’t think that either of these two has much evidence going for it.
Once a week is not often enough. The endorphins from exercise wear off fast so to sustain high energy levels I require a short burst of intense exercise is required every few hours with a longer run at least once a day.
I’ve personally found HabitRPG.com helpful. I’d recommend setting an ‘eat that frog’ daily which costs you a lot of health if I don’t complete it. There’s an effective altruists party that anyone’s welcome to join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/560438844048626/
“but most people have the most energy during a period starting a few hours after they wake up and lasting 4 hours”
There’s no way this is true. Mentally, you’re much slower in the morning than the evening. In fact, for optimal intellectual functioning, your body temperature has to be at its highest, not at its lowest and thus you’re most productive in the last 4 hours before going to bed rather than the first after rising. I’ve had other programmer colleagues confirm this to me: how they feel twice as productive at the end of the day than at the beginning and my own experience is the same.
So your statement is simply the opposite of how reality works or there’s more human diversity out there than either of us realizes. :)
And you might want to read the book that you are critiquing. I understand that this is inevitable to proceed impulsively in this day and age, but you will find that everything (yes, everything) is backed up by what most find as an annoyingly long series of endnotes. Here is the part that you should have read:
You want to tackle it when you tend to have the most zip, and that when that is depends upon your circadian rhythm. Some of us are morning larks, relentlessly chipper and active early in the morning, filling gyms during in the pre-dawn hours. Others are night owls, slow starters whose energy levels peak later in the day. Night owls are more likely to be procrastinators, with a chronobiology best suited for after- hours; forcing themselves into an unnatural schedule, they gulp down caffeine in the morning in order to wake up, and alcohol in the evening to wind down.
And here are the cites:
Díaz-Morales, J., Ferrari, J., & Cohen, J. (2008). Indecision and avoidant procrastination: The role of morningness-eveningness and time perspective in chronic delay lifestyles. Journal of General Psycholology, 135(3), 228–240. Digdon, N., & Howell, A. (2008). College students who have an eveningness preference report lower self-control and greater procrastination. Chronobiology international, 25(6), 1029. Ferrari, J. R., Harriott, J. S., Evans, L., Lecik-Michna, D. M., & Wenger, J. M. (1997). Exploring the time preferences of procrastinators: Night or day, which is the one? European Journal of Personality, 11(3), 187–196. Hess, B., Sherman, M. F., & Goodman, M. (2000). Eveningness predicts academic procrastination: The mediating role of neuroticism. Journal of Social Behavior and& Personality, 15(5), 61–74. Klein, S. (2009). The secret pulse of time: Making sense of life’s scarcest commodity. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books.
While I don’t have subscriptions to all those journals, so I can’t check exactly what those studies proved and didn’t prove, all I can say is that this example: “filling gyms during in the pre-dawn hours” tells me we’re still not talking about the same thing, i.e. mental energy. I think there’s a big difference between feeling physically energetic on one hand and feeling mentally focussed and creative on the other.
Also, while I find it easy to accept that there are two kinds of people as mentioned above, I will still be looking for explicit proof that “most people” are “morning larks”, like the original quote said.
Thanks for your patience.
There is some degree of physiological variation among humans in this area. Researchers refer to this subject as chronotypes.
Well I just had an interesting opportunity to try out some of these techniques, because I was supposed to be working on a project and decided to “take a break” by reading Less Wrong. These techniques do seem to be helping.
I am a little bit leary of the first section, about trying to increase your own optimism. In general, I’m a little suspicious of trying to get myself to feel something that may not be justified. Fortunately, in my own case, I do know that I am perfectly capable of completing my current goal. I’ve done harder things.
For your information, Myrtle Young https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EY3Lw_-bj5U is now a broken link. (sad. Sounds funny)
Apart from that, thanks. Interesting article. At least because I had no idea so much research where done on those subjects.
procrastination, there are no limits to what you can accomplish when you are supposed to be doing something else. Then again, those other things just add to a list of ongoing commitments that lead to great procrastination and the stress that comes with it which could be surmounted by just getting things done.
