About the Theory

Procrastination in elements

Theories of Procrastination

Sometimes there seems to be as many theories on a topic as there are people researching it. Fortunately, over the last 30 years, we have been testing these theories, trying to determine which one works best. Here I review four of the most popular theories of procrastination and consider the evidence for and against them. Much of the empirical evidence comes from my meta-analysis, The Nature of Procrastination, which received American Psychological Association’s George A. Miller award for outstanding contribution to general science (andthen formed the basis for my book The Procrastination Equation).  The theory with the most support is Temporal Motivation Theory, which is presented last.

1. Anxiety: Fear of Failure, Perfectionism, etc.

There is a host of anxiety-related reasons that have been thought to cause procrastination. Essentially, people are believed to procrastinate on tasks because the task itself is aversive or stressful. Consequently, those who are more susceptible to experiencing stress should procrastinate more. There are a variety of conditions that make people anxious, especially irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs, cognition, or thought is a broad term that includes several dysfunctional or anxiety-provoking worldviews. Ellis (1973) characterizes them as: (1) almost certainly hindering the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment of desires, and (2) almost completely arbitrary and unprovable. Some examples of irrational beliefs are fear of failure and perfectionism.

Evaluation

This theory is not supported.

  • First, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more anxiety is typically experienced closer to the deadline, so procrastination appears to be a way of increasing anxiety, not reducing it.
  • Second, empirical evidence indicates a weak or even no relationship between anxiety or irrational beliefs and procrastination. For example, on average, perfectionists actually report slightly less procrastination than other people.

2. Self-Handicapping

There is dispute over whether self-handicapping should be considered a form of procrastination. Self-handicapping is when people place obstacles that hinder their own good performance. The motivation for self-handicapping is often to protect self-esteem by giving people an external reason, an “out,” if they fail to do well. However, self-handicapping isn’t necessarily a form of procrastination, which is: “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.” Self-handicappers appear to be acting in their own self-interest, thinking they are protecting themselves from shame and humiliation. Consequently, Dr. Clarry Lay, one of the first researchers into procrastination and developer of the General Procrastination Scale, concludes “to intend to put off some activity to protect one’s self-esteem in not procrastinatory behavior.”

Evaluation

This theory is not supported.

  • Self-handicapping is still an important issue and can share some commonalities with procrastination (i.e., delaying a task can be a way to self-handicap). However, because the motivations for delaying are not the same, the two will differ regarding causes and treatments and so it is best to study them separately.

3. Rebelliousness

According to the clinical literature, rebelliousness, hostility, and disagreeableness are thought to be major motivations for procrastination. For those with these personality traits, externally imposed schedules are more likely to be experienced as aversive, and thus avoided. Also, by delaying work and starting it on one’s own schedule, autonomy is reasserted.

Evaluation

This theory is not supported.

  • First, like anxiety, it explains why we might avoid tasks entirely, but not why we delay them. In fact, more autonomy might be expressed by not doing a task at all instead of just delaying it. By doing it at the last minute, procrastination may appear to express capitulation, “caving in,” rather than autonomy.
  • Second, empirical evidence indicates an extremely weak relationship, virtually nil, between rebelliousness and procrastination.

4. Temporal Motivation Theory: Core theory of The Procrastination Equation

Temporal Motivation Theory (aka The Procrastination Equation) represents the most recent developments in motivational research; it is an integrative theory from which most other motivational theories can be derived. It suggests that the reasons why people make any decision can be largely represented by the following equation:

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Motivation indicates the drive or preference for a course of action, what economists call utility. Naturally, the higher the utility, the greater the preference. On the top of the equation, the numerator, we have two variables: Expectancy and Value. Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring while Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is. Naturally, we would like to choose pursuits that give us a good chance of having a pleasing outcome. On the bottom of the equation, the denominator, we also have two variables. Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to delay. The more impulsive you are, the less you like to delay gratification. Finally, Delay indicates how long, on average, you must wait to receive the payout, that is the expected reward. Since delay is in the bottom of the equation, the longer the delay, the less motivated we feel about taking action.

How does this theory relate to procrastination? Essentially, we are constantly beset with making decisions among various courses of action. Should we go to the gym or watch TV? Should I make dinner or order-in? TMT suggests, unsurprisingly, that we are more likely to pursue goals or tasks that are pleasurable and that we are likely to attain. Consequently, we are more likely to put off, to procrastinate, difficult tasks with unenjoyable qualities.

Even more important regarding procrastination is the effects of delay. We like our rewards not only to be large but also to be immediate. Consequently, we will most likely procrastinate any tasks that are unpleasant in the present and offer rewards only in the distant future. In other words, we would be more likely to put off higher priority tasks if there are options available that are immediately pleasurable (even if they have sizeable but delayed costs). We tend to call such options temptations.

