Main The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done

The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done

DON'T WAIT TO READ THIS BOOK: The world's leading expert on procrastination uses his groundbreaking research to offer understanding on a matter that bedevils us all. Writing with humour, humanity and solid scientific information reminiscent of Stumbling on Happiness and Freakonomics, Piers Steel explains why we knowingly and willingly put off a course of action despite recognizing we'll be worse off for it. For those who surf the Web instead of finishing overdue assignments, who always say diets start tomorrow, who stay up late watching TV to put off going to sleep, The Procrastination Equation explains why we do what we do — or in this case don't — and why in Western societies we're in the midst of an escalating procrastination epidemic.Dr. Piers Steel takes on the myths and misunderstandings behind procrastination and motivation — showing us how procrastination affects our lives, health, careers and happiness and what we can do about it. With accessible prose and the benefits of new scientific research, he provides insight into why we procrastinate even though the result is that we are less happy, healthy, even wealthy. Who procrastinates and why? How many ways, big and small, do we procrastinate? How can we stop doing it? The reasons are part cultural, part psychological, part biological. And, with a million new ways to distract ourselves in the digitized world — all of which feed on our built-in impulsiveness — more of us are potentially damaging ourselves by putting things off. But Steel not only analyzes the factors that weigh us down but the things that motivate us — including understanding the value of procrastination.
Year: 2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
Language: english
ISBN 10: 0062035258
ISBN 13: 9780062035257
File: EPUB, 985 KB

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Chapter Three
Wired for Procrastination


Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself “I'll do it tomorrow,” and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe, that you are born of Nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time.


Every day, we experience our souls as being split.1 Who hasn’t struggled between a reasonable intention and an opposing pleasurable impulse? As the dessert cart pulls into view, commitment starts to crumble in the heat of the internal battle of “I want to eat that cake, but I don’t want to want to eat cake.” Have you ever skipped exercising, knowing that you would later regret it? Have you ever scratched an itch, knowing that you just made it worse? You are not alone; it’s a permanent part of the human condition. Thousands of years ago, Plato described this internal clash as a chariot being pulled by two horses, one of reason, well-bred and behaved, and the other of brute passion, ill-bred and reckless. At times, the horses pull together and at other times they pull apart. Thousands of years later, Sigmund Freud continued Plato’s equestrian analogy by comparing us to a horse and rider. The horse is desire and drive personified; the rider represents reason and common sense. This division has been rediscovered by dozens of other investigators, each with their own angle, emphasis, and terminology for the same divided self: emotions versus reason, automatic versus controlled, doer versus planner, experiential versus rational, hot versus cold, impulsive versus reflective, intuitive versus reasoned, or visceral versus cognitive.2 Understanding how the architecture of the brain enables this division is the secret to understanding the biological basis of procrastination.

The brain has been considered the last frontier of human science because its workings have been so difficult to investigate. Emerson Pugh, a Carnegie Mellon University physics professor, concluded that, “If the human mind was simple enough to understand, we'd be too simple to understand it.” He is right. And the Procrastination Equation is only a model of how you might behave. Though I like to think of it as a supermodel, it is still merely an approximation of how motivation works. Our brains aren’t actually doing these calculations any more than a falling stone is calculating its mass times its acceleration to determine with what force it will hit the ground.3 Rather, the equation summarizes a more complex underlying process, the interplay between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. This is where we must turn for a more fundamental understanding of procrastination.

Recent advances in brain science have allowed us to pull the curtain aside and see our own minds in operation. The basic methodology isn’t that hard to describe. You place participants in your choice of brain scanner, likely a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI), which detects subtle changes in magnetic signals associated with blood flow and neural processing (i.e., thinking). Once the participant is strapped in, you then ask questions carefully designed to engage aspects of decision making and observe which parts of the brain light up. For example, if we had J. Wellington Wimpy as a subject, we could ask him, “If I gave you a hamburger today, how much would you pay me on Tuesday?” Sure enough, what then comes up on the electronic monitors are not one but two internal messages, which science has blandly come to call System 1 and System 2.4

Asking a thirsty person a question such as what drink she would like now primarily activates System 1, the limbic system. This is the beast of the brain (“the horse”), the origin of pleasure and of fear, of reward and of arousal. Questions about future benefits, however, activate System 2, the prefrontal cortex (“the rider”). Though studies are still refining the exact subsection of the prefrontal cortex that is involved, the consensus is that this is willpower’s throne. The prefrontal cortex is often described as the executive function, appropriately evocative of CEOs making strategic company plans. Without it, long-term pursuits or considerations become almost impossible, as it is—literally—what keeps our goals in mind.5 This prefrontal cortex is the place from which planning arises. The more active it becomes, the more patient we can be. It allows us to imagine different outcomes and, with help from our speedy and definitive limbic system, helps us to choose what to do. This interplay of instinct and reason has enabled the human race to create the world in which we live. But it also has created procrastination.6

You see, this decision-making arrangement is not the most elegant. It’s often described as a haphazard kluge, the clumsy outcome of an evolutionary process.7 Because the limbic system evolved first, it is very similar across species. It makes decisions effortlessly, spurring action through instinct. Its purview is the here and now, the immediate and the concrete. Our more recently evolved prefrontal cortex is more flexible in its decision making, but also slower and more effortful. It is best at big-picture thinking, abstract concepts, and distant goals. When the limbic system is aroused by immediate sensations of sight, smell, sound, or touch, an increase in impulsive behavior results, and the “now” dominates. Future goals espoused by the prefrontal cortex are cast aside and we find ourselves seduced into diversions—despite knowing what we should be doing, we simply don’t want to do it. Also, because the limbic system runs automatically at an incredibly fast rate and is thus less accessible to consciousness, desires can often come over us inexplicably and unexpectedly.8 People feel helpless to stop intense cravings and they display little insight into their ensuing actions other than, “I felt like it.”

In essence, procrastination occurs when the limbic system vetoes the long-term plans of the prefrontal cortex in favor of the more immediately realizable; and the limbic system, aside from being the quicker of the two and in charge of our first impulse, is often the stronger. When near events get this evaluative boost from our limbic system, their vividness increases and our attention shifts to their immediate and highly valued consumable aspects (what we can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste). Deadlines are often put off until they are close or concrete enough to get a hint of that limbic system zing, whereupon both parts of our brain are finally shouting in agreement, “Get to work! Time is running out!”


Procrastination increases whenever our more recently acquired prefrontal cortex is compromised.9 The less potent the prefrontal cortex, the less patient we become.10 Those with brain damage can provide particularly vivid examples of this, Phineas Gage being the most famous.11 Gage was a shrewd, responsible, hardworking, methodical railway foreman who, in a workplace accident in 1848, had over three feet of iron rod blown through the top of his skull and the front of his brain. He recovered, incredibly, but he became a man of the moment: impatient, vacillating, profane, inconsiderate, uninhibited, and uncontrollable. The iron rod had severed the connection between Gage’s limbic system and his prefrontal cortex. The planning part of the brain needs the fast and accurate input from the limbic system to understand the world, and that’s what Gage lost. A more modern example is Mary J. who was completely transformed within a year by a brain tumor that debilitated her prefrontal cortex.12 Before the tumor, she was a quiet teetotaling Baptist, on the dean’s list at an Ivy League university, and engaged to be married. Until the tumor was surgically removed, she was angry and extremely promiscuous, failing school, drinking hard, and using drugs. Her executive function was disabled and she became all impulse, ruled by whatever temptation was put before her.

There is a way people can experience Phineas' or Mary’s predicament, and happily it doesn’t involve a nail gun. We can temporarily lesion the prefrontal cortex with transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses electromagnetic induction to briefly knock out focused sections of the brain.13 Alternatively, taking alcohol, amphetamines, or cocaine either hypercharges the limbic system or hinders the prefrontal cortex’s ability to perform, creating actions that “seemed like a good idea at the time” but later prompt regrets.14 Or, the prefrontal cortex can simply become exhausted through sleeplessness, stress, or resisting other temptations; by fighting one enticement, we often become more susceptible to another.15 Finally, if you are a teenager, you might not need to go to any of these extremes, since your prefrontal lobes are still receiving their final touches.16 Combining the effects of youth, stress, and alcohol together, the most impulsive and uninhibited place on this planet is a group of teenagers celebrating the finish of a willpower-depleting stretch of studying with a weeklong drink-fest. Indeed, Phineas Gage would fit right in during Spring Break in Cancún, with wet T-shirt contests, drinking games, and random hook-ups. If you don’t diminish the prefrontal cortex, you can’t have Girls Gone Wild.

If you can’t make it to Spring Break to see the limbic system dominate action, there are good alternatives closer to home. In fact, they are likely in your home. Do you have a pet or a child? Both are heavy on the limbic system, making owning a pet the neurobiological equivalent of raising a child.17 We are their external prefrontal cortices. We have to be the ones providing patience and doing our best to coax it out of those who don’t have much of it or who are still developing it.


There is a rhyming biological heuristic that goes “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It means that the way we develop within our lives roughly reenacts the course that human evolution has taken over millions of years. When in the womb, more or less, we morph from fish to reptile before eventually emerging as a mammal. But the process isn’t done yet. The last aspect of us to evolve is the prefrontal cortex, which continues to develop after birth.18 For those who have children, and as I write this, I have two still in diapers, we don’t need a biology degree to know that infants aren’t born with the ability to plan ahead and put their immediate needs on hold for the benefit of some future goal. Just try asking for patience from a hungry baby or a little one with a full diaper and my point will be made. They are merciless in their need.

As children develop, their prefrontal lobes grow too and eventually they achieve the ability to put things off just a bit. You can’t ask a baby to put off a feeding, but eventually you may ask a toddler to say “Please” before getting a treat. It takes the development of the prefrontal cortex for this modicum of control to appear—which happens all too slowly for my taste. Year-old children have almost no executive control, instantly batting down any pile of blocks or grabbing your eyeglasses, but just one year later, brief moments of patience become possible, say twenty seconds. By the age of three, children are routinely waiting a full minute and by four they are piling their blocks high, putting off the blast until they can enjoy the big burst of noise when their soaring towers tumble.

