I mean that in the best possible way, of course.
Piers Steel is the author of “The Procrastination Equation”, and he is a Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary, where he teaches human resources and organizational dynamics at the Haskayne School of Business.
His research has appeared in several outlets around the world, ranging from Psychology Today and New Scientist to Good Housekeeping and The New Yorker.
It’s safe to say that the guy knows a thing or two about a thing or two, and I’m delighted to be able to introduce him to you here today.
MK: Dr. Steel, welcome to Godlike Discipline, and thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for us today. We only get so much time, and so I’m grateful that you’re willing to spend some of yours and help us beat procrastination!
Start off please by giving us a sense of how insidious procrastination really is, and just how far into our lives it reaches. Just how widespread is it?
PS: About as common as masturbation in that we all do it to some extend but it isn’t a polite topic of conversation. Most people it is their default time management scheme, that is leaving things to the last minute. About a third of the population describe themselves as chronic procrastinators.
MK: My mother reads this! Oh well, she’s an adult I guess. ..
Maxwell Maltz had something to say about this years ago when he wrote Psycho-Cybernetics. He says that your SELF-IMAGE governs much of your behavior. Perhaps people would do well to adjust their self-image so that their default mode is not procrastination, but instead getting things done!
So, beyond the scope of the individual school assignment or the day’s to-do list, what is the real cost of procrastination to our futures?
PS: Everywhere we look, it has costs – that is less happy, less healthy, less wealthy. Really, it is putting off the life you want for yourself, your own dreams and aspirations. It can the core of a life half lived. Wasted time.
MK: I couldn’t agree more. I actually wrote an article about this; about how people discount the future as not being real. The time is going to pass anyway, and you are going to regret not moving towards your goals, so you may as well get busy.
Is procrastination the same as laziness?
PS: No. Laziness is not caring. Procrastination is caring but not pursuing the task effectively anyway. If you struggle against your delay, wish you didn’t and want to find motivation, that’s procrastination.
MK: There’s a book I just finished reading, written by Seneca, 2,000 years ago called “On the Shortness of Life”. To quote a passage:
‘It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.”
Can you attest to the truth of that statement? Was he perhaps responding to instances of procrastination even that long into the past?
PS: My favorite Roman quote, which I reference in the book is:
“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.”
Marcus Aurelius, 121-180
And on my website, I collect procrastination quotes (several hundred of them) and will find another Seneca quote there. Earliest records of procrastination go back to about 1400 BC, so Seneca is really a more recent reference. It is part of civilization as civilization creates motivational demands that is out of step with our own nature. Makes procrastination normal, not adaptive, just normal. Every culture, every time period has procrastination.
MK: I love Marcus Aurelius! There’s man who didn’t have the luxury of being able to procrastinate! Civil war, barbarian invasion, poor health, family problems…this guy’s wisdom was hard-fought for sure.
If procrastination is so irrational, then why is it so appealing? We know we’ll be worse off, but then we continue to do it. Why?
PS: This is the limbic system / prefrontal cortex duet. We actually have two decision making systems in our heads, so we plan for something in one part and then reverse our decision making with another. Daniel Kahneman got a Nobel Prize for his work on System 1 versus System 2, but it goes under about 30 names and we have references going back to Plato. For example, Haidt’s Elephant and Rider, who is borrowing on the words of Buddha, is a good analogy. This is just the way our minds work, are built.
It seems like there are so many anti-procrastination strategies circulating around. Are we making any progress? And is there a way to measure how effective the anti-procrastination movement really is?
PS: Sure. And they are effective. Three problems though. The world is coming up with really, really good temptations, which go figure enables lots of procrastination. Second, the more you procrastinate the less likely you would read a book like mine or try these strategies in general. People putting off addressing that they put off. Third, some of the strategies out there are misguided and just not effective for most people. Science, finding out what actually works, comes in handy sometimes.
MK: Instant gratification, discounting the future, and mediocre advice. It’s killing us, or at least some of us.
How would you suggest that someone settle on an anti-procrastination strategy? Should they settle on one and use it until it stops working? Or should they pull out all the stops and use a bit of everything?
PS: Would it be nice if there was a diagnostic tool that could help you determine where you areas of weakness are? Yes, that was a self-serving question as I put one in my book (and yes, a scientifically designed one, or at least based on theory with good psychometrics). Alex Vermeer did a great poster that summarizes all your targeted options:
Biggest issue with these techniques is half-assed implementation. Life coaches, to show how to get the most of them help. We devised a free goal trainer app to help people as well (see my website). So I would layer them on one at a time. Often you only need to do one or two of them well to show real improvement.
MK: What kind of mental shifts can you make immediately to make work more appealing?
PS: Give yourself choice. Autonomy is a big basic need. However, the choice you want to give yourself is which piece of work to do, what exercise to start, what part of your taxes to work on, etc. Some call this productive procrastination.
There are other techniques, often bundled under the term gamification.
MK: What is the single leading cause of procrastination?