An Example

To help illustrate these elements of TMT, the following example is put forth: the college student’s essay paper. A college student who has been assigned an essay on September 15th, the start of a semester and it is due on December 15th, the course end. This student likes to socialize but he also likes to get good grades. The figure below maps the changes in expected utility for him over the course of the semester regarding his two choices, studying vs. socializing. Since the reward for socializing is always in the present, it maintains a uniformly high utility. For writing, its reward is distant initially, diminishing its utility. Only towards the deadline do the discounting effects of time decrease and writing becomes increasingly likely. In this example, the switch in motivation occurs on December 3rd, leaving just 12 days for concentrated effort. During this final stretch, it is quite likely that earnest but empty promises (i.e., intentions) are made to start working earlier next time.

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Evaluation

There is strong evidence that TMT provides a good summary of why we procrastinate.

  • First, procrastination is strongly associated with expectancy. Specifically, those people with low self-efficacy, that is feelings of incompetence, are more likely to procrastinate.
  • Second, procrastination is strongly associated with the value of the tasks. The more unpleasant people find a task, the more likely they are to put it off. Also, those low in need for achievement, that is how much pleasure they get from achieving, are more likely to procrastinate.
  • Third, procrastination is strongly associated with sensitivity to delay. Specifically, people who are more distractible, impulsive, and have less self-control tend to procrastinate more.
  • Fourth, procrastination is strongly associated with time delay. The closer we are to realizing a goal, the harder we work at it.
  • Fifth, TMT predicts an intention-action gap, where we intend to work but fail to act on these intentions. As expected. procrastinators tend not to act on their intentions.
  • Sixth, observed work behavior matches what is predicted by TMT.

See “Integrating Theories of Motivation” published in the Academy of Management Review, as it shows that most motivational theories are converging on an integrated model of motivation. TMT concludes that many of the previous theories were right, but only in part. They typically touch on only one piece of the puzzle, such as task aversiveness, and then only certain forms of it. For example, consider rebelliousness. If you are a rebellious individual and feel some work is foisted upon you, then you will likely also find it more aversive. Since anything that makes work more unpleasant increases the likelihood of procrastination, rebelliousness would indeed be one contributor to procrastination, though in general its contribution is extremely small.

52 thoughts on “About the Theory

  1. Fascinating theory!….to what degree does ‘nature vs nurture’ play in the various elements of the equation? Am I doomed to a life of procrastination, if that’s always been my pattern?

  2. Great to read this article. Thanks.

    I have been a victim of procrastination myself and found out few things with my experience. I did not do research on this topic before writing my experience. I request all if you could give your feedback on my theory on procrastination (thought/experience or whatever suits the best :-)).

    My theory is based on 5 questions against a task. And, even if one question is “Yes”, the task in question is most likely to be procrastinated.

    I my opinion, identification is an important aspect of overcoming procrastination.

    You could find the tryout in the link below and more details about my theory in form of an article.

    https://www.cognitoforms.com/Consultant10/IsYourTaskMostLikelyToBeProcrastinated

    Regards
    Raghuraman

    1. Yeah sure. Makes sense. Crushingly busy so no article for you, but…

      Can it be done later? (High Delay)
      Is it unimportant to me? (Low Value)
      Am I worried? (This is a tricky one; contributes to procrastination in some but not others)
      Is it difficult? (Another tricky one; difficulty actually can decrease procrastination but not if people feel under confident about their ability to perform)
      Am I feeling lazy? (Low energy is a good predictor)

      Try asking about the availability of temptations as well for one.

  3. As a postscript, I now have a simpler explanation for why after reading F*ck Feelings I then went back to self-help, I was not yet ready to work on my career so, in order to procrastinate, I decided I need to work on procrastination first.

    In itself that was actually worthwhile, even if for the wrong reasons. However, too much of a good thing is no good either – so for me, for right now, it’s enough excuses and back to career building.

  4. No doubt the failure of Hull’s theory is more striking when it was presented in so dogmatic a form as this multivariate equation, but the core of his theory of Diminished Drives failed as surely as the equation itself. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs similarly failed despite his less mathematical approach.

    In this case too, the specifics of the model is not the key issue – that was motivated as a response to your comment about your colleague not liking models – I have nothing against models – the question is what needs to be modeled or at least studied.

    Your approach looks at impulsivity as a whole and suggests several ways to reduce it for procrastination – bondage, satiation and poison. These are valid strategies if a) the goal is solely to get the results without self-actuation b) the problem is not too chronic.

    My question is given my belief that my intent is from a behavioral perspective far more irrational than my actions and my belief that the underlying reason for the wishful thinking is my desire to believe I am better than I am – what am I to do now? I have three choices.

    1) I can suppress the knowledge that I am less than I want to be and keep up the pretense because the illusion probably encourages me to have higher expectations and at times achieve more.

    2) I can decide that it is this charade that is perpetuating my struggles with procrastination, that this strategy may have been helpful at one time but it has by now gotten long past diminishing returns and so drop the pretense and see myself as vulnerable to temptation as I am and if temporarily I succumb even more in the long run consequences will help me achieve a healthier and more functional balance.

    3) I can acknowledge that until now I have just been a “wannabe” and now that I see through the facade and recognize that I don’t have what I want it’s time to start to “earn to be” and work the honesty, awareness (knowledge), mindfulness (conducive mindset) and deliberateness (thinking well before acting) that I need to become a more disciplined and better person. True, it won’t come overnight and it may never come to anything near the degree that I want, but, for me, if all I get out of it is striving to be a better person – I will at least have been true to myself.