At the age of four, children can play “Simon Says.” This is a significant advance, because the game is all about self-control, about inhibiting the immediate impulse from the limbic system so that the prefrontal cortex can mull over whether Simon has actually said “Simon Says” before they respond. How well this acquired ability transfers into kindergarten is another matter, because kindergarten requires sitting when you want to run, listening when you want to shout, and taking turns when you want it all to yourself. Fortunately, between the ages of four and seven there is a burst of development in children’s executive function. They are progressively better able to make plans for tomorrow, to pay prolonged attention to more than the television set, and to shut out distracting events other than parents calling them to come in for dinner.

The normal maturation of the prefrontal cortex is assisted by endless hours of patient teaching by parents trying to get their little ones to put off their needs for just a moment without tears or the stomping of feet. Unwearyingly insisting that gifts can be unwrapped only at Christmas and then only your own, that dessert comes after dinner, or that toys must be shared with others coaxes a little more from the prefrontal cortex and a little less from the limbic system. Unfortunately for parents, their role as their children’s external prefrontal cortices is a long one. It can last until about the age of nineteen or twenty, when the biological basis of self-control is finally fully in place. Until then, parents can only herd their teenagers away from all the vices that impulsiveness ensures youth will find especially tempting: risky sex, excessive alcohol, petty crime, reckless driving, and, of course, procrastination.19 The younger you are, the more you seek instant gratification, from socializing late into the night and then facing tomorrow’s exam half asleep to dillydallying so long you have to pack your bags in a flurry and almost miss your plane. Though the young act as if they will live forever, they really are living just for today.

The novelist Elizabeth Stone has written that having a child “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” but our role as walking prefrontal lobes comes to an end at this point. As adults, our children no longer need us for guidance and any mental inequalities between us go into a long lull, perhaps broken briefly by the arrival of grandchildren if they are forthcoming. We can expect apologies from our kids as they try to raise a few of their own and learn firsthand the vigilance required to be a parent. And then, long later and hopefully not at all, our roles may change entirely. As we grow older so do our brains, losing the snap they had in earlier years, especially the prefrontal cortex—following the last in, first out rule.20 Though some avoid this fate, remaining razor sharp into their final years, others get it worse, assisted by the senility of frontotemporal dementia that affected my grandmother Eileen.21 I am well aware that I too might encounter a second childhood and once again be as vulnerable as my two young sons are now. Indeed, we'd better raise our kids well, as their love might be the only thing that stands between us and a world that views us as prey made easy through old age and a compromised mind.


Animals might be our fellow procrastinators. After all, we share many other “human” personality traits with dozens of other species, from rhesus monkeys to octopi. Wild great tits, for example, exhibit varying degrees of aggressiveness and risk taking, traits that enable greater environmental exploration.3a The bolder birds expose themselves to more danger but also reap the gains of better nesting places, food sources, and choice of mates.22 For another example, just ask any dog or cat owner if their pets have a unique personality; the owners will rightly insist that their furry friends differ in terms of affection, anxiousness, aggressiveness, and curiosity.23 Significantly, this list of shared traits includes impulsiveness, the cornerstone of procrastination.24 But this doesn’t necessarily translate into procrastination itself.

Whether they are meowing, barking, or chirping, animals are clearly limbic-heavy in their decision making. But that’s only half the story. You need some prefrontal cortex or its equivalent to procrastinate, for without it you can’t make plans that you later irrationally put off. Do animals have this mental capacity? Apparently some do, showing the ability to anticipate and plan for the future, especially regarding food.25 Scrub jays can anticipate being denied breakfast tomorrow and will cache food to snack on later. Rats seem to have some sense of time, being able to recall where and when feeding events occur.26 Chimpanzees can wait up to eight minutes to exchange a small cookie for a large one, showing slightly more patience than a young human child.27 Male chimps will invest in future mating opportunities by sharing meat with a female, with the hope of being favored when she comes into heat.28 Also, consider Santino, a particularly farsighted chimpanzee from the Swedish Furuvik Zoo. He will spend his morning collecting stones to hurl at annoying zoo visitors in the afternoon.29 In combination with impulsiveness, all the pieces for procrastination are there: animals can make plans for the future and, what’s more, they can impulsively put them off, despite expecting to be worse off for it.

James Mazur, a Harvard-trained psychologist, has directly demonstrated procrastination in animals. He trained pigeons to two different work schedules and then gave them a choice of which to pursue. Both schedules delivered a tasty treat at the same time, but the first started with a little work followed by a long delay, while the second started with the long delay and ended with a lot more work, up to four times as much. Essentially, the birds had to choose between doing a little hard work now (followed by rest and recreation) and taking it easy immediately (followed by a lot of hard work). The pigeons proved to be procrastinators, putting off their work despite having to do more of it to obtain their reward in the end.30 Like a twisted version of a Cole Porter song, birds delay doing it and even chimpanzees in the zoo delay doing it. Since most animals, including pigeons, have the capacity for procrastination, procrastination is pretty well confirmed as a fundamental part of our motivational firmament.31 The last time we all went to the same family reunion was over 286 million years ago during the Carboniferous period, before the time of the dinosaur.

Inevitably, then, having an animal as a pet is largely an exercise in dealing with this limbic-heavy decision making. Dogs, for example, naturally act in the moment and grab food that isn’t theirs, chase stray animals across busy streets, and bark or whimper incessantly by the door waiting for you to open it. It would be easier in the short run to let the dog be, but patience and long-range thinking on our part can make all the difference for a life with any four-legged friend. This is what expert dog trainers stress, like Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, or Andrea Arden, author of Dog-Friendly Dog Training: the primary responsibility of an owner is “to convince your dog that waiting for something—which is typically not a natural instinct for dogs—is the best option.”32 The big trick is convincing owners to do this in the first place. Teaching impulse control uses a lot of our prefrontal cortex, a resource we often don’t have a surplus of to begin with.


By all appearances, from the evidence of brain science to animal studies, the capacity to procrastinate is engrained in us. It’s even in our genetic code: several studies indicate that about half of most people’s lack of self-discipline has a genetic origin.33 This makes sense, given that DNA allows adaptive genetic mutations to be passed down through subsequent generations, a process known as “descent with modification.” Without a genetic component, the ability to procrastinate couldn’t easily be passed on.

We evolved to be procrastinators, but why? Procrastination is an irrational delay, whereby we voluntarily put off tasks until later despite expecting to be worse off for the decision. By definition, procrastination is harmful and should have been culled long ago from our gene pool rather than filling it to the brim. Are we the butt of some cosmic joke? Maybe. But there is another possibility to consider. Some traits occur as by-products of other once-more-adaptive processes. For example, belly buttons are a by-product of being born, and though they can be pretty, they don’t have any pressing purpose in themselves. Since procrastinators are above all else impulsive, the evolutionary explanation for impulsiveness is the one to focus on. Procrastination is a by-product.34

Essentially, impulsiveness is about living for the moment. Long-term desires and tomorrow’s deadlines are ignored until they become imminent—until the future becomes the now. Though today impulsiveness isn’t usually a helpful trait, evolution operates through hindsight; that is, it custom fits us to the environment we were in, with no anticipation or prediction. This is known as ecological rationality, in that what is rational depends upon the environment you operate in. It is like getting a tailored suit for your wedding day. You look magnificent in it, but try it on again twenty years later and it pinches in all the wrong places. Likewise, procrastination may be steeped within our existence because having an impulsive mindset made a lot of sense when we were hunter-gatherers. When our ancestors needed to do the basic four “F”s of survival—feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating—it would aid their cause if they also wanted to. Let’s briefly consider the last and first of these four: what we have for dinner and who we seek to spend the evening with afterward.


From our teeth, which chew it up, to our intestines, which digest it, food has played a major role in our evolution. We have evolved to love the taste of fats and sugars because, in a world where starvation and predation were constant concerns, stocking up on high-caloric foods was once an adaptive preference. When the food supply was sporadic, we would have to gorge when the going was good, focusing on energy foods rich in sugar and fat. There were no Neanderthals on self-imposed diets. Consequently, for most of human history, being “overweight” has been considered beautiful, affluent, and enviable.35 The exigencies of eating may explain how we all became so impulsive and, consequently, procrastinators.

Let’s consider two types of primates, common marmosets and cotton-top tamarins, which are almost identical except in their choice of food.36 Marmosets are gummivores, which scratch tree bark and then sip on the sap that flows. Tamarins are insectivores; they pounce on bugs whenever they can find them. Marmosets show a lot more self-control than tamarins, as they are selected for it. Sap takes a while to flow, demanding patience, whereas the hunt for jumping and scurrying bugs requires immediate action. For animals in general, the fine tuning of impulsiveness to their food source is called optimal foraging.37 We are optimized to get the most calories in the shortest time; consequently, the longer it takes to kill, eat, and digest, the less impulsive a species typically becomes. In short, we develop the self-control we need to ensure our next meal.3b 

Being omnivores and at the top of the food chain, humans are superstars of self-control. We have the patience to kill and eat almost anything that lives. Birds' ability to delay gratification, in comparison, hardly registers; even a ten-second wait is remarkable. Similarly, ten minutes of patience is an eternity for a chimp. For all our superior self-control, though, in today’s whirlwind, we don’t have enough. We have been favored with enough patience for a world without grocery stores or refrigerators, enough for hunting animals or gathering berries. Yet, we have a relatively small window compared to what we currently need. Procrastination results from a disconnect in our genetic inheritance, as we now pursue projects and plans that require weeks, months, and years to complete, timelines for which we are motivationally mismatched. In the forest, a bird in the hand might be worth two in the bush, but in the city, the discount rate is far more slender; invest in a bird today and tomorrow you are lucky to earn a chicken wing’s worth of interest.38


Now on to the second example, the one you've been waiting for—sex. Evolution is steeped in sex, as those who succeed breed. Since procrastinators' impulsive nature is ingrained in their DNA, it can be passed on to their offspring and, if it lets them have more kids, the trait quickly becomes common. Just consider my family. The males on my mother’s side tend to have children later in life. My great grand-dad was Owen Owen, who people in the UK might remember from his string of similarly named though now-defunct department stores.39 Since Owen Owen was born in 1847 and I had my son Elias in 2007, each generation of my family tree is spaced forty years apart. If we were in a stork race with another family that started a new generation every twenty years (thereby reproducing twice as fast), by now there could easily be over eighty of them for every one of us. Getting an early start on baby making makes a big difference.