May I just point out some things about the equation
No, it’s not that central to that at all. It’s grounded in that, no the other way around. Also, it’s certainly not mainstream. It’s very new. Not wrong, just not very well scrutinised.
All good in theory but how would you apply this equation to procrastinating on something like exam revision?
Increase your expectancy of success.
This isn’t relevant in most cases of procrastination. I already know I can successfully revise for exams, I’ve done it before, it’s just too boring, so I don’t feel like doing it. It’s the same with say, washing the dishes—I know I can do it, but it’s just boring. And revision requires a lot more mental effort than washing the dishes.
Increase the task’s value (make it more pleasant and rewarding).
Flow—You misunderstood the concept of boredom. Boredom doesn’t happen ONLY when you find the task too easy, it also happens when you find the task too difficult. Most people probably find maths boring because it’s too hard for them, their competence level is too low for the task. Same with learning languages—people find languages boring because it’s new and therefore difficult for them. From wikipedia: “In a learning environment, a common cause of boredom is lack of understanding; for instance, if one is not following or connecting to the material in a class or lecture, it will usually seem boring. ”
Flow isn’t about difficulty, it’s about matching your competence level to the difficulty level of the task. If you find it too easy, then make it harder. If you find it too hard, then make it easier. On the other hand, when you are learning concepts that are fundamentally new to you, it is necessarily hard. What makes learning fun is not the process itself, as in playing video games or driving a car or playing musical instruments is rewarding in itself, but the OUTCOME of it. In other words, people are not intrinsically motivated to learn, as they are for video games, but they are extrinsically motivated to do learning and revision.
How do you make exam revision more rewarding without an external partner to administer rewards? Self-administering rewards is impractical because you can easily and will just give yourself the reward without doing the work. If you don’t have someone overseeing you this is not a practical solution. The system reinforces cheating and punishes proper behavior by design.
Decrease your impulsiveness.
How do you do this without meditation or medication? I know what you mean by precommitting but technically that isn’t reducing impulsivity, it just makes giving into temptation much more costly. Leaving aside the philosophical objection that this option takes away your individual freedom and makes you dependent on external compulsion, how would you do this in a way that isn’t easily reversible without external help? Unplugging your router—you can just plug it back in again. Also what if you need internet for revision. Blocking websites—you can just unblock them. So precommitment isn’t practical most of the time.
My point is that these solutions are only good in theory and not useful in reality for common problems such as procrastination on exam revision or studying. Learning is fundamentally difficult, and you can only increase your competence level by learning, so it’s a catch-22 situation. Momentum doesn’t apply in this kind of situation because learning is self-punishing or self-weakening. The more you learn, the more you don’t feel like learning as your mind wanders because it is not in a state of flow.
Most of the solutions you mentioned skirt around the outside of the issue and don’t address the root cause of the problem, which is lack of flow. Indeed, if tasks like studying and revision created flow, there wouldn’t be any procrastination associated.
Anyways, I’d like to read a point-by-point counterargument to the points I’ve made because I don’t feel my criticism is productive in itself since I’m still looking for the solution to procrastination.
FWIW, this is one of my favourite articles. I can’t say how much it would help everyone—I think I read it when I was just at the right point to think about procrastination seriously. But I found the analytical breakdown into components incredibly helpful way to think about it (and I love the sniper rifle joke).
And a couple of years later, I’ve not adopted this full-time, but I keep coming back to it and making incremental improvements.
I get the feeling this equation would be a bit more useful if Passion was a more prominent factor in it. As it is, it’s hidden in the Value variable.
It could be a bit misleading. For instance, I automatically was thinking about monetary value and usefulness and such, while completely forgetting to include the Passion factor. If the Passion isn’t weighted heavily in the equation, motivation might turn out to be low regardless of how high the “Value” (besides passion) might be.
Maybe I should work on reducing the “value” part of the equation for distracting activities. (For example, reading negative reviews of “The Secret” on Amazon)
I suppose there were studies of placebo effect—which I haven’t read—but just a thought: Could it be that placebo treatment induces the placebo effect not only by making the patients believe they perceive a positive effect, but by actually changing their behavior? Of course it depends on the treated problem, but placebo surely raises the patients’ expectation of getting better and thus raises their motivation to help themselves (according to the procrastination equation).