    1. I think these are often fairly universal struggles we come with, even by those who actual accomplish quite a bit. But here’s a choice some have to make. 1) Struggle with feelings of mediocrity that are masked with external accomplishment, 2) Become comfortable with mediocrity but accomplish less. A bit of a devil’s choice.

      1. To be honest, in my case I have come to terms with my inherent shortcomings and so, truth be told, if I were financially secure in the long term and it were only about feelings, I believe that I would be able to live for a long time with the feelings of not being as good as I would like to be, before feeling any real imperative to change.

        My problem is that within the next 5 months (when my severance ends) I need to generate a full-time salary going forward and with my present level of dysfunction that’s going to be a major challenge.

        The sensible approach is to recognize that I have been fortunate to get more awareness of procrastination through recent reading and discussion and I now have a lot more insight and many more tools to get going – and what I have so far may be very far from perfect, but with only five months to go, good enough has to be good enough and at least for now I need to switch my focus to career building and leave procrastination solving for my spare time.

        Sure, I’m a perfectionist, I am fiercely proud, and I prefer the dramatic – but more than anything because I have finished two good books on procrastination and was in jeopardy of losing my excuse of needing to work on procrastination before I can work on my career, chronic procrastinator that I am, without even realizing it, I just changed my narrative to “I have to change my character to solve procrastination before I can work on my career”.

        So, for right now I’m going to switch focus to working on my career. If I am as idealistic as I allowed myself to believe, I am sure that I’ll find a way to work on my character anyway, if I don’t, I wasn’t that altruistic after all, but at least I’ll be giving my new career a better chance.

        Besides, I believe that there’s nothing better for my character than doing what I don’t want to – so, on second thoughts I am going to work on my character and begin by doing the last thing I feel like doing right now – working on my career.

  5. I actually like models and I have been doing some extended thinking and I am coming to the conclusion that there are various ways to look at rationality across the intention-action gap that could affect what we model:

    1) intention – rational, action – irrational – the change is inexplicable
    2) intention – rational, action – rational – the change is due to a market shift caused by a market factor Impulsivity and can be modeled by the procrastination equation

    As I see it, View 1 is the popular perception. View 2 is the model you propose.

    The problem I have with that second view is that at intention time there is no actual value only a value prediction. At the time of this prediction there is already overwhelming evidence from prior experience of the inevitable temptations of the alternatives that will arise at action time, the inevitable aversions to the intended behavior that will arise at action time and the susceptibility, at action time, to both due to impulsivity and yet irrationally the value prediction at intention time completely ignores it.

    In essence, as I see it the prediction at intention time cannot be regarded as anything other than an exercise in wishful thinking – wanting to believe that we will do as we are what we can only do as who we want to be.

    I suggest therefore a third view:

    3) intention – irrational, action – rational

    The significance for modeling is that rather than modeling market shifts we need to be modeling not only how to to game the perceived economic value by changing expectancy, value and impulsivity through various strategies (which is very legitimate) but additionally behavior transformation – which is what we really seek – how to become who we want to be, people more resistant to temptations and aversions and less impulsive.

    Here is a suggested model for transformative force that is probably very raw and imperfect:

    Ambition X Discipline
    Transformation = ——————————
    Resistance
    where:

    Ambition = Inspiration + Pride + Consequences

    Honesty X Awareness X Mindfulness X Deliberateness
    Discipline = ————————————————————————–
    Distractibility

    Resistance = Desire to maintain current identity

    1. A clarification and a correction:

      1) My numerators and denominators above got shifted

      2) Ambition being a motivation should have expectancy and value components thus:

      Ambition = Value X Trust

      Where Value = Inspiration + Pride + Consequences of behavior change

      And Trust = realistic belief that behavior change can and will work well

      1. This equation path has a limit it to it. It actually reflects where psychology started, with Hull in the 1940s and his Mathematico-Deductive Theory of Rote Learning. His full equation became: SER = V x D x K x J x SHR – IR – SIR – SOR – SLR

  6. It’s now three weeks later and I have still not gone back to your paper. It looked like a tough slog and so I opted first for a path of lesser resistance and started reading your book – it looked like an easier read – I have now read up to Chapter Eight and in the process my attitude to your work has changed significantly.

    It did not happen from the outset, though.

    My initial reaction to the first two Chapters was similar to my earlier reactions here on this page.

    I scored 45 on your scale in Chapter One – which ought to make my middle name “Taylor” (as in Coleridge) and not (as the book suggested) “Tomorrow”😉 – yet in Chapter Two I scored a full 40 on Eddie’s questions, 12 on Valerie’s questions and 12 on Tom’s questions, which left me feeling that neither the book nor the method spoke to me. True, the 40 score on Eddie’s questions immediately raised a red flag – as you already alluded in Chapter 2, some procrastination comes from overconfidence – but overall at that early point in the book I felt that if in general the book was not missing its mark with others – it was at least missing it’s mark on me.