Sure enough, procrastinators' impulsiveness has been linked to an early start for parenthood through teen pregnancy as well as sexual promiscuity.40 The one thing that procrastinators don’t tend to put off is “getting some.” No wonder. The fun part of copulation comes immediately, while the harder part of child raising . . . well, that’s almost a year away. This state of sexual affairs also helps explain why men tend to be more impulsive and procrastinate more than women.41 Reproduction strategies favor a quality versus quantity split—that is, raising a few kids well or having lots in the hope some of them work out. Since it is easier for men to invest less in their offspring, they definitely lean toward the quantity option. As Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, wrote: “Men are more motivated to have short-term sexual flings with multiple partners than women are.” Women tend to favor the quality strategy, taking a longer-term and more responsible perspective. She waits patiently for Mr. Right while he impulsively wants Ms. Right Away.

Sex also ensures a range of impulse-driven procrastination in the populace; some will procrastinate a little and others a lot. If it was always advantageous to get pregnant as soon as possible, the world would be like the Mike Judge movie Idiocracy. In that film, everyone who was smart and cautious held off having kids, and the intelligent were out-bred by the clueless and carefree. There is, however, no optimal level of impulsiveness to maximize the number of your descendants.42 Much depends on the resources available to raise children, for as costs increase, it is better to have smaller families.43 Other tradeoffs occur when there is an excess of men pursuing the “quantity” reproduction strategy. If too many men are focused on short-term sexual encounters, they swamp the singles bars and strain the goodwill of the available women. In this scenario, committed family men are a rarity and thus more valued. Men demonstrating loyalty would find themselves vigorously pursued, able to pick the prettiest and most compatible of spouses.


This evolutionary explanation of procrastination directly demonstrates why procrastination is so widespread. No matter which country or language you are reading this book in, there is a name for irrationally putting things off, from Hawaii’s napa to Scotland’s maffling. Everywhere we have looked for procrastination, we've found it—easily. Today’s age of procrastination was inevitable the moment we walked out of the trees into the savanna, learned to make fire, and began trading among tribes. Procrastination grew alongside civilization.

The history of procrastination likely began around nine thousand years ago, sprouting along with the invention of agriculture.44 Planting crops in the spring to reap them in the fall was our first artificial deadline; it was a task that civilization and survival required but not one we had evolved to perform. This is why all the earliest written records of procrastination deal with farming. Four thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians chiseled at least eight hieroglyphs to indicate delay, but one in particular also indicates neglect or forgetfulness.45 Translated as procrastination, this hieroglyph is most often associated with agricultural tasks, especially those connected with the yearly cycle of the river Nile, as it overflowed its banks and fertilized the floodplains. Similarly, the ancient Greeks struggled with procrastination, as recounted by Hesiod. Living around 700 B.C., Hesiod was one of the greatest poets of Greek literature, rivaled only by Homer. In Hesiod’s epic 800-line poem, Work and Days, he exhorts: “Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.” This warning was especially important because the Greeks were in the midst of a financial crisis of such proportions that many Greek farmers put up not only their farms but also their families as collateral. Procrastination led not only to a poor credit rating, but also to seeing your sons and daughters become the exclusive property of your richer neighbors.

By 440 B.C., procrastination was spilling over from farming into fighting. Thucydides, the father of scientific history, wrote about it in the History of the Peloponnesian War, which chronicled the conflict between Athens and Sparta. This account, still studied in military colleges, discusses various aspects of personalities and strategies. Thucydides clearly considered procrastination to be the most wicked of character traits, useful only to delay the commencement of a war so as to lay a better groundwork for winning it. Another notable Greek reference to this trait is found in the work of the philosopher Aristotle, who wrote much of his Nicomachean Ethics on the weakness of the will, what the Greeks called akrasia. Specifically, Aristotle discusses a form of akrasia called malakia, which is not doing something that you know you should (clearly, procrastination).3c 

Moving a few centuries forward, we see procrastination entering politics. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a major political player around 44 B.C. His position put him in conflict with Marcus Antonius, better known as Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover. In a speech denouncing Mark Antony, Cicero declares: In rebus gerendis tarditas et procrastinatio odiosae sunt (“in the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful”). Perhaps because of Cicero’s advice, or perhaps because Cicero made thirteen other speeches denouncing him,46 Mark Antony delayed little in killing him.

Then, for a millennium and a half, procrastination made inroads into religion and it is referenced in the texts of every major faith. For example, in the earliest written Buddhist scriptures from the Pali Canon, the monk Utthana Sutta concludes that “Procrastination is moral defilement.”47 Moving forward seven centuries, the Indian Buddhist Shantideva is still on message, writing in The Way of the Boddhisattva, “Death will be so quick to swoop on you; Gather merit till that moment comes!” By the sixteenth century, procrastination starts appearing in English texts without translation. The playwright Robert Greene, for example, wrote in 1584, “You shall find that delay breeds danger, and that procrastination in perils is but the mother of mishap.”

Finally, when the Industrial Revolution came into its own, so did procrastination. In 1751, Samuel Johnson wrote a piece for the weekly periodical The Rambler, describing procrastination as “one of the general weaknesses, which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind.”3d Four years later, Dr. Johnson enshrined the word within his influential English dictionary and, ever since, the term has remained in common use. If procrastination is indeed a core characteristic of humankind, it is acting just as you would expect: it’s maintaining itself as a reoccurring theme in our history books, right from the beginning of the written word.


I'd like to end this chapter on the evolution of procrastination with the story of Adam and Eve. They lived in the Garden of Eden, naked and unashamed, fitting in perfectly with nature. Then, in humankind’s first act of disobedience, Adam and Eve bit an apple from the tree of knowledge, and they were cast out by God, forced to survive through agriculture. Though biblical in origin, this story maps perfectly onto the story of evolution as well.48

In the environment where we evolved, we drank when thirsty, ate when hungry, and worked when motivated. Our urges and what was urgent were the same. When we started to anticipate the future, to plan for it, we put ourselves out of step with our own temperament, and had to act not as nature intended.49 We are all hardwired with a time horizon that is appropriate for a more ancient and uncertain world, a world where food quickly rots, weather suddenly shifts, and property rights have yet to be invented. The result is that we deal with long-term concerns and opportunities with a mind that is more naturally responsive to the present. With paradise lost and civilization found, we must forever struggle with procrastination.

Bottom line: procrastination is not our fault, but we have to deal with it nonetheless. We encounter procrastination across almost all of life’s domains, from the boardroom to the bedroom, shifting from major to minor. Is it your home life, your finances, or your health that suffers the most from procrastination? Is it your e-mail or TV habit sucking away your productivity? Odds are, not only is the amount of your procrastination increasing, but so is the number of places you are doing it. But I am getting ahead of myself—that’s the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter Six
The Economic Cost of Procrastination


Momentary passions and immediate interests have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice.


When exploring procrastination, no other country provides as many good examples as the United States. Almost two-thirds of all procrastination research is done with American citizens, and no wonder, given what it costs them. Here’s how to calculate it. First, how many workers are there in a country? For the United States, the figure is over 130 million, but we will round down for ease of calculation. Second, what is the annual average wage for those workers? Estimates can reach over $50,000, but we will be conservative and go with the lower figure of $40,000. Finally, how many hours do people work each year? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development provides that figure: Americans clock in 1,703 hours, or slightly more than 212 eight-hour workdays, each year.1 Finally, we have to determine how many hours each day people procrastinate. Two companies, America Online and Salary.Com, partnered together to survey the work habits of more than ten thousand people; the result was over two hours of procrastination in every eight-hour day, not including lunch and scheduled breaks. Once again, we will round the estimate for ease of calculation, this time downward to an even two hours.2

Keep in mind as we calculate the final figure that I've used conservative estimates at every step. We have 130 million people who spend about two hours out of every eight at work procrastinating, or 414 hours per year. Each hour is worth at least $23.49 (i.e., $40,000 divided by 1,703 hours), though if their employers are making a profit, they are worth more than that. At a minimum, then, procrastination is costing organizations about $9,724 per employee each year ($23.49 times 414).3 Multiply that by the total number of employees in the United States, and you get $1,264,1200,000,000. In other words, a conservative estimate of the cost of procrastination for just one country in just one year is over a trillion dollars. This number may seem surprisingly large, but not if you are an economist. Gary Becker, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, concludes, “Indeed, in a modern economy, human capital [the work people do] is by far the most important form of capital in creating wealth and growth.”4 With a quarter of each person’s work day spent dithering, procrastination is going to be costly.

Still, if this trillion-dollar figure makes you balk, fine. Revise any part of these calculations downward to what you think is reasonable. Cut the number of procrastination hours in half, pay everyone minimum wage, but pretty much anything times 130 million is still going to be a hefty sum. Myself, I think the true costs of procrastination are far more than a trillion dollars. Procrastination during the business day is only part of the picture.5 Our ability to save money or make timely political decisions is also affected by procrastination, and the costs there should be over a trillion dollars too. And here is how it is happening.