Actually, the placebo effect has a bad rap (note: I’m really impressed by the smart questions you get on this site; this is a treat) in that it does reduce pain, remove depresion and increase confidence. If you want it do these things, the goal is to so in the most cost effective manner (and not have people buy 20,000 dollar magic healing crystals). It becomes problematic as people extend the placebo effect beyond what it can do to doing things like curing cancer and the like. As a treatment for self-efficacy, yes it is a good idea as believing does make it so (in this case).
Do you know about any research that relates this to the “anti-” case of this? That is, how expectancy, “value”, delay and impulsiveness affects evaluation of risk and potential future punishment and how it affects one’s behavior under that evaluation?
I wonder how this can be applied to action one might perform that is shunned by society, such as crime. Perhaps it’s basically the same case (we incorporate the risk and adverse effects to the value and expectancy), but it seems that there are two stages in such cases which make it more complex—there’s the cost of doing the action, there’s the expected reward (which has its own value, expectancy, etc...) of the action, and then there’s the expected punishment exerted by society (which has its own expectancy—the probability of getting caught—value/loss of value, etc.). How does the temporal relations between the reward and the punishment affect the decision? The crime might have immediate benefit which means that it comes before the punishment (if get caught), or the crime might induce permanent change to the world which might be enjoyed after the punishment (if the culprit will be able to enjoy said change) so the reward comes after the punishment. Any thoughts/research about it? I used the example of crime, but this applies to any kind of action taken “against society” or anything that calls for expected counter-action from the surroundings. Dissidents, rebels and such can be inspected similarly.
Pretty much the reciprocal of the equation works for punishers. You do get different weights for objectively the same phemenon, as “Losses loom larger than gains.” Ten dollars lost is more aversive, relatively, than the pleasure of ten dollars gained. The groundbreaking and hugely influential book “A General Theory of Crime” pretty much emphasizes just the impulsive aspect to criminal decisions. However, to reduce the effects of crime, as the old adage goes, “Swift and sure.” That is low delay and high expectancy. We live in a society that only gets the value part, that determing crime can only be done with harsher prisons sentences. As a society, we ain’t that bright.
The book from steel can be previewed extensively here.
A great post—I love the quantity and quality of information you have squeezed into such a compact article.
I will be seeing how the recommendations work for me over the next week or so.
Which Bible translation is the St. Paul quote at the top from? The first sentence matches the Phillips translation (that I just learned about) but the rest doesn’t.
I ask because (in the context of akrasia) I’ve seen that quote a lot, but never in the very modern, common-language phrasing you’ve given. I checked the more contemporary translations and couldn’t find it in those either.
It’s a paraphrase.
The great thing about foreign-language sources is that you can paraphrase at will when quoting.
I think you should mention it’s your translation.
I would reference the behavioral economics on loss aversion to up the value of a task. Rather than focusing on increasing the positive value via upping the reward, I would increase the negative value of inaction. Personally, I’ve taken to fining myself for not getting things done on time (all the money goes into a jar next to my desk, which goes to charity at the end of the month). This system has worked wonders—it even has power to control my less rational selves (e.g. drunk self and just-woke-up self)
I’m curious about the equation you mentioned. Has it actually been proven that motivation is directly proportional to expectancy and value but inversely proportional to time and impulsiveness? I mean in humans rather than in ideal utility maximisers (although I don’t think ideal utility maximisers are known for their impulsiveness so I’m not even sure if it applies to them).
I didn’t even know it was possible to rigorously measure motivation and impulsiveness.
See the papers in footnote 6.
Voted up. I like the way your posts distill an incredible amount of material.
Impressive! (though the underspecified math did bother me a bit.) I wonder how long did it take you to write?
I don’t know how to measure that because most of the work was research, but some of that research has happened in little bits throughout my life, some spread out over the past month or so, and a lot crammed into the past 2 weeks. Actual time spent writing and editing was maybe 5 hours, but that expenditure was trivial compared to the research time required.
Could you state the actual equation? It doesn’t sound like you’ve simplified it much; its current form bugs me. Also I assume there must be some constant of proportionality in there, since it seems unlikely the dimensions will work out otherwise… unless “impulsiveness” is chosen to have dimensions so that it does?