    As it happens, I now believe that my initial issue with your work has been that I am personally am dealing with severely maladaptive procrastination – a full-blown procrastination addiction – and I believe its dynamics are significantly more complex than ordinary procrastination and so slight approximations or short-cuts in the non-chronic model will lead to significant discrepancies in the extreme and outlying cases.

    More importantly, though, moving on to the later Chapters, I found much support in your book, much insight, I gained clarity (I really appreciate how much wisdom you managed to cull from so many sources, the quality of your selection, its direct relevance and all in a very entertaining read). Most importantly for me, as I am working your action points I am finding magical thinking starting to be replaced by real hope.

    So, it’s very early, I have much work ahead of me, and no doubt, as I have already discovered, no shortage of setbacks – but I have gotten to the point where as difficult and challenging as the solution may be, for me at least, it is infinitely preferable to the problem, and so right now I am on board no matter what.

    My current plan is to continue reading and working your book – and then when I have finished I intend to go back to your paper.

    1. As a postscript, I just realized that what I learned in your Chapter 7 about the correlation between overconfidence and procrastination – I loved your take-down of the magnetic theory of “The Secret” (I am a big skeptic and I see straight through others’ magical thinking – somehow I only fall for my own magical thinking😉 ) – explains something I had until now found very ironic.

      About two months ago I had found that three years of therapy had gotten beyond a point of diminishing returns and with my therapist’s support I decided to work my issues on my own steam and by my own reading, and we agreed that I would update him by email using my career progress as my primary metric.

      My first choice was to work a book that spoke to me very strongly – “F*ck Feelings: One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Problems” by Michael Bennett. I whole-heartedly embraced what I take as the book’s central theme – the self-help industry is the source of much failure, feelings are over-rated, you have already changed most of what you can, it will be very hard to change any further, life stinks and it’s not fair – so just focus on your own values, try to be the best person that you can, try to be as little of a jerk as possible, and measure your success by your efforts and not your results.

      Then a strange thing happened I was just beginning to really warm up to this new fatalism and let go of traditional self-improvement when I re-discovered the Burka and Yuen Procrastination book I had bought five years earlier and only read several pages of and this time I read the entire book and started working it – not content with that and determined to discover and work more I decided to check out the Science more fully and followed their reference to your work which brought me here, and led to me reading and working your book.

      The irony was striking, prior to reading the F*ck Feelings book it had been at least 6 years since I was last able to read a self-help book to completion, let alone work it. It had been many months of therapy that I was no longer able to successfully integrate any of my therapist’s suggestions. No sooner had I begun reading the very book that would extinguish all hope and thought of even trying – and all of a sudden I can’t get enough self-help.

      Having read and absorbed your Chapter 7, I now see straight through the apparent irony – in reality this paradox is self-explanatory, the F*ck Feelings book was both my teaspoon of pessimism and my First Step of powerlessness over procrastination.

      1. On the topic of procrastination addiction – a further thought came to mind.

        I am missing data – but I suspect that whether as cause, effect, or some combination, as compared to the general population, a disproportionate number of addicts (across all addictions) are maladaptive perfectionists. If I am right in my earlier speculation of a strong link between performance anxiety due to maladaptive perfectionism and procrastination, there ought to be more maladaptive procrastinators (procrastination addicts) among addicts who are maladptive perfectionists (to avoid circular reasoning for these purposes it likely makes sense to define maladaptive perfectionists as those chronically affected by their perfectionism in all ways other than procrastination) than among addicts who are not maladaptive perfectionists.

      2. I would agree with that. Just from the impulsiveness overlap alone, you would get a bump. However, self-medicating against anxiety would also serve as an additional pathway.

  7. To perhaps sharpen the analysis of the procrastinating activity even further, someone with a headache given a choice between a painkiller or a favorite food will generally opt for the painkiller despite its complete lack of inherent pleasure.

    In short, to me, procrastination is self-medication. Self-medication from general Emotional Dysregulation and self-medication from task-generated Emotional Dysregulation.

    1. The approach/avoidance dichotomy is in the full version of TMT. Look through the building blocks of motivation piece I sent (it is also in Integrating Theories of Motivation article). I simplified it for the book, as you have to judge how much complexity you are going to provide.

      And I did do the research on this, but haven’t published it. I used the UPPS, which has all factors of impulsiveness. You get correlations with all aspects except sensation seeking: http://www.sjdm.org/dmidi/UPPS_Impulsive_Behavior_Scale.html#Description. So two flavors of impulsiveness that both can lead to procrastination. One is avoiding a punisher (which is technically called negative reinforcement, as removing a punisher is rewarding) and the other is seeking a reward. The former is neurotic and avoidance oriented. Here’s an excerpt from one my publications:

      The second regards the discounting
      constant, which is presently treated as
      identical for both losses and gains. However,
      Dollard and Miller (1950) suggest that this increase
      in drive occurs at different rates for different
      needs. In their words, “The strength of
      avoidance increases more rapidly with nearness
      than does that of approach. In other words,
      the gradient of avoidance is steeper than that of
      approach” (1950: 352).