The more we procrastinate at work, the more it costs us. Unfortunately, it’s not just entry level workers who procrastinate but their managers and CEOs as well. Consider the Young Presidents' Organization, a club of corporate heads under forty-five who run companies worth more than ten million in revenue. In a survey of 950 of its members, the most troublesome problem reported was “facing up to a task which was, for various reasons, personally distasteful.”6 As my own research program shows, organizational teams, work groups, and task forces procrastinate.7 The graph on the next page charts the average work pace of business groups over the course of their projects (the solid line) along with a hypothetical steady work pace (the dashed line). In both form and content, it parallels the graph from chapter 2 that featured student procrastination. As can be seen, both students and business groups demonstrate the same shape of curve, whereby people start off slow and then pick up the pace.6a


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How has procrastination wormed its way into every inch of the business world? For the most part, by way of the same device that tempts students from their studies—the Internet. Dubbed e-breaking or cyberslacking, surfing the Net is the most serious of employees' time-wasting activities.8 About one in four people admit to playing online games on the job. In fact, gaming websites report a sharp drop in traffic at exactly 5:00 p.m., the end of most people’s work day.9 Similarly, “video snacking,” when people surf for and trade clips of all types, is a huge distraction. Though video use tends to spike during the lunch hour, it is prevalent at all times, and is expected to soon account for half of all Internet traffic.10 As summarized by Miguel Monteverde, executive director of AOL Video, “Based on the traffic I'm seeing, our nation’s productivity is in question.”11 Interestingly enough, this trend extends to pornographic sites as well, which get 70 percent of their traffic from the nine-to-five crowd.12 Finally, of course, there is social networking. The company Talkswitch provides a perfect example; it recognized it had a problem when it discovered that all sixty-five of its employees were using Facebook—simultaneously.13

To cope with this tsunami of procrastination, most companies ban inappropriate Internet use, but it is difficult to enforce. Employees rearrange their computer screens so they can’t be easily seen from the doorway, giving them time to hit a “Boss Key” that quickly opens a legitimate application. There are also several applications that mask illicit activities, such as one that allows Internet browsing within a Microsoft Word shell, making it difficult to detect dillydallying ways. Especially notable is the website “Can’t You See I'm Busy,” which makes it hard to detect games hidden within graphs and charts. In response, two-thirds of companies firewall their servers, fettering people’s Internet access to various degrees. WebSense, which ironically makes software that filters the Internet, automatically monitors employees' Internet use and cuts off their access when they reach two hours of personal surfing. Other organizations enforce wide-ranging, perpetual restrictions on gambling, pornography, video sharing, and social networking sites alike.14

Banishing people from games and Internet sites does not eliminate polymorphic procrastination because it can manifest itself in so many ways. Solitaire is pre-loaded on most Windows platforms, making it the top computer game of all time, even favored by former president George W. Bush.15 Memory keys often have games embedded on their chips, as do personal digital assistants (PDAs), which provide unrestricted Internet access. You can also go old school and avoid the computer completely. The ritual start of many a working day involves the diversion of the news. When I visit my sister, we scramble to be the first to get to the Sudoku in the morning paper. In the White House, Bill Clinton completed the New York Times crossword puzzle daily.

Procrastination isn’t fuelled by games alone. As Robert Benchley quipped, “Anyone can do any amount of work providing it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” We procrastinate on important tasks by doing the unimportant. For many of us, this means e-mail, which now takes up 40 percent of work life.16 With every notifying “ding,” workers instantly redirect their attention to reading the latest in an endless stream of electronic missives. Only a small seam of this e-mail bonanza is useful; the rest is junk. Though this deluge of electronic debris is partly composed of spam—unsolicited bulk e-mail—our greatest threat is the enemy behind the lines. Coined friendly spam, much of the junk we receive is created by our friends and co-workers who carelessly mass e-mail us about every social event, virus hoax, urban myth, trivia tidbit, or arcane corporate policy change. Since all these e-mails have the potential to be useful, they must be read to conclude they aren’t. And then there are e-mail’s peripheral effects. In a study of Microsoft workers, people took an average of fifteen minutes to re-focus on their core tasks after answering an e-mail interruption.17 Combine this with the finding that information workers check their e-mail accounts over fifty times a day, over and above the seventy-seven times they text message, and theoretically no work should ever get done.18 More realistically, the business research firm Basex puts the interruption and recovery time at a little over a quarter of the work day (about two hours),19 which is consistent with studies on multi-tasking that conclude that switching attention is extremely detrimental to performance.20 In short, despite the veneer of activity that e-mail checking provides, there is not much light for all that heat.


Procrastination doesn’t just diminish our wealth by decreasing our productive hours. It also reduces the benefit we gain from our productivity itself. Our wealth is determined not only by the money we make but also by the money we save. Saving is a tried-and-true path to riches, as every dollar you put aside starts to reap the miracle of compound interest. Furthermore, since the dollars you save are invested, savings can help the nation as a whole, spurring economic expansion. When adopted, a policy of savings can be hugely successful. Since 2004, average Singaporeans, for example, have been wealthier than the average American largely because they save more.21 Unfortunately, when procrastination overtakes a society, saving becomes the exception and borrowing becomes the rule, a trend that can easily lead to financial ruin. Just consider your retirement savings account.

Aside from your plans to win the lottery, retirement rests on a three-legged stool. The first leg is the government, which, due to a bad habit of spending more than it receives, won’t always be able to deliver on what little it promises. In the United States by the year 2040, for example, people can hope to receive only about two-thirds of their scheduled Social Security benefits, and on the heels of the 2008 global financial crisis, this percentage will probably decrease.22 The second leg is represented by businesses, which can put money aside for you as a form of compensation, typically in the form of a Defined Contribution plan.6b In such a plan, you decide how much, or rather how little, of your paycheck to contribute, and most allocations are matched by the company. The third leg is you, your decision to initiate and open independent retirement accounts. This is the most dependable option—except, of course, that it still depends on you.

By becoming a society of procrastinators, we have caused the retirement stool to be increasingly wobbly, as most people are socking away less.23 People are neither starting their own retirement accounts nor contributing to company plans, despite the fact that allocation matching is the equivalent of getting free money. When they leave work, their financial backsides rest on a stool supported by a single stubby peg derived from the government’s forced savings program. Again, procrastination proves to be particularly poignant in the United States. In 2005, after decades of decline from originally double-digit rates, American household savings finally went into the negative. In other words, instead of saving today’s money for the future, people were going into greater debt by spending tomorrow’s money today—on average about half a percent more than they earned. To do this, not only did they borrow against their homes, in the form of mortgages, but about one in five borrowed against funds they had already set aside for retirement, putting themselves further behind.24 Worst of all, some of this financing was arranged through “liar loans,” which initially seem affordable but eventually create financial ruin. Variable mortgages entice homeowners to buy well beyond their means, while “pay day” advances provide the desperate with temporary respite but leave them much worse off. They end up repaying each loan many times over; the interest rates of “check cashing” shops often exceed 500 percent a year.25 These are financial products that procrastinators are prone to fall for, products with short-term benefits but exceedingly high long-term costs.

The experts share the consensus that this situation is not ideal. At least something should be put aside for retirement; ideally, you should be saving 10 to 20 percent of your salary or higher if you are already in your forties.26 Even before the 2008 global financial crisis, which alone lowered pension accounts by at least a fifth, an increasing number of Americans believed they were not putting enough aside for their old age.27 And they are right. When retirement comes, more than four out of five Americans will find they haven’t saved enough for their needs and by then it will be far too late to do anything about it.28

Retirement procrastination transforms the golden years into grim and gray poverty. It means living on skid row or with the kids, if you had them and if they'll have you. To prevent this from happening, governments have employed a few tricks. Tax breaks for contributing to registered saving plans are a good start, but to make the most of them, these breaks need to be accompanied by a definite deadline: that’s what procrastinators respond to. Stipulating that retirement contributions must be put aside by tax time is an effective strategy, as it breaks down long-term retirement savings into a series of yearly goals.29 Still, on its own, it hasn’t proved to be sufficient, and so governments around the world are exploring another technique: automatic enrollment.30 Applying the same negative-option marketing ploy used by mail order book clubs, employers can now automatically enroll their employees in pension programs with default investing options. Employees are free to withdraw or adjust their investment strategy at any time, but procrastinators will typically delay this decision, too. The result is a huge bump in enrollment.31 Another neat trick comes from the trademarked Save More Tomorrow plan, developed by the behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Schlomo Benartzi.32 Rather than automatic enrollment, they use a strategy that exploits procrastinators' tendency to discount the future: employees can choose now to save later.6c That is, they must decide this year whether to start saving next year, and just as in automatic enrollment plans, once they have filled out the paperwork that commits them to saving, they will put off filing more paperwork to reverse their decision.


Governments, like people, have a bad habit of spending more than they receive. As I write this book, central government debts around the world are reaching commanding heights, often exceeding half the wealth their respective countries annually generate. By the time you are reading this book, it will be even worse. The United States, for example, will likely have finally hit the 100 percent mark, the point where it owes everything it makes in a year (that is, its total GDP). In dollar terms, that’s an eye-popping $16 trillion. How did we get so deeply in debt? Governments display the same intention-action gap that defines all procrastinators: they form intentions to stop spending but change their minds when the moment to act is upon them. The United States has repeatedly tried to curb its own spending by legislating a borrowing limit—essentially reining in the government credit card.33 Unfortunately, this is akin to an alcoholic locking the door to the liquor cabinet but leaving the key in the hole. Politicians simply vote away their previous debt resolution and install a new higher limit, a process they have repeated hundreds of times.

