A formula for procrastination

Can you assign a formula to putting off to tomorrow what you can do today? One professor believes you can.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read
Turns out procrastination can be explained with a math equation, and it only took the discoverer 10 years to figure it out.

University of Calgary professor Piers Steel, a self-described reformed procrastinator, said the act of dillydallying can be boiled down to three human traits: the person's confidence, values and impulsiveness (how susceptible he or she is to immediate delight). Like an economist might, Steel combined those elements to develop a mathematical theory that can define procrastination. His work was published this month in the journal of the American Psychological Association.

"The heart of procrastination is an adaptive natural tendency to value today much more than tomorrow," said Steel, an associate professor of industrial psychology at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.

That's why, he said, most people make New Year's resolutions in vain. In scientific terms, a person's intention alone is not enough to see anything through--a condition called "preference reversal." That means that unless an individual has some knowledge of his or her motivational weaknesses and can create a plan to counteract them, those promises of losing weight or writing a novel will fall to the wayside, Steel said.

Imagine trying to diet with a magic floating spoon of ice cream following you around.
--Piers Steel, professor
University of Calgary

Steel's formula, called the Temporal Motivation Theory, calculates procrastination like Albert Einstein's equation for energy, E=MC2. It factors the person's expectancy for succeeding at a given task (E) or self-confidence; the value of completing the task (V); its immediacy or availability (Gamma); and the person's sensitivity to delay (D) to come up with the desirability of the task (Utility).

The equation reads: Utility = E x V / (Gamma) x D.

Steel said, in general, human behavior is marked by people's judgment of value and their expectancy--whether or not they expect to get something. A person's tolerance for delay also factors in the equation--whether they can wait 20 minutes for dinner to be served or fill up on bread immediately, for example. "These are the basic elements people use in making decisions."

Most people who procrastinate are impulsive; they value what they can have today more than what they can have tomorrow--and long-term goals don't have motivational force, Steel said.

"My theory is that if your model of motivation remains level, it only spikes up right before deadline, like a shark's fin," Steel said.

Self-knowledge might include knowing that the goal is large and then breaking it down into easier, step-by-step tasks in order to succeed, he said, or removing temptations like TV or video games. But he said, most people don't have that much self-knowledge.

Experts in the field say that Steel has captured all the historical analysis on procrastination and has advanced thinking on the subject by adding new elements like a motivation of time. They believe that Steel's formula could lead to further research in the field and eventual methods of helping chronic procrastinators.

"Procrastination is one of the most frustrating obstacles in the business place," said David Nershi, executive director of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. "(Steel's) meta-analysis brings the subject into clearer focus--which is important since procrastination is on the rise. Dr. Steel's work with the TMT theory is valuable not only to other researchers, but to business leaders as well."

Procrastination is from the Latin "pro," which means "forward" or "forth," and "crastinus," meaning "of tomorrow." Since the 1970s, when researchers began investigating human behavior, societal procrastination has risen five-fold to affect from about 5 percent of the population in the 1970s to about 15 percent to 20 percent of people today, according to various estimates. At least 95 percent of people say they procrastinate occasionally.

As you might expect, that self-regulatory failure breeds among college kids, who opt to watch TV, go out with friends or sleep instead of finishing studies. Researchers have estimated that 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, with as many as 50 percent doing it regularly.

Technology has certainly boosted the amount of procrastination in the world, Steel said. The Internet and gadgets like the Blackberry, or "crackberry," give people a constant source of putting things off, and they create motivationally toxic environments, he said. "Imagine trying to diet with a magic floating spoon of ice cream following you around," Steel said.

He said if people want to avoid procrastinating, they need to do things like remove games from their PC, or turn off automatic e-mail alerts.

In response to how he got interested in the subject of procrastination, Steel joked, "Research is me-search."

He realized he was a procrastinator more than 10 years ago when he was a teacher's assistant and Ph.D student at the University of Minnesota. His professor at the time employed a teaching method called a computerized personal system of instruction, which means students complete studies at their own pace on a computer. That way, the professor could study the pace at which people read chapters, completed quizzes and finished assignments. One student finished 75 percent of his coursework in the last week of finals.

From there, Steel began exhaustive research on all studies in the field. It took him 10 years just to get through it all, he said. But he finally synthesized all that research to develop a unified theory of human behavior, thus reducing procrastination to a math equation.

Still, Steel admits that it's an inexact science. As researchers attempt to get more and more precise in their measurements on human nature, they find that raises more questions. Part of the goal in publishing a formula of procrastination, Steel said is to open up the field to more studies and diagnosis. Eventually, researchers could develop diagnostic tests that pinpoint people's motivational weaknesses.

"Essentially, procrastinators have less confidence in themselves, less expectancy that they can actually complete a task," Steel said. "Perfectionism is not the culprit. In fact, perfectionists actually procrastinate less, but they worry about it more."

Paul Spector, professor of industrial organizational psychology at University of South Florida, said there are three ways of getting sidetracked. One is characteristic of people who simply have a hard time getting started on a project, or a classic procrastinator. Another deals with a person who gets started, but then gets bogged down in details, or a classic perfectionist. The last is the person who is distractible, i.e., the student who has the paper to do, but decides to go out when a friend calls. Spector said that Steel's theory integrates time into this cognitive regulation process to look at procrastination as a dynamic process.

"This sort of thing could be stimulating for future research and generate ideas of things to try in terms of intervention, like getting kids to procrastinate less," he said.