      Too bad you never went into this field. Though these ideas have been done before (really, it is almost impossible to find anything truly novel), your instincts are spot on and ahead of many other researchers.

      1. I did not go into the field formally, but I did take more than one course in behavioral motivation in the School of Hard Knocks😉

        I started reading your papers and intend to finish them

  8. Dr Steel,
    Thank you again for your responses – it is a real privilege, honor and gift to be able to discuss procrastination – currently my greatest personal challenge – with perhaps the foremost expert in the field.

    I am very interested in your paper, I do intend to read it and give you feedback.

    As to your response I understand very well your points about the map not being the land and a model being just that.

    I also understand and fundamentally agree very strongly with your observation that procrastinators suffer from a belief that life is supposed to be easy. My own personal belief is that this core belief is hardly limited to procrastinators and it is singly responsible for more contemporary human frustration, conflict and mental illness than any other.

    Whether this trope is a mutation of the Enlightenment Idea of Progress, a product of messages and advertising driven by commercialism, messages spread by popular entertainment and culture or some combination makes little difference. The damage is done and, besides, who said life was supposed to be easy anyway?😉

    You also say we are mostly in agreement. I would qualify that. We are largely in agreement on the pathology at work – impulsiveness. As I see it where we differ is no minor detail and is, in my opinion, certainly far more than a minor wrinkle.

    As you describe it procrastination is an impulsiveness that is at its heart a fundamental cognitive impairment. I see it very differently – and not because of any stigma.

    Two people can be acting completely irrationally – one due to cognitive impairment – he’s drunk, let’s say – the other out of panic – emotional impairment.

    You seem to see procrastination almost entirely as cognitive impairment. I see procrastination in mature and selectively functional adults as emotional impairment – and yes, a form of panic.

    To me that’s a very fundamental distinction and as I see it fundamentally a different model of the role of impulsiveness in procrastination. I suspect that emotional procrastination (vs cognitive procrastination) is the most common and predominant form – if I am correct then it is a lot more than some subtype not entirely accounted for in an otherwise valid model, if I’m right the model needs to be changed.

    That’s my take so far, and meanwhle I’ll head over to your paper and get back to you

    1. Well, that is cutting edge question. But recently answered:

      Sharma, L., Markon, K. E., & Clark, L. A. (2014). Toward a theory of distinct types of “impulsive” behaviors: A meta-analysis of self-report and behavioral measures. Psychological bulletin, 140(2), 374.

      The key take away:

      ” A meta-analytic principal-components factor analysis demonstrated that these scales comprise 3 distinct factors, each of which aligns with a broad, higher order personality factor—Neuroticism/Negative Emotionality, Disinhibition versus Constraint/Conscientiousness, and Extraversion/Positive Emotionality/Sensation Seeking. Moreover, Disinhibition versus Constraint/Conscientiousness comprise 2 correlated but distinct subfactors: Disinhibition versus Constraint and Conscientiousness/Will versus Resourcelessness. We also review laboratory tasks that purport to measure a construct similar to trait impulsivity. A meta-analytic principal-components factor analysis demonstrated that these tasks constitute 4 factors (Inattention, Inhibition, Impulsive Decision-Making, and Shifting). Although relations between these 2 measurement models are consistently low to very low, relations between both trait scales and laboratory behavioral tasks and daily-life impulsive behaviors are moderate. That is, both independently predict problematic daily-life impulsive behaviors, such as substance use, gambling, and delinquency; their joint use has incremental predictive power over the use of either type of measure alone and furthers our understanding of these important, problematic behaviors”

      You are differentiating between the first and second factors of impulsiveness.

      PS. You might like this: https://blog.team-cymru.org/2015/10/whats-easy-isnt-always-whats-right/

      1. Yes, I am saying that in mature and selectively functional adults (non-hedonists) procrastination is associated with Neuroticism/Negative Emotionality or Emotional Dysregulation (ED).

        Developing this further, ED that is unconnected to a given task or goal can, in selectively functioning adults, obviously be expected to cause less pervasive procrastination than ED generated by the task or goal itself.

        Perfectionism is a very strong candidate for task generated ED in those with emotional regulatory problems and if I am correct this validates the insistence of so many that maladaptive perfectionism is a major factor in procrastination – except that I would qualify it only by clarifying that it is not maladaptive perfectionism itself that is the true cause but ED caused by maladaptive perfectionism.

        On further reflection, ED generated impulsivity is only half of the picture – the other piece in the puzzle as I see it is that the value of the procrastinating activity is not in its usual intrinsic value at times of no ED but in its extrinsic value as a distraction from ED.

        Thus, two rewarding activities may be available immediately, one – surfing online – offering high distractibility but less pleasure and the other – a romantic date with one’s spouse – with low distractibility but potentially higher pleasure – and the procrastinator will opt for high-distractibility online surfing despite its lesser pleasure than the less distracting date with spouse.

        As I see it, the above model connecting ED in general, task-generated ED and distractive behaviors (distraction/escape of choice) provides a model of procrastination that is in many ways directly analogous to the process of behavioral addiction.