Governments are perpetually focused on quick fixes that solve the issues of the moment; the urgent displaces the important. This isn’t a new insight. The American founding fathers understood this early on. I opened this chapter with a quotation from Alexander Hamilton, “Father of the Constitution,” featured on every American ten-dollar bill. Similarly, James Madison, “Father of the Bill of Rights,” wrote, “Procrastination in the beginning and precipitation toward the conclusion is the characteristic of such [legislative] bodies.” And regarding the threat of debt specifically, here is a revealing quotation from George Washington: “Indeed, whatever is unfinished of our system of public credit, cannot be benefited by procrastination; and, as far as may be practicable, we ought to place that credit on grounds which cannot be disturbed, and to prevent that progressive accumulation of debt which must ultimately endanger all governments.”

The American founding fathers were right; just take a look at the graph on the next page, which is similar to the two you have already seen, on student procrastination and the dillydallying of organizational teams. This one shows the average length of time it took the U.S. Congress to pass bills over the years from 1947 to 2000.34 For every session in fifty, Congress passed the bulk of its bills toward the end of the session.


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Though some bills are delayed due to political maneouvering, a large part of the delay should be due to procrastination. Furthermore, one can determine which groups are the worst procrastinators by comparing the surface area between the two lines—that is, between the steady work pace (the dotted line) and the actual work pace (the solid line). The more they are procrastinating, the greater the surface area. And Congress soundly beats out even the average college student when it comes to putting things off.

The result of all this procrastination is more than simply delay dealing with the national debt. All long-term national goals and challenges tend to be put off as well, no matter how threatening. The outcome of America’s War of Independence was partly determined by procrastination. In a key battle, George Washington crossed the Delaware to destroy a Hessian garrison: Colonel Rahl, head of the garrison, actually had prior warning of the invasion but decided not to read the report until later, after a card game he never had the chance to finish playing.35 Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower, both wartime leaders, explicitly struggled with procrastination in their own governments, which put off preparing for war with Germany and, later, the Cold War with Russia.36

Today, the most pressing issue facing all governments is environmental depletion and destruction. We are in the midst of several ongoing ecological disasters, all projected to peak at the same time: 2050. That may seem far away, but environmental issues are like supertankers. They take so long to stop that they must be tackled decades in advance; by the time they are in your face, they can’t change course. Across the board, governments are putting off the issue until it is too late.37 To begin with, the soil beneath our feet is eroding and depleting.38 With about 40 percent of agricultural land already damaged or infertile, what will happen in 2050 when the little remaining arable land must feed over nine billion people? It is also doubtful whether there will be enough fresh water to grow the necessary crops; the projection is that 75 percent of countries will be experiencing extreme water shortages by that same date.39 The sea tells an almost identical story.40 Approximately 40 percent of oceans are already fouled and overfished, with species disappearing around the world. But it won’t get really bad until 2050, when the last of the wild fisheries are projected to collapse.

Interestingly—if that’s the right word—these environmental disasters make the debate over global warming almost superfluous. With so many catastrophes projected, the consensus is grim. Even the futurist Freeman Dyson, who doubts global warming, concludes, “We live on a shrinking and vulnerable planet which our lack of foresight is rapidly turning into a slum.” However, if climate projections hold true, we can expect about a three-degree increase in temperature by 2050.41 No matter what country you are in, there won’t be any place that will truly benefit from this change. Entire ecosystems, like the Amazon rainforest, are expected to collapse, about a third of all animals and plants will become extinct, and billions of famine refugees will fight to determine who starves to death first. Since many of us will be around in 2050, it is worth taking a private moment to envision what this tomorrow will mean to you.

Government bodies have been alerted to this possible future for a long time. In 1992, 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including most Nobel Prize winners, signed the “World Scientists' Warning to Humanity,” which stated in the most explicit terms: “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” For even longer, we have known what to do about it. Unfortunately, we are procrastinating about translating this knowledge into action.42 We could have avoided all these environmental issues if we had acted early. We can still mitigate them if we act now. The problem isn’t informational or technological; it is motivational.

Still, be thankful that government procrastination isn’t worse. Since the founding fathers of America were among the first to acknowledge the problem of procrastination, they did try to reduce its effects. Recognizing that what is expeditious can too easily prevail over what is wise, they tried to put temptation at a distance through bicameralism: legislation must pass through two houses or chambers. Using the exact terminology of “hot” and “cold” cognition favored by today’s scientists, George Washington explained to Thomas Jefferson why they needed a senate as well as a house of representatives.

“Why do you pour coffee into your saucer?” Washington asked.

“To cool it,” Jefferson replied.

“Even so,” Washington said. “We pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”43

Aside from Washington advocating a scandalous breach of etiquette (as “to pour tea or coffee into a saucer . . . are acts of awkwardness never seen in polite society”), it is a solid strategy that has been widely adopted.44 What can be initiated immediately will hold much, much greater sway over tomorrow’s better options. By purposefully building in delays, such as a sena-torial house of sober second thought, the Constitution reduces the effects of time. Since it takes longer to pass all legislation, bicameralism focuses decision making on factors other than whether an aim is immediately obtainable. In other words, the added delay of a second house ensures that everything is going to take a while.


We live in a world where our impulsive nature is only appreciated by those seeking to exploit it. But this is beginning to change. The field of behavioral economics, which recognizes our capacity for irrationality, is being incorporated into governmental public policy. Recently, the Gallup Organization hosted the inaugural Global Behavioral Economics Forum. Events like this have started to draw the attention of economic and political leaders from all shades of the political spectrum; both British Conservative leader David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama are exploring behavioral economic solutions.45 Phrases from Obama’s inaugural address highlighting this need for change appropriately resonate, especially our need “to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations.” Some of this thinking has already been translated into action, such as legislation making it easier for businesses to automatically enroll workers in retirement savings plans. Still, much more needs to be done.

As individuals and as a society, we pay a hefty price for our procrastination and have done so since the beginning of history. But we can bring millennia of dillydallying to an end today. A good start is to continue reading—the rest of the book is dedicated to actionable intelligence that puts putting off in its place. No matter what your procrastination profile—whether you lack confidence, hate your work, or are ruled by impulsiveness—there are proven steps you can take. And though we may have wished for this advice to have been available earlier in our lives, as we all know, working ahead of time is not really in our nature, is it? Perhaps we're now ready.

“To my brother Toby. He knew that the clock is always ticking.”

Procrastination’s Chapter 11

The beauty of procrastination is its ubiquity; tracking its scent leads into dozens of scientific fields. If you duplicate my path, you will start with psychology, where the bulk of the work has been done, but you will quickly find yourself in economics, which is becoming a dominant force on the topic. You will take a stroll through the applied issues, like retirement or debt procrastination, perhaps taking a peek into the legal implications, such as suggested bankruptcy laws. From economics, you would naturally wander into neuroeconomics and become interested in the neurobiology of procrastination, a detour that, of course, would give you a chance to look at the basis of all biological study, evolution. You would learn that procrastination is a common and consistent human trait, one we share with species across the animal kingdom. Then, instead of considering where we came from, you might reverse your perspective and see where we are going, getting into societal issues, especially long-term concerns like environmental degradation. If you start wondering why the government doesn’t do more, you will discover that they and other organizations have procrastination problems of their own.

Having been studied in so many disciplines, procrastination has become a Rosetta Stone, where the same phenomenon is translated into a dozen tongues. This pool of resources allows us not only to translate findings from different fields, such as from economics into psychology, but also to form a common language of human behavior, an Esperanto of the social sciences. It’s an important accomplishment.1 As Christopher Green concludes, writing in psychology’s premier journal, “it [integration] would doubtless be considered the greatest scientific victory in the history of the discipline,” one that can rescue psychology from the realms of a “would-be science.”2 And if you can integrate psychology with economics, sociology, and biology too, even better. This was actually my original purpose in creating the Procrastination Equation—to help integrate the social sciences.3

Unfortunately for procrastination, its pervasiveness makes it an obvious target. Having a common basic model, one that each discipline can adopt and customize, could be incredibly dangerous to our familiar enemy. Integration enables exponentially more progress in all disciplines. This understanding has already permitted the physical sciences to provide an endless stream of game-changing advances, from the laptop I am using to write this book to the nuclear energy that powers the electrical lines.4 By working from a common model of reality, the physical sciences share and pass knowledge across specialties and research foci. Similarly, such synergy could supercharge the social sciences. Herbert Gintis, an economics professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts who has long argued for integration, concludes: “The true power of each discipline’s contribution to knowledge will only appear when suitably qualified and deepened by the contribution of the others.”5 You see, it is all connected, all of it, as we are all studying the same thing: people’s decision making and behavior.6 As one area informs the other, our fight against procrastination necessarily gives insights into reducing obesity, building better retirement savings programs, and much, much more.

Once disciplinary integration comes about, we will have gone a long way toward truly mastering our own minds. As it currently stands, we as a society can do better. Consider that the top two ways that people procrastinate are through their televisions and through their computers—about a quarter of their waking hours in some parts of the world. People seeking help to curb their addictions freely acknowledge that they use these temptations to excess.7 Because TV watching has been associated with the rise of obesity and the erosion of the family, huge efforts have been put forth to reduce our consumption.8 Nothing has been truly effective; the hours used and incidence of abuse rise yearly. If we adopt a more integrated viewpoint, using some of the principles from The Procrastination Equation, we can change this. We only need to apply the principles of self-control to our own technology.9

When I watch too much TV, I blame my digital video recorder (DVR). It makes it easy for me to find a show I like and watch it when I want. Naturally, the easier it is to find good programming and the faster it can be accessed, the more I will make use of it. You will too. Though DVRs are part of the problem, they are going to be part of the solution too, as they are also the perfect platform to enable self-control techniques. Self-control improves when we receive accurate feedback about our behavior, which we can then use as reminding cues and to help us set goals (see Scoring Goals and Making Attention Pay). An add-on for a DVR could be a prominent digital display that reflects how much TV you have watched today or this week. As you see the hours visibly rise while you watch, so will the desire to turn off the set. The DVR could even track your long-term viewing, calculating when and what you are watching.