Edit: For that matter, how are we measuring motivation in this context? What does the output actually mean?
See Konig and Steel (2006). The PDF is linked above.
Very nice review here. Any better and I would say you needn’t bother buying the book. About the equation, it is indeed a simplification of the full model—trying to balance completeness with making sure it is understandable. As the book (and for those super keen, Temporal Motivation Theory described in my Academy of Management Review article “Integrating Theories of Motivation”), we add a constant in the denomenator to prevent the entire thing sky rocketing to infinity when delay approaches zero (in joke, one of the characters has a kid named Constance in reference to this).
Procrastinus, I think that the main reason that this comment is getting downvoted is because you double-posted. If you delete the parent and I delete this comment, I think it will disappear.
Edit: Forgot to check this and delete it before it got a child. x.X
do rewards of feeling help ?
(if you do not act , another conscientiousnesses being will suffer)
what about people that do not suffer from Procrastination ? is there research to the opposite kind of person ? the way fat people look at how naturaly thine eat.
why beginning to early is a problem ?
Welcome to Less Wrong!
Comments here are threaded—your comment does not appear to be a response to its parent, so I assume you did not notice that. If you want to leave a top-level comment on an article, you can type directly into the box at the top of the article’s ‘comments’ list. If you want to leave a response to a comment, you can click the ‘Reply’ button on the bottom of the comment.
Also note that writing correctly is a big help to readers. When writing in English, you should capitalize the first letter of the sentence (“Do” instead of “do”) and don’t leave a space before the punctuation ending a sentence (“problem?” instead of “problem ?”). (That last rule is probably not very important).
I just read this article instead of doing my homework.
I’m going to have to sit down and read this whole essay and take notes one of these days, when I have more time.
You think you’re being funny. But really, you’re not.
A tiny bit funny. It could have been fair-to-middling funny if it wasn’t such a cliché. :)
Having just spent dozens of hours reading academic and popular literature on procrastination to write this post, I can tell you that I will never laugh at this style of joke again. :(
If a joke is in a footnote, it’s probably not funny.
Not a fan of Terry Pratchett, I take it?
Forgot about that. I read and was mildly amused by several of his books in high school.
I think motivation creates human activity ,then human activity make result. I feel this essay express function before motivation occur.
In real world there is many way to change motive to result. But in contents management system (CMS)like here, there is few wat to choose.
To writ e this essay, and gather comments , we have to use various ability. Brainstorming , correcting grammar, quoting ect… We tend to procrastinate quoting during brainstorming, because of homo sapiens are created for dedicate one thing. Malti tasker is exception. In Wierd magazine , (1)there is article about super multi tasker , that express less than 1⁄100 people are fit for multi task. In addition, CMS have feature , for example, twitter is good at brain storming but not good at correcting ideas and make refrence link like wiki. To slove this problem, I propose integrate all CMS with save all infomation per comments approximately 144 letters, and controlling readable editable visible per comments ,per ID. With this system ,someone who detect wierd article link ,Insert quote (1) directory. tell this link in comment , I have to edit this article again. I propose to beate procrastination , smoothing result is a solution. Conclution of this essay is ideal solution. I propose this system for I do not want effort like this conclusion. details here
This is a wonderful article, nicely researched and quite honestly makes me jealous! Kudos to you for really driving home the point that the most important tool we have to beat procrastination is indeed our own motivation. Without that, all the productivity tricks, tools or methods will mean very little if you cannot stick with it!
Both personally and professionally I think the idea of rewards is not explored enough and given enough credit for the power it has. Even if you are using something such as Pomodoro and rewarding yourself with a fresh cup of tea or coffee during your rest period, it has a way of replenishing us even more than just that break. I actually just joined to comment on this article and look forward to joining this community! I can be reached here or at my blog http://www.chasingproductivity.com
You are right about decreasing your impulsiveness when it comes to beating procrastination. I watched a video of Marie Forleo about how you will be able to overcome procrastination and maximizing your time. It’s a great video that you can watch and follow. http://marieforleo.com/2011/02/overcome-procrastination/