PS: Low energy, likely from not getting enough sleep. We also tend to misuse the energy we have as we only get about four to five really good hours a day. If you did your hardest, most difficult tasks then, you could still goof off the rest of the day and be way more productive than you are now. Bet you are using your golden power hours for email and starting on your hard tasks in the afternoon. That’s the opposite of good.
MK: Without removing the need for people to buy the book, can you briefly explain the main components of the equation below:
PS: Numerator improves motivation, so tasks that are rewards (Value) and have some certainty of providing them (Expectancy). What we underestimate is the denominator, that is that delay of these rewards or consequences and our sensitivity to delay decreases motivation drastically. When do we have the most motivation? Just before the deadline, when delay is short.
MK: How can we use deadlines more effectively?
PS: Create your own (e.g., try the goal trainer). We reverse engineered the most effective naturally occurring goals so you can add artificial ones that fit your schedule. You get your motivation when it is convenient for you, not when the world tells you.
MK: I’m not sure that I can accept that I have no control over procrastination. What’s the point of affirming something like that? How could it help?
PS: Sounds like an AA meeting. Better to say you have no control over temptations and so have to keep away from them. People who think they can handle being around temptation usually can’t (or not as well as they think they can) so acknowledging that you are susceptible to them helps you to deal with them better (keeping them away).
MK: I’m a discipline-mentor first and foremost. But what’s the danger of putting something off just once? How easy is it for that to become a habit?
PS: Too easy. The fundamental context of that decision to delay will be replicated again and again. What you are really saying is not that you are putting off once but that every time this situation comes up, this is the decision I’ll likely make. So character becomes fate.
MK: What does a world with less procrastination look like? Which problems can we solve?
PS: It becomes a lot easier. Procrastination makes matters worse, so while it may be hard to deal with them ahead of time (though often not as hard as you expected when you finally get to it), at the last minute it is even harder. Remember procrastination is putting off despite expecting to be worse off, by your own standards. Less procrastination, the better life you lead.
MK: What is a major global problem that is exacerbated by procrastination?
PS: Hard to say as there are so many. Environmental issues, especially air quality which kills and maims millions, personal and government debt, educational reform, financial reform.
Better to have asked if there is any major problems not made worse, though I can’t think of one.
MK: These are all serious issues and I can’t help their own human tendency to discount the future (there’s that phrase again!) has a huge role to play.
But tell me this…
Do you ever get tired of the same recycled procrastination jokes? Tell me one I may not have heard before!
PS: I’ll tell it to you later.
MK: Gah! There must be better ones than that! That’s like the oldest one!!!
What new projects do you have coming up? Related to procrastination or otherwise. As a fan of The Procrastination Equation, I would add a follow-up of yours to my reading list almost immediately.
PS: I’ve got lots of projects on the go, like building the Google of Science (metabus.org) or creating a universal selection system, so people get matched perfectly to the job and organization of their dreams (synthetic validity). But yes, it is frustrating that these are keeping me away from writing another book.
Here’s a few ones I’ve been itching to write.
The Happy Culture: About 35,000 words written that should make it in Psychological Bulletin (that’s a big deal for an academic, being the top journal for the social sciences). It identifies what cultural values are associated with societal success.
Extreme Success: We have parsed what are the sources of the super achieving, including aspects like luck and feedback loops (e.g., money makes money and the money that money makes, makes more money). Something to tick off both the right and the left with that one. I’ll throw in an updated version of the Procrastination Equation as I’ve moved to a multi-stage model.
The Perfect Match: That’s the “synthetic validity” stuff. Got about $200,000 to run a research program to create the basics for it and it is going very, very well. Will revolutionize the world. Think about if everyone hit their ideal job a little more quickly, found work they loved a little bit more, a career they were a little bit better at. I do worry a bit about it being used to fully commodify the labor market, but that can be avoided. You can google the term and see some of my earlier stuff if you like.
MK: Well nobody can say that you’re aiming too small. Those are some huge projects and I have total faith in you. I’ve already been matched with my perfect job though!
Before you move on to the next item on your to-do list, is there anything you’d like to add? Something I may have missed or that you wish that I had asked? Now is the time!
PS: Trying to get this done before doing a presentation for our University’s risk group, so this has been a little longer than I had planned, but enjoyable.
MK: I won’t take up any more of your time then. Piers, thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions and to offer hope to my readers who may be struggling against procrastination. I’ve read 136 books since I’ve read yours (yours was #103 for me, all time), and I like to think that your sound advice and kindly wisdom has made me a lot more productive in the ensuing months.
Also…as tangible evidence of my appreciation, I have made a $50 donation on your behalf to Doctors Without Borders, the non-profit that I raise the most money for with this site.
Here is our campaign: GodlikeDiscipline.com Supports MSF
They operate in 70 countries providing disaster relief, emergency medical supplies, medical training, and a lot more. The organization received a Nobel Prize for their work, and currently have attained the highest possible ranking on Charity Navigator.
Thanks again, and you’re encouraged to come back to Godlike Discipline any time!
All the best,