Also, DVRs could permit precommitment. Devices are available to enable parents to limit the viewing habits of their kids, but there are few options for parents themselves. With a DVR, a series of precommitment measures could be incorporated. The first few could just be devices for enabling delays. A long code, for example, could be laboriously inputted before viewing. Alternatively, it could lock you out for a few minutes, or perhaps require confirmation multiple times, giving you a chance to have second thoughts. As delay lengthens and impulsive choices become impossible, you should be able to make more rational use of your viewing time. If this isn’t enough, you could lock yourself out temporarily, perhaps only allowing viewing within given time periods or up to a total number of hours each day. Best of all, whichever of these options we as viewers want to activate, if any, the choice—the intention—is ultimately ours.

For Internet procrastination, similar solutions are already on the market. Attentional control programs like RescueTime, which let you see exactly what you have been doing with your day, are freely available. As an added feature, RescueTime also assists in goal setting and permits the creation of comparison work groups, thereby activating the Vicarious Victory principle. Cyberly seeing others hard at work should inspire, or at least spark, your competitive spirit. Furthermore, RescueTime allows you to voluntarily block your own access to the Internet for chosen periods of time, permitting a precommitment strategy that eliminates distractions. If this could be complemented with a sophisticated and difficult-to-subvert nannyware program—like Chronager, except self-administered—it is hard to imagine a more effective self-control platform. Right now, the pieces are all there; we just have to bundle them together.

These tools for rationalizing television and computer use could be easy to build and implement. Though not yet fully developed, they have almost coalesced. When they are finally built, the market is virtually everyone, but definitely the chronically procrastinating quarter of the population. These tools would have society-wide effects and an observable impact on national GDP; if they cut procrastination even by half, that would amount to trillions of extra productivity each year worldwide. With further advances in integration, more such tools that address our own weak wills should become commonplace, designed into our society’s fabric. And ironically, for all this, we can partly thank procrastination. Fittingly for an irrational self-defeating delay, by making possible the groundwork for integration, procrastination may have contributed to its own defeat.

Chapter Ten
Making it Work


Do or do not do. There is no try.


Before I get into this chapter, I want to thank you for persevering. People who procrastinate tend to get distracted and turn to other things. So since you have reached chapter 10—and I am assuming you haven’t skipped ahead to the end—you deserve a little praise. After all, the tendency to put off has such a deep resonance in our beings that it is more remarkable when we don’t procrastinate than when we do. Having read through the book, you have a good grasp of the underpinnings of procrastination, how it emerges from our brain’s architecture, the ways in which the modern world makes it worse, and what you can do about diminishing it. There is just one last step to putting procrastination in its place. You need to believe what you read.

I can’t really blame you if you are a little suspicious. If you are familiar with self-help books, you have certainly earned some cynicism. There is so much misinformation in the field of motivation—so many promises that don’t deliver—that “What if someone wrote a self-help book that actually worked?” is the premise of Will Ferguson’s international bestselling novel HappinessTM. Satirizing the self-help industry, Ferguson invents the character Tupak Soiree, who writes What I Learned on the Mountain, a tome that genuinely helps you lose weight, make money, be happy, and have great sex.10a Now I can’t promise the last of these, but The Procrastination Equation is about making the rest of What I Learned on the Mountain a reality. Every technique in this book is based on the bedrock of scientific study, so it had better work. Just flip ahead a few more pages and look at the research I have laid out in the Endnotes.

The Procrastination Equation, just like What I Learned on the Mountain, is still only an inconsequential book if the techniques stay locked inside its covers. In Ferguson’s novel, the challenge was just getting people to read it. For a while, What I Learned on the Mountain’s potential effectiveness was derailed, as you might guess, by procrastination. As Edwin, the book’s editor, concludes: “I forgot about procrastinators. Don’t you see? All those people out there who purchased the book or were given it as a gift and still haven’t got around to reading it.” For my book, the requirements are a little steeper, but as you can see, you have already pretty much finished it. To make what you are reading effective, you also need to take its contents seriously. You need to adopt these techniques into your life and start seeing your decision making in terms of that interplay between your limbic system and your prefrontal cortex. To lift the ideas off these pages and into your life, we are going to take one parting look at Eddie, Valerie, and Tom and imagine how they are getting along. You'll see that they are using all these techniques in combination, and thriving because of it. And if you can see yourself doing the same, then you will be able to get your act together, and you will soon be putting procrastination behind you as well.


After Eddie lost his sales job, he was depressed for a long time—that is, until he met Valerie. She always found a way of putting a smile on his face and it was natural that the two got married. Now in their thirties, with two full-time jobs and a lovable toddler named Constance, they have a wonderful life. But they are always on the run, and lately the demands have been getting worse.

Valerie is often on crushing deadlines, and her home responsibilities take second place when she is in a crunch. She knows how lucky she is to have a job at the local newspaper, but there have been cuts, and she is now doing the work of two people, maybe more. The pressure to meet all her deadlines is serious—this isn’t about career advancement, it’s about staying employed. Eddie has to travel for his job in marketing, which means that he leaves before dawn and is away for days, leaving Valerie in a lurch. When Constance gets sick, all hell breaks loose. She keeps them up at night, and somebody has to stay home with her. When the washing machine breaks down, somebody has to wait for the repairman. Valerie and Eddie feel as if they haven’t had enough sleep in years. And they are right. They know how lucky they are to have two jobs and their little girl, but they are stressed beyond words.

Valerie and Eddie shuttle between work and home like mechanical dolls, always late, grabbing a kiss or a donut on their way out. When they are at home, they worry about the work they are not doing, and so they often go to the computer after the baby is asleep, working through exhaustion late into the night. If the baby is sick, the one who goes to work frets about how she is, and when she is well, they are both checking her out on the webcam at daycare—spending precious work minutes monitoring her well-being. They can hardly handle paying the bills and getting to the pediatrician’s office for checkups and shots. They e-mail each other dozens of times a day, and Eddie has to control himself from texting Valerie from the car on the way to his next meeting.

Eddie promised himself he would clean out the garage last summer, but it’s October, and the junk remains. Valerie has lost control of her vegetable garden, which she started as an altruistic family project but which has devolved into a sad collection of wilted greenery. They are considering canceling their joint membership in the gym—they are both too tired to work out at the end of the day, and mornings reach a level of chaos that drives them both nuts—dressing the baby, exchanging directives about multiple tasks, suddenly full diapers and fussy moments . . . you can fill in the blanks.

This is actually the best-case scenario. It could easily be worse. They face no sudden illness, no job loss, no financial straits, and no tragedy. But Eddie and Valerie’s lives are out of control and they are facing the conflicts that every working couple with kids has to deal with. Recently, Valerie began to feel that she is never in the right place—at work, she thinks she should be home; and at home, she worries about all the work she should be doing. She is feeling frayed and tattered, and is starting to hate her life. Looking for some cheering up, she calls her sister, who listens sympathetically, and then offers a little advice: “There’s this book I've been reading that has a few ideas that might help. Do you want to borrow it?”

Like all such offered books, this one was gratefully accepted but put aside. That is until one stressful sleepless night, when Valerie in desperation decided to crack it open. After skimming through the pages, she noticed the research behind it. “Well now,” she thought. “This stuff has really been battle-tested. Let’s see what I can find for Eddie and me.” Taking some paper and a pencil, she slowed down and made some notes about what she might be able to use.

The next night when Eddie shuffled home, Valerie sat him down and told him flat out, “I'm not happy. Things are going to have to change.”

Eddie sighed and, revealing his low expectancy, said, “I'm not happy either, but this is just the way life is. We can’t change it.”

“You always say that and you're usually wrong,” Valerie replied. “I think there are steps we can take to make our life better. My sister lent me a book and it’s based on scientific research. I hear it has helped a lot of people and we could use some help ourselves. I think we should at least try some of the ideas. For starters, we just need to lay down a few goals.”

Eddie was too exhausted to argue with her, so he played along. “I have a goal,” he said with a small smile, “I want to be happy.”

“They have to be specific goals,” Valerie said patiently. “They have to be concrete and doable, something we can get excited about.”

“How about I want to be happy today?” Eddie suggested.

Valerie thumbed her way to the relevant page of the book.“ We start by making some goals about the minimum changes we need to make to stay sane. I need to see my friends more often. I haven’t seen them properly since Constance’s baby shower and talking this over with them always makes me feel like my problems are more manageable.”

Slumping into a chair, Eddie sullenly replied, “And my goal is to hit the gym every weeknight.”

Valerie kept on message. “Get realistic. I think you can spare me one evening every other week. In return, I'm willing to cover you every Saturday morning if you want to exercise.”

“That would be nice,” admitted Eddie. “But I don’t think I am up for handling an evening with Constance on my own.”

Valerie pointed out that he often bathed Constance and put her to bed. “I want you to imagine hitting that gym, Eddie, how good your muscles are going to feel afterward. Also, imagine how much happier I'll be around here if I get some time with my friends. Can you picture that? Take a second and bask in its glow. Great! Now open your eyes and come back to reality. Does that give you the motivation?”

“All right,” Eddie conceded, warming to the idea. “Let’s do it.”

With a little mental contrasting to spur them on, Valerie and Eddie’s goal-setting techniques and “unschedule” (scheduling in realistic leisure time first) do indeed work. Valerie is seeing her friends, and after sharing her problems and hearing others deal effectively with their own issues, she is gaining a little more perspective. She is reassured that Constance will grow up and the economy will get better. It is amazing what a little social support (see Vicarious Victory) can do for a person. Eddie himself is glad to get to the gym once in a while. The exercise takes away a lot of his stress. He sleeps a little better and has more energy to tackle the rest of his life (see Energy Crisis). Still, a few weeks later, Eddie suddenly announces he has to work late and tells Valerie she has to cancel her plans. When he finally gets home, Valerie is not pleased.

Eddie pleads his case, “Look, I'm sorry you missed your night out but I had work to do and that takes precedence.”