  9. Dr Steel,
    This might be funnier if it weren’t in some way the story of my life.

    I bought a book on Procrastination (Burka & Yuen) in 2010, read a few pages and then did not open it again until just over a month ago, when having been laid off several months earlier from a job I had miraculously held for 16 years, and trying to put together a new career, I had found myself bedeviled by the same maladaptive procrastination that contributed to my being laid off.

    In desperation and with little better alternative (years of seeing a therapist was not working for my procrastination) I read the entire book and have been working its suggestions since. In the text and footnotes I came across references to your work and website and last night I got a hold of your book.

    Reading your theory here I am surprised by two things:

    1) Taken at face value, by TMT the expectation should be that procrastination would be universal for all long-term gratification tasks vs short-term gratification tasks – in both my own personal experience and what I have read from others that is rarely the case.

    My own belief is that chronically active hopeless addicts aside, in many domains common-sense and maturity will at some point cause a cost-benefit analysis that will adequately compensate and prevent self-destructively succumbing to temptations of short-term gratification.

    However, in those areas where there is DENIED aversiveness to a task and additionally DENIAL that the aversion has become overwhelming, then the conscious cost-benefit analysis will not factor in either of those costs and will therefore produce an unrealistic analysis of your “EXPECTANCY X VALUE” numerator, leading to an unrealistic expectation of motivation for timely task completion and consequently insufficient motivation for task completion.

    2) More than once you say that aversion should only lead to non-performance but not delay. In my own experience that is not the case at all. For me a deadline means that there is a point of no return if there is any hope of completing the task. Before the deadline being reached there is an option to avoid the aversion and therefore the VALUE in your equation’s numerator is not as great – once, however, the deadline is reached the VALUE then increases dramatically and the task can be completed.

    Of course you could argue that in both my points above I am using your equation and therefore the equation is the core of the description of procrastination while both my points above are just indirect factors.

    I disagree strongly. Your equation is a good description of general motivation levels in and will catch those suffering from pervasive impulsiveness, immaturity and poor Executive Function – such as ADHD sufferers. However, procrastination in adults is not for the most part generic and universal, even in chronic procrastinators in at least some domains the consequences of failure are generally adequate to protect from significant maladaptiveness – it is only in select domains that procrastination leads to maladaptiveness and therefore any model or equation which does not include for this specifically fails to describe procrastination will fail to predict procrastination. Resorting to such an equation without factoring in what specifically and selectively triggers procrastination is no more meaningful than to generally say that the procrastinator is insufficiently motivated – which is so self-evident that there is no value in additionally stating a general equation of motivation.

    1. So many, many things. Impulsiveness is at the core of procrastination; the evidence is overwhelming from multiple sources. Absolutely crushing. However, phenomenologically it won’t feel that way, so you get personal experience running against the weight of science and more often than not in people’s minds the former wins. In my book, I did an inadequate job of explaining why, so I get some of these type of responses. Live and learn. Does this explain?

      It is from a recent Encyclopedia article on this.

      Types of Procrastination
      Typologies of procrastination can be organized by life
      domain (e.g., academic or health), by self-reported reason or
      justification (e.g., rebellion or arousal), and by cause (e.g.,
      self-efficacy or value driven). Since procrastination appears to
      require some sort of impulsive weakness of the will, where
      we act against our own best interests, it is facilitated by
      proximity to temptations or environmental cues. Personality
      traits are predictive of what temptations procrastinators tend
      to be susceptible to, resulting in different phenomenologies
      of procrastination (Schouwenburg, 2004). People high in the
      personality trait of extraversion, for example, will ascribe
      their procrastination to their need to socialize while
      conversely those low in extraversion (i.e., introverts) will
      attribute their procrastination to their need for solitude.
      Most studied among these is the neurotic or perfectionist
      procrastinator, who is most likely to seek clinical treatment
      and has given rise to the belief that perfectionism causes
      procrastination in general. Though there is almost no
      association between perfectionism and procrastination,
      impulsive perfectionists should personally experience their
      perfectionism as being the cause of their procrastination and
      this particular typology may respond well to techniques for
      managing anxiety.

      1. Dr. Steel,
        Thank you so much for your reply. I had seen your article elsewhere in the comments before commenting myself but when I originally saw it I did not immediately see any relevance to my points – thanks to your response I believe that I understand your position better – and here is my problem with it.

        To me, the biggest weakness in your use of Schouwenburg within the TMT model is that there is no distinction at all made between gratification and aversion – which as I see it is the vital and predictive missing link – and as I see it, that makes TMT only half the theory it needs to be.

        But this is an intricate point – so I’ll begin with where I agree completely with you:

        1) Procrastination is a behavior whose very engine is impulsiveness – as you said the evidence is crushing – and I would go even further and say that not only is impulsiveness a demonstrable prime cause – as I see it, procrastination is itself nothing more than a form of impulsiveness.

