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Why Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow

A 10-year study of procrastination provides insights into--and a formula for--human motivation
paper airplane made of money



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I am a moderate procrastinator. Even when I believe that I would be best served by finishing a task (say, filing this story), I will occasionally put it off in favor of some short-term reward (like a much needed caffeine fix). This tendency on my part to delay what is in my long-term interest can now be explained by a simple mathematical equation, according to industrial psychologist Piers Steel of the University of Calgary.

Steel developed the equation U = E x V / I x D, where U is the desire to complete the task; E, the expectation of success; V, the value of completion; I, the immediacy of task; and D, the personal sensitivity to delay, as a way of mathematically mapping a given individual's procrastination response. So, for example, my desire to finish this article is influenced by my relative confidence in writing it well and the prospect of a paycheck as well as a looming deadline and my inherent desire to go home at the end of the day. "You're more likely to put something off if you're a very impulsive individual," Steel says. But, "if you only work at the last minute, time on task tells."

Of course, this does not explain why humans would procrastinate in the first place, but it is certainly not a new problem. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing in 800 B.C., averred "a man who puts off work is always at handgrips with ruin" and the divine incarnation Krishna singled out procrastinators for special scorn in the Bhagavad Gita. Nor does it explain why procrastination seems to be on the rise--afflicting as many as 95 percent of students and at least 15 percent of adults, according to two recent surveys. Perhaps the answer lies in the cornucopia of distractions that surround us, ranging from YouTube on our computers to finally getting around to uncluttering our desks just when we should be writing that article. "We have a workplace that is motivationally toxic," Steel says. "Convenient access to inferior choices is decidedly inconvenient."

But the problem of procrastination, which Steel came to by suffering from a particularly acute case of it in his own schooling, may have broader applications. The equation to describe it, dubbed temporal motivational theory, may be applicable to the entire field of human motivation. "You can use it to predict stock prices and other theories of motivation, such as goalsetting, [which] can be derived from it," Steel notes. "Even the behavior of nations and groups can be better described by using this theory."

Insights into our procrastinating ways may help explain why humans struggle with long-term problems that require immediate solutions such as climate change and mounting public debt. And by reducing human motivation to a formula, powerful computer models can be put to work to predict our choices (and perhaps create avatars that will successfully mimic us in online worlds). "Modeling complex systems is something that we've done. We do it with the weather," Steel says. "This gives us the initial foundation to do it with people's personalities."

For my part, I hope that game designers and other modelers procrastinate on taking up this challenge, perhaps distracted by things like this news item or by the motivational tests Steel has devised. Already, one of his tests (linked below) labeled me as a moderate procrastinator and delayed this story by a good 15 minutes. "Millions of people-hours are spent making [distractions] as succulent as possible," he adds. "There are so many ways we could do something else."

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