“Night out?” snapped Valerie. “It’s more than a night out. I need that time with my friends. I wouldn’t mind if you had to leave on one of your road trips for work but you e-mailed me fifteen times today while you were at the office.”

“I thought you liked those texts!” retorted Eddie.

Composing herself, Valerie replied: “Here’s what I like. I like face-to-face time with you and with my friends. For every minute you take to text me or send off an e-mail, that’s ten minutes less we have at home. It takes ten minutes at least for you to get your mind back into your work after taking a break.”

This surprised Eddie, but he wasn’t going to give up his text-ing without a fight. “That may be so, but you text too. Besides, I can’t work like a machine at the office. I need my breaks.”

“And why are you tired?” asked Valerie.

“Well, it’s impossible to get to bed early with all the evening work . . .” Then Eddie paused, making the connection. “Oh! Yeah, that might work.”

“If we stop texting during business hours, stop Internet surfing, stop mindlessly checking our e-mails, that'll make at least two extra hours each day for the both of us. Hours we can use for sleep.”

“My mind will zonk out from so much concentration,” said Eddie.

“The book has a few ideas about how to make it work. Start with this. Create a second computer profile for yourself with a different background and layout. Log out of your regular work persona and into this play persona whenever you need a rest. If you aren’t willing to take the minute to do it, you don’t need the break. Here, I got you a present to help you commit.”

“I like presents. What is it?”

Valerie pulled a silver-framed photo from her purse. “A framed picture of Constance and me. Every time you think of slacking off, this will remind you of why we're both pushing ourselves so hard. Remember, this is about us spending more time together as a family. Promise me you'll do this?”

“OK. I'll do it if you do,” said Eddie.

And it works, of course. By ridding their workplace of their major temptations (see Making Paying Attention Pay), they have become more productive in the time they are at work and more relaxed when at home. They are starting to wind down for bed and are getting a better night’s sleep, so that they can perform even better (see Energy Crisis). To help them get to where they need to be and remind them what this is all about, Eddie keeps that framed photo of his family on his desk (see Games and Goals), especially since it reminds him of what he really wants to do—spend more time at home, not texting at the office (setting approach goals, not avoidance goals). It didn’t hurt that Valerie raised the stakes by extracting a little verbal precommitment from Eddie. In the end, they have a little more time than either expected, with both of them hitting the gym at least once or twice a week. Sicknesses, surprises, and other obligations still push them out of their routine, but now they are learning how to push back. They know they are fighting for a life that works. Eventually, Eddie even has the time to do some light reading, which he never used to have the energy for.

After putting Constance to bed, Eddie poured Valerie and himself a cup of tea and plopped into his comfy chair. “I've been looking through this book of yours,” he said, “and I see where your ideas come from.”

Picking up her own cup, Valerie replied, “Well, the secret was in actually following through with them not just reading the book.”

“You're right,” said Eddie, “but I have a suggestion of my own.”

“Go on. I'm listening,” said Valerie.

“Here’s a technique called Let Your Passion Be Your Vocation.”

Her eyes widening in horror, Valerie gasped, “You're not thinking of leaving work to be a golf pro!”

“No, no, no, I'm not thinking that at all. Well maybe a little, but no,” teased Eddie. “But how about this? Getting home earlier is reminding me of how much I used to love to cook. Remember those romantic meals I made for you when we first starting dating? Well, you don’t mind cleaning up as much as I do. So, I'll tell you what: I'll do all the cooking if you do the cleaning.”

Sweetening the arrangement, Valerie added, “If you throw in grocery shopping too, you've got a deal.”

“If cleaning includes laundry, I'll shake on it,” said Eddie.

“Done and done.”

A sensible pair, they have now allocated the tasks of child-rearing and housekeeping according to their differing tastes and talents. So Eddie does the cooking and shopping for groceries. He goes to the supermarket on Saturday or Sunday and stocks up for the week. This is easy for him because he loves shopping and the peace and quiet of chopping. Valerie, who never cared much about food, watches the baby when Eddie is doing the cooking. She cleans up after him, and she does the never-ending batches of laundry. Constance goes to daycare during the week, and they trade off taking her there early in the morning and picking her up after work. Life is getting better. Not insanely better. Not perfect. Just noticeably better. Valerie and Eddie are beginning to live life in harmony with who they are and what motivates them.


On his journey back home from his disastrous vacation in the Dominican Republic, time-sensitive Tom was delayed at the airport for most of the day. It was hurricane season, which he had not thought about when he planned the trip. Sitting in the lounge, Tom reflected on his life. He was never much of a student, and constantly struggled with deadlines. But he knew that his friends at the fraternity were always glad to see him. An upbeat kind of guy, Tom always had a word of encouragement for the freshmen who were having trouble adjusting to college and being away from home for the first time; he enjoyed helping out. How did he get stuck in such a terrible rut? Without anything else to do, for hours he reflected on how much his procrastination had detracted from his own success, aspirations, and happiness. He thought about how it had affected not only his work life but also his home life. He realized that even if his vacation hadn’t been such a mess, much of his leisure time would still have been focused on all the work waiting for him back at the office. He desperately yearned for that childhood feeling of unfettered time and guiltless play unpolluted by pressing obligations. His mind primed, he couldn’t help but notice a title in one of the airport bookstores, a book that promised help. After buying it, he read it in its entirety during his wait and then on his flight home. Excited about the book’s possibilities, he couldn’t wait to put the techniques to use—this time his impulsiveness worked for him rather than against him.

On his first day back at work, Tom purged his office of temptations. He loaded software to keep track of his productivity, and he started setting specific, timely, and challenging goals. The results were immediate. Instead of being constantly behind, Tom found extra time to help others with their projects. “All the better,” he thought; he always enjoyed talking and helping the people he worked with. Happy with the results, on a whim he went hardcore and used precommitment, promising to his boss that if he didn’t get his next report finished in seven days, they could keep his upcoming year-end bonus. This got his boss’s attention. When he handed the report in a day earlier than promised, people were amazed. What had happened to Tom in the Dominican Republic, they wondered. Over time Tom’s interest in helping his colleagues and his fidelity to deadlines made his superiors think that he was showing leadership potential, and so they promoted him.

As the excitement of the promotion started to fade, Tom shared the news with his older brother Tim. After a few congratulatory drinks, Tom confessed it wasn’t all good, “What did I get myself into? What do I know about leadership? I'm not a leader. I just barely learned how to get myself in shape. You know about these things. You took that leadership course back in college. What should I do?”10b

Tim laughed, “Well, I guess it’s too late to say 'don’t panic.' But you have a right to be worried. No one who knew you a year ago would have expected you to be doing so well.”

“Thanks for taking the pressure off, Tim,” Tom replied sarcastically. “I guess you forgot all that leadership material anyway.”

Rising to the bait, Tim put down his drink and focused. “Sorry. You're right; you do need to know this stuff. Leadership is important and not just for your organization’s success. Most employees rate their relationship with their boss as their top concern. If you screw up, it can make your employees more miserable than if you took away a huge chunk of their paycheck. You now have the power to crush a considerable number of people’s spirits.”1

“And that’s why I'm talking to you,” said Tom.

“Well, I'm happy to help,” Tim replied. “I've been thumbing through that book you lent me and most of the basic leadership techniques are already laid out—you just need to apply them to other people, just the way you did when you applied them to yourself. You can practice leadership along with self-leadership.”

“Good, because I am not planning to go back to college,” said Tom. “Let’s get down to it.”

Tim looked up at the ceiling, trying to remember the details. “There are two basic leadership styles: transformational, a people-oriented approach, and transactional, a task-oriented approach.2 Since you're a people person, Tom, start using your people skills—go transformational!”

“So buddy up to them?” asked Tom.

“Nope,” said Tim. “The first thing to do is to focus on creating confidence. What you need is an early success, to help them build faith in you and their ability to succeed under you. It’s a basic principle, that you create achievable goals to recognize and celebrate. Later, this will help give everyone the confidence to persevere and hit the harder milestones.”

“Ah, create a success spiral!” exclaimed Tom, making the connection.

“Exactly!” said Tim. “I knew a teacher who did this. She built confidence in us by starting off the semester with a few simple quizzes before proceeding into more difficult assignments. I really had a crush on her. One time after class, I remember . . .”

“ . . . you're going off topic,” interrupted Tom.

“Where was I?” said Tim, finishing his drink. “Well, you can also use the vicarious victory principle by setting the tone. Confidently and clearly articulate a vision of where you want to be, exude optimism, provide pep-talks and in general be the role model. It’s textbook.”

“Me? Be the role model? What are you thinking?” Tom complained.

“Heavy is the crown . . . Of course, you could always quit or just take their money and wait for them to fire you. To me, that sounds a little bit like stealing, but I guess you have your own moral compass . . .”

Tim looked expectantly at Tom, letting the point linger.

“All right, all right, I'll do it,” said Tom. “I was just thinking it through.”

So on Tom’s first day in charge, he gathered his staff together and gave them a prepared speech about what he intended to accomplish. He told them that though there were areas of excellence in what they had been doing, they were taking too long to finish financial reports despite logging tons of overtime. He then set that first achievable goal. “For starters,” he enthusiastically told them, “I want us to cut the average time we take to compile our reports by a day this month. I think we can do it. In fact, I know we can do it.” And Tom did know; it was a pretty easy goal. Still, he stayed on message at their weekly meeting, realizing that enthusiasm can be contagious. And at the end of the month, he found that indeed they did cut their production time by a day, precisely one day. “That’s a start,” he thought to himself, “but really we need to cut our production time by a week.” He phoned Tim about his success and his situation.

“Well, that’s great news,” said Tim. “It’s one thing for you to ask for advice but for you to actually follow through is impressive.”

“Well, it was good advice to begin with,” said Tom, “but enough of this love-fest. I'm not sure the team will keep this up despite the fact that they could easily do much more. What else have you got for me?”

