It’s been a bit tough getting back into work again after the christmas break so I guess it’s ironic I should be posting about this but there was a great article in New Scientist before christmas about procrastination (I would have posted about it before but I procrastinated). Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, was apparently a bit of a procrastinator. "I love deadlines," he once said. "I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." Serious procrastination it seems, is more common than we think.
Psychologist Piers Steel, who works at the University of Calgary, has spent ten years (no doubt with a bit of procrastination in there somewhere) studying the subject and analysing the results of 553 different studies into it. According to Steel, procrastination cannot be defined by just one cause, arising as it does from differences in individual personalities and the particular situations we find ourselves in. But his work has nevertheless highlighted four key factors which seem to be implicitly linked to procrastination:
- How confident a person is about completing a particular task, and completing it well. If we don’t feel comfortable that we’ll perform a task to a high standard we’re more likely to put it off.
- How easily distracted they are
- How boring or unpleasant they perceive the task to be
- How immediate the reward for completing the task is. There is, it seems, a perpetual competition between satisfying our present selves and satisfying our future selves. We prize the now more than we prize the later so if there is an immediate and obvious payback we’re more likely to get on with it quickly.
Steel has summarised his thinking on the interplay between these four key variables in a mathematical fomula (left, image source) to calculate how likely you are to do something immediately (a task’s utility), balancing how confident you are of succeeding (E), how pleasant you perceive the task to be (V), how easily distracted you are (gamma sign), and how immediate the reward for completion is (D).
Some Psychologists feel that this formula can illuminate many of the puzzles of human nature. Either way, it’s certainly a useful tool for better understanding some of the choices we make and what motivates us to make them.