        2) Procrastinators will incorrectly and “superstitiously” blame their behavior on the gratification of a temptation much as an addict will blame his/her addiction on whatever gratification they get from their drug of choice. So, much as many an active alcoholic will claim that their only problem is the overwhelming attractiveness of alcohol, many a procrastinator will blame the temptation of whatever “diversion of choice” they engage in – and yes, obviously that’s a red herring.

        The real question for both the addict and the procrastinator as I see it is that once they are mightily struggling to be free of their maladaptive behaviors they obviously agree at least in principle and to a large degree in practice that a rational cost-benefit analysis demands that they let go of their self-destructive behavior – so why is their own cost-benefit analysis failing to motivate change at the point of interaction?

        As I see it there are two possible approaches.

        The first is to say that although they can intellectually verbalize and even subscribe to a cost-benefit analysis in their more rational moments very simply their impulsiveness makes them incapable of adhering to their own cost-benefit allowance. As I see it that’s your understanding.

        The problem with your understanding, as I see it, is that it fails to explain how the very same person who has the self-discipline to put off a personally compelling short-term temptation for a far less immediate and far less immediately compelling long-term goal can at other times find it impossible and gets hopelessly mired in a cycle of procrastination.

        Your response seems to be that it is just the personality of the procrastinator – to me that’s a red herring that is in some way similar to the procrastinator’s idea that TV, for example, is just so compellingly attractive.

        My own experience is that for me there is a massive difference between short-term gratification vs long-term gratification on the one hand – and in absence of any significant emotional aversion I have almost no problem at all with impulsiveness in that context – and short-term aversion vs long-term aversion on the other, which is the template of all my procrastination and where, at least by default, I completely succumb to impulsiveness.

        As I understand it there are two factors at work within myself both a result of impulsively identifying feelings as being identical to self. As a result, firstly, I instinctively (not intellectually) believe that since “I am my feelings” therefore any significant emotional pain, conflict and suffering is an existential threat. Consequently, I instinctively have an unrealistic subconscious expectation that no-one could be expected to face significant emotional pain, conflict and suffering and not seek escape – it’s basic self-preservation.

        As much as everything I describe is impulsive – it’s a very specific form of impulsivity – the obsessive and instinctive avoidance of emotional pain – and it is this I believe that best explains selective procrastination in otherwise functionally rational people.

      2. There is indeed a limit to the complexity of any model. I don’t know how many times I’ve told Tim Pychyl that the map is not the land, but that doesn’t make maps useless. So we are mostly agreement here. That the theory doesn’t contain every warp and whirl of reality is true of all models. Also, I have written elsewhere about one driving force of procrastination is that life should be easy, which maps onto your picture pretty well.

        I think given your intelligent discussion and interest, you can handle something more complicated. Try this one:

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280025762_The_Building_Blocks_of_Motivation

        Really interested in what you make of it.

      3. Hello,
        Thank you for your most meaningful and helpful work. I am working a project on procrastination, and am happy to have found your site.

        I was wondering about the functions of procrastination and motivation and really appreciate how you laid out the big four theories. I further appreciate the Procrastination Equation. I am looking forward to taking the self assessments.

        I can see the connection of anxiety and impulsive perfectionists. I have called my self a “Perfectionist with completion anxiety”. I want very much to change this attitude i have. I am looking forward to reading more of your findings.

        Thank you!
        Katrina Adams

  10. First of all, thank you for your contributions to this important subject. I just purchased your book and I am very excited to read it!🙂

    A couple thoughts on procrastination and perfectionism. What is the exact definition of perfectionism, especially in the study that shows perfectionists procrastinate less? I feel like a lot of people call themselves perfectionists when in fact they are just ambitious or like to do things well (most people prefer to do well rather than poorly no?) Also, shouldn’t adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists looked at separately?

    I consider myself a maladaptive perfectionist and it is very much affecting my ability to get things done. I think your theory is spot on and explains in more detail why perfectionism is making me delay things. For one expectancy of having a pleasing outcome is lowered. To me, a pleasing outcome is something that is perfect or nearly so. Rationally, I know that is impossible to achieve for complex tasks… so I have thoughts like: “you can never achieve your goal anyway (perfect result), so screw this.” So it is a fight between the part that wants to get this done and the part that says it can’t be done right. This is also so uncomfortable that your second point (The more unpleasant people find a task, the more likely they are to put it off) comes into effect. Working with perfectionism is a form of torture.

    I am also not sure if I agree with your point that there is a difference between “not doing things entirely” and “delaying things”. I feel like the mechanisms at play are largely the same, if there is something I don’t do, but I actually would really like to do it and constantly think about it (or the outcome). I am essentially delaying doing it, just perhaps indefinitely. But if it is something I want to do and is on my mind and I don’t do it right now I think it’s a form of procrastination.

    In that sense, anxiety, fears and perfectionism to me are a big part of procrastination because they affect factors in your equation and to dismiss that theory seems a bit misleading. But I understand your point that they alone don’t explain why, they are merely a factor. Perhaps we just have a different definition of procrastination?

    Thanks again for all your brilliant thoughts!