Thinking about it, Tim replied, “Let’s think about the value variable. What can you give them that they value? How can you reward them?”

“Do you mean pay them more?” asked Tom.

“Can you do that?”

“Well, no,” admitted Tom. “Not unless I want to drain my own bank account.”

“Then don’t bring it up,” said Tim, “but no worries. Money does talk, but it’s not the only speaker in this conversation. There’s something out there that most people value more than cash—recognition. Simply be aware when they do something right and recognize it in a timely manner—not next month or next week but that day. A person’s pride can feed off a sincere 'awesome' or 'job well done' for a long time, while a cup emblazoned with the company logo or even a certified check doesn’t provide the same bang for your buck.”

“That’s an awesome point, Tim.”

“Thanks,” Tim said warmly, oblivious to the immediate use of the strategy he had just recommended.

“I really like it,” said Tom. “If it gets me out of my own office a little more, that’s great. I like one-on-one conversations more than those weekly meetings anyway.”

“You're lucky. Many managers are promoted solely on technical skills and find the interpersonal part of the job difficult. Since you are so good at it, start using the Games and Goals strategy too. You know the story of the bricklayer, right?”

“Umm, remind me,” said Tom, not willing to admit he hadn’t heard of it at all.

“It’s short. When two bricklayers were asked what they were doing, the first bricklayer replied, 'Building a wall.' The second took his time and, after some thoughtful reflection, responded, 'Building a cathedral.' You want to instill the bigger picture, why what they do matters, because if you do . . .”

“ . . . all my dreams will come true,” said Tom. “I see what you're doing—giving me the bigger picture. Got it. Timely recognition and frame the picture—communicate why what they do is important.”

Tom allocated an hour a day to walk around the office, checking in on people to see how they were doing. If they impressed him, he told them so and sometimes did a little bit more; when one of his employees did a brilliant job presenting, he spontaneously offered to buy her lunch that day. Explaining the significance of the work was a little bit harder. He found that his employees needed the bigger picture to be framed in different ways. For some, how it would help their career made sense; for others, it was positioning an assignment as a symbol of responsibility; and for still others, it was about how their work affected their colleagues. Finding the right frame for the right person was a bit of a puzzle, but he got it correct more often than not. With one difficult employee, he explained it this way: “When you are done with your piece, it passes on to Suzanne. If you are late, she has to stay here late, which means scrabbling to find someone to pick up her kids from daycare, feed them, and put them into bed. You finish early, you make Suzanne’s life easy. You finish late, you make her life hell.” He never had trouble with that employee again. For good measure, he also tried to respect his employees' chronobiology and energy levels by instituting some flextime. Looking up some research, he found that just as students improved by a letter grade when allowed to sleep in by an hour, corporations that enabled flextime, allowing their employees to show up later but stay later in return, saw a nice bump in work performance.3

One night after work, Tim picked up Tom for dinner at a favorite restaurant. After they were seated and had ordered their food, Tim asked, “How’s the leadership thing going?”

“Great,” bragged Tom. “This transformer leadership is a snap.”

“That’s transformational leadership,” said Tim. “Transformer is a type of robot, like Megatron or Optimus Prime.”

Tom had been joking, but he corrected himself, “That’s right, transformational and transactional.” Then, he quickly changed the topic. “Speaking of which, you never told me about transactional leadership.”

“Well, most people tend to favor one style or the other,” said Tim, “but the best leaders have a combination of both. Transactional leaders excel at making plans, assigning tasks, and goal setting.”

“Aah! This makes so much sense,” said Tom. “I never knew what a pain my procrastination was to other people until I had to deal with procrastinators myself. Goal setting worked for me and it'll work for them too.”

“Yup. That’s what transactional leaders do. They divide distant deadlines into a series of short-term, specific, and realistic goals for their employees. Of course, too many goals and you become a micro-manager, also known as a control freak.”

“I'm in no danger of becoming that. But still, how many goals do I need to set?” asked Tom.

“There’s no firm answer on that,” admitted Tim. “Essentially, people work hardest as the clock runs out, so you want to set as many deadlines as practical. At least have regular meetings, where you review people’s progress and set new milestones. Keep in mind that some are already self-motivated and don’t need much, while others need a lot.”

“Yeah, I'm thinking of a few people who could benefit from minute-to-minute goals,” said Tom.

“Just don’t do what I have seen your company do,” said Tom, as he began mimicking a pompous corporate voice: “'We want to raise revenue by 20% by year end!' That never works. I don’t even know why they bother.”

“I know what you mean. It’s so distant and abstract, nobody can get motivated by it. Also, I don’t know if anyone thinks it’s even realistically achievable, especially with the downturn in the economy.”

While looking over Tom’s shoulder to see if their food would be arriving, Tim said, “Last year, your company made the goal too easy. When it’s too easy, people do what they do when they cross any finish line—they coast, leaving extra performance on the table.”

“Just like my initial goal,” said Tom, “where everyone beat my schedule by exactly one day. I thought it was suspicious. I guess it’s time for me to set the bar a little higher.”

“When you do—and if I know you, you are going to love this—try partying,” said Tim.

“You've got my attention. Go on.”

“Don’t forget to have a party at the end when you do accomplish it,” said Tim. “People remember two things about a task: its best moment and the end moment. A party at the end will make it seem all worthwhile.”

“I get it. Like good food at the end of a long conversation,” said Tom, noticing that the waitress had finally arrived with their order.

Tom started to incorporate effective goal setting. When asking what his employees were up to, he kept pushing them to make concrete, short-term, and challenging goals. When he met them later, he had them give him updates on their progress. Some were naturals at this and used the opportunity to brag, which was fine with Tom—he was paying them with recognition. Others needed to be coaxed. Finally, he set a big group goal: they were going to cut production time by a week this month and if they could do it, which he told them he was sure they could, they were going to cut out early the following Friday for a party. Babysitting for parents and cab rides home for everyone would be on the company’s tab. For the rest of the month, his team worked with a purpose and met the goal. The party was fantastic—as much a reward for Tom as for his team. He loved parties. In fact, whenever “his crew,” as he started to call them, looked as if they weren’t going to meet a goal, he doubled his efforts to make sure they met it and won the blow out. “Next time,” he thought, “I'll put some money in the budget for a white-water rafting extravaganza. I can probably expense it as a team-building exercise anyway. And a prize for whoever gets the most reports out this month too.”

Just when Tom was starting to get comfortable in this role as leader and manager, word came down from higher up. Unlike most other department heads, Tom was getting his budgets in on target and did his performance appraisals ahead of time. His performance was exceptional and his department was consistently the most satisfied and the most productive in his workgroup.4 Inevitably, he was to be promoted once again. The secret to Tom’s success was simply learning that what motivated other people was pretty much the same as what motivated him. To follow in his footsteps and become a better leader, you need to do the same. Good leadership is a skill that the world eagerly, even desperately, wants you to possess.


Eddie, Valerie, and Tom benefited from enacting the principles of the Procrastination Equation, repeatedly hitting the three key components of expectancy, value, and time. When you put into practice the suggestions put forth here, you will benefit too. Just don’t overdo it. While procrastination can lead to an inauthentic life, in which long-term dreams sour inside you, so can our efforts to completely eliminate procrastination.5 A genuine and autonomous individual seeks a life endorsed by the whole self, not just a fragment of it. Trying to squelch your impulsive side entirely is ultimately self-defeating; the wants and appetites that propel a life depend upon being attended to. Overregulation—seeking the perfect over the real—isn’t healthy and won’t make you happy.6 You are going to have to find a balance.

Just as the Procrastination Equation’s techniques can work too well, so could the techniques in Will Ferguson’s fictional self-help book. In his novel, after people read What I Learned on the Mountain, they did become blissful, contented, kind, and vice-free. They replaced their cigarettes and alcohol addictions with hugs and self-acceptance and swapped their oversized cheeseburgers with sensibly sized ones made from tofu. But all this virtue came at a cost: though everyone was equally content, they were also equally bland, interchangeable, and forgettable. Their personalities were whitewashed by their yearning to overcome all their flaws, and along with their vices so went desserts, fashion sense, and desire.

Procrastination represents a single swing of the pendulum, an emotional short-sightedness that sees only the present. As the pendulum swings to the other side, rational far-sightedness can become equally troublesome; we tend to focus only on the future.7 When asked about their past regrets, workaholic employees wished they had occasionally goofed off, and exceptionally industrious students regretted studying through Spring Break.10c Consequently, optimal self-control involves not the denial of emotions but a respect for them.8 Not all indulgent delays are irrational. You need to have moments of expression, when you can laugh freely with friends, or let yourself go to be indulged and pampered. Using the words of W. H. Davies, a vagabond Welsh poet of my mother’s youth: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” To be idle, frivolous, spontaneous, and whimsical—these qualities deserve a place in our lives too.


Nine thousand years ago, procrastination didn’t exist. Back then, if we worked when motivated, slept when sleepy, and acted on other urges as they came upon us, we did so more or less adaptively. In that golden age, our compulsions fit our daily demands like jigsaw puzzle pieces. We were designed for that world, life before the invention of agriculture. Fast forward nine thousand years and that same human nature has equipped us with inclinations that are ill-suited to the everyday. We have to-do lists filled with diets, early wake-ups, and exercise schedules, among a host of other ugly and motivationally indigestible ordeals. Almost every aspect of our lives reflects this maddening mismatch between our desires and our responsibilities, as we overemphasize the present and sacrifice the future. We overindulge in the immediate pleasures of fats, sugars, and television, putting off dieting and exercise. We let loose anger and rage, putting off needed reflection and reconciliation. We have predilections toward the easy pleasure of promiscuity, risking long-term relationships and reproductive health for the forbidden but immediate. Each of these examples reflects a nature that was once adaptive but is no longer, a nature that outrageously values the now more than the later. The story, however, doesn’t need to end here.

As The Procrastination E