    1. I’ve refined my ideas in a recent Encyclopedia article on this. Let me know if it makes sense:

      Types of Procrastination
      Typologies of procrastination can be organized by life
      domain (e.g., academic or health), by self-reported reason or
      justification (e.g., rebellion or arousal), and by cause (e.g.,
      self-efficacy or value driven). Since procrastination appears to
      require some sort of impulsive weakness of the will, where
      we act against our own best interests, it is facilitated by
      proximity to temptations or environmental cues. Personality
      traits are predictive of what temptations procrastinators tend
      to be susceptible to, resulting in different phenomenologies
      of procrastination (Schouwenburg, 2004). People high in the
      personality trait of extraversion, for example, will ascribe
      their procrastination to their need to socialize while
      conversely those low in extraversion (i.e., introverts) will
      attribute their procrastination to their need for solitude.
      Most studied among these is the neurotic or perfectionist
      procrastinator, who is most likely to seek clinical treatment
      and has given rise to the belief that perfectionism causes
      procrastination in general. Though there is almost no
      association between perfectionism and procrastination,
      impulsive perfectionists should personally experience their
      perfectionism as being the cause of their procrastination and
      this particular typology may respond well to techniques for
      managing anxiety.

  11. I like the Equation, but I was wondering : how do you assert the values of the different variables ? And if there’s a constant in the denominator (Impulsivity * Delay + N), what is it worth ?

    1. All in the book.

      You need a constant to prevent the equation hitting infinity when time approaches zero. Also, you can get exact values for the equation but typically under lab conditions only, which can afford precise measurement.

      1. I read your book (it’s awesome, by the way). Actually, I was figuring you needed a constant because otherwise, it would mean increasing impulsivity would decrease the motivation even for short term considerations.

        Anyway, what I was wondering is, what is the non-abstract meaning of these variables ? Delay is easy enough, it’s worth (Time of the outcome – Time right now), but how do you quantify Impulsivity, Expectation and Value, lab conditions or not ? And what value do you give to the constant ? Sorry if those questions are too much, it’s just something that really gets me as a math-physics student.

      2. Ahh, this is why psychology has physics envy and we have to be so statistics heavy; major error in our measures. Attempts to quantify value on a universal scale has been pretty awful (look up “utils”). However, we managed to create precise measures under laboratory conditions and the equation holds (look up “matching law”). Best to read “Integrating Theories of Motivation” if you are up for the math heavier version of the book. Google search will bring it up.

  12. Love the equation. Question – it seems impulsiveness can actually reduce procrastination up until a certain point – i.e. maybe relationship between the two is nonlinear. Being impatient to receive a result can motivate an individual to action if the delay is short enough. There is a personality type out there of an individual who is highly productive at short-term tasks, spending their days knocking them out one by one and getting a high off each win, but who can’t start that book or thesis or long-term, vaguely-defined project.

    1. Ahh, insightful. There is indeed. I call them journalists🙂. Impulsive people do well in jobs that automatically generate a series of short-term goals, so that includes some sorts of sales as well. Also, if you intrinsically love your job so there is no delay between what you do and the rewards for it, then impulsiveness can help (workaholics?).

      1. I guess impulsiveness makes the difference between a journalist and an academic, then. I actually think that it would be nice if there were a way to leverage impulsiveness to produce long-term results. Setting artificial deadlines would be nice, if they weren’t artificial, which makes them not work (they’re easy to worm out of). Also, was thinking that the value part of the equation may be counterintuitive, too, in that the higher-value a task/outcome is, the more intimidating it is, such that value may in some sense motivate in the opposite direction. Also, value may be sometimes derived externally – one’s own grand goals can always be tossed aside when another person wants you to do something. It seems like the climate change conundrum – huge potential consequences, low probability = inaction.

      2. Let’s think of altering value as adjusting the fun factor. And indeed, that’s exactly how goal setting works; taking a long-term goal and making it short-term. We made an app to walk people through a bunch of steps people can do to increase the power of these goals, including how to prevent you from worming out of them.

  13. I simply couldn’t leave your web site before suggesting that I actually loved the standard info an individual
    supply in your guests? Is going to be back steadily in order to check up on new posts

    1. Appreciate it! Well, it is the best science based book on the topic, but science isn’t for everybody. Glad it found its reader!

  14. Hi, Dr. Steel.

    Nice to see your writings in this page.
    After reading that, I’m curious about several things.I may ask one question only for now.
    You’ve review three theories of procrastination in this page (except TMT). I’d like to know whether I can find more review in other popular theories of procrastination and the evidence for and against them. Is there any other source you have?

    Ps: I also have read your paper “The Nature of Procrastination” and find it also help.

    Thanks.

    1. Oh, almost forgot to say. I also have read your paper in 2006 (Integrating Theories of Motivation), 2008 (Mega-Trial Investigation), and your book (Procrastination Equation).🙂

      1. Thanks! Glad you liked it. Gustavson et al. did a very nice paper testing TMT this winter using genetic twin study methodology. It was in all the news, so happy he found confirmation. Also, I did piece on Ferrari’s research:

        Steel, P. (2010). Arousal, avoidant and decisional procrastinators: Do they exist? Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 926-934. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.02.025

        Long story short, they don’t.

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