The procrastination equation: How to actually start (and stick with) the tasks you’ve been putting off

We all have that one (or more) task we really want to do. But for some reason keep putting off. Whether you’ve been avoiding an uncomfortable conversation, starting an ambitious project, or asking for honest feedback, it’s often hard to overcome that initial friction and fear.

So what do you do? If you’re anything like most people, you stick to what you know (ticking off to-do list items and answering emails and IMs) and end the day asking “Did I really get anything done?”

It’s ironic that the things we feel most strongly about often get pushed aside. So how do we get over our fear and actually start (and finish) those big, hairy, audacious goals?

Start by asking: What motivates you to do the work you want to do?

There are all sorts of ways to think about what motivates you at work. But the most common is extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation.

Simply put, extrinsic motivation is being motivated by external rewards, like praise from your boss or money. While intrinsic motivation is being motivated by feelings or internal rewards, like a sense of accomplishment or pride.

But as most of us know, those two categories often overlap.

Especially when we look at motivation in the workplace—where money is always a part of the equation—it’s difficult to sit down and know what really motivates you.

But there’s another way to think about motivation and how it controls our actions at work.

Introducing The Procrastination Equation

Developed by Professor Pier Steel, the Procrastination Equation breaks down our motivation into a simple equation:

The Procrastination Equation

On the top you have Expectancy and Value. Expectancy refers to the odds of a positive outcome occurring. While Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is.

On the bottom of the equation is Impulsiveness and Delay. Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to delay—in other words, how easily distractible are you? While Delay refers to how long you have to wait to get the expected reward from your actions.

As Dr. Piers explains it, we’re more motivated to do tasks with a good chance of a pleasurable outcome in the near future. On the flip side, we feel less motivated if a task is difficult or where we have to delay our gratification.

Sounds pretty obvious. But the devil is in the details.

When we look at our most important tasks, there’s one major factor that causes us to put them off so much: Delay.

According to the equation (and backed by tons of studies), you’re more likely to pick a task with a less appealing reward because you’ll see the effects of that reward sooner. It’s why you’ll fill out a spreadsheet instead of working on a big strategy doc. Or answer emails instead of writing a blog post.

When the reward is off in the distance, it’s hard for us to get started.

Breaking down and optimizing for The Procrastination Equation

procrastination equation

Now that we know the equation, we can start looking at ways to game it.

This means increasing the factors on top (that drive us), and decreasing those on the bottom (that block us).

When you take the mystery out of what motivates you, you can start to optimize for each part of the equation. Let’s start with the top factors:

Expectancy: Practice breaking through the friction to stop obsessing over an unknown outcome

It’s no big surprise that we lose motivation when we’re unsure about the outcome of a difficult task. And there are few things worse than getting stuck playing the “what if?” game.

For most of us, it’s the moment of transition where we get stuck. When we try to go from a place of comfort (like ticking off easy to-go list items) to discomfort (working on a project with an uncertain outcome).

This comes down to a lot of factors, but one of the main ones is that we simply have a hard time imagining the future. Recent studies into chronic procrastinators have uncovered a phenomenon called Temporal Myopia that explains our inability to see and empathize with our future selves.

To boost our expectancy then, we first need to imagine a world where we’ve gotten the results we want:

  1. Start by identifying the task you want to move forward with but are having a hard time getting started on
  2. Now, narrow in on the point of transition—like picking up the phone and dialing someone you want to talk to, or sitting down and typing the first few words of a doc or post
  3. Schedule a time and place where you will go through that transition and commit to it
  4. Finally, picture yourself having gone through that first step and then ask “what happens next?”

That moment of transition becomes less scary once you’re able to picture yourself past it. Hopefully, this is enough to boost the expectancy of a positive outcome.

Value: Prioritize the work that is truly valuable to you (it might not be what you expect)

You won’t be motivated to do work if you don’t see the value in it. Yet, sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking we value tasks more than we actually do. (Call it a case of “the grass is always greener.”)

Learning how to prioritize work is a skill in itself, and one that directly supports your level of motivation. But if you’re stuck trying to understand what work is most valuable to you right now, there are a few exercises that can help you:

  1. The Eisenhower Matrix: This is Prioritization 101. Simply create a 2×2 matrix with Importance on one axis and Urgency on the other, and plot all your tasks on it (we wrote a more in-depth guide to this technique here). The goal here is to only focus on work that is both urgent and important.
  2. The “Decision-Making” Matrix: Yes, we’re going hard on the matrixes here. This time, you’re going to take your urgent and important tasks and grade them on a scale of 1-5 based on a few categories, like effort, profitability, vision, and impact. Tally up the scores and focus on the top ones first.
  3. The Ivy Lee Method: To decide what to do today, simply write down your top 5-6 tasks in true order of importance and work through them one-by-one. At the end of the day, anything that got missed gets put on the top of the list for tomorrow (or ditched if you realize it isn’t valuable). Here’s a more detailed description to help you out.

In the end, you should have a clear picture of what work is most valuable and deserves your attention.

Impulsiveness: Prime your “emotional courage” to get through the friction of hard work

Now let’s take a look at the bottom of the Procrastination Equation—the factors that kill your motivation and make you put off doing meaningful work.

Starting an important task you’ve been putting off will bring up feelings of discomfort. Every time you think about how big and uncertain the task is, you’ll start to pump the brakes.

In these cases, it’s important to practice building up what executive coach Peter Bregman calls your Emotional Courage. Basically, this means identifying, accepting, and working through those feelings of discomfort.

Another word for this is what the Germans call “sitzfleisch”. While the direct translation is “sitting meat” (which sounds pretty gross), the cultural connotation is that you’re able to sit still and concentrate for an extended period of time.

As Emily Schultheis writes in BBC Capital:

“To have sitzfleisch means the ability to sit still for the long periods of time required to be truly productive; it means the stamina to work through a difficult situation and see a project through to the end.”

To develop this quality takes practice. But it also takes giving yourself the best possible chances to get through these hard periods uninterrupted.

To give you the best chance, start by optimizing your work environment for focus and use a tool to block distracting websites when you need to get work done.

Delay: Boost your ability to delay gratification to stop distant rewards from slowing you down

We all suffer from a “present bias” or wanting something now instead of later. For example, “I’ll start eating more healthy tomorrow,” or “after next weekend I’ll start focusing on that big project.”

One of the main obstacles when it comes to motivation is what behavioral economists call Time Inconsistency — the human brain’s tendency to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.

For some reason, we believe “future us” will be more disciplined, more focused, and OK with “current us” goofing off instead of going the work. But that’s rarely the case.

A big part of this is shifting our focus from the outcome to the process. In other words, instead of thinking about the end goal—the strategy, the successful marketing campaign, the new app—think about the work that’s needed every day to get there.

This means scheduling regular time to work on these important tasks and focusing more on showing up for 20-30 minutes a day. As habit coach and author James Clear explains:

“If you look at the people who are consistently achieving their goals, you start to realize that it’s not the events or the results that make them different. It’s their commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, not the individual event.”

Use RescueTime to track your progress, set goals, and stay motivated every single day. Find out how we can help

What motivates you at work is personal. But it also comes down to a few simple factors. Does this work excite you? Do you see it being successful? Is that success not too far off in the distance? Are you able to protect yourself from the distractions that will inevitably get in the way?

When you want to make progress on the tasks you’ve been putting off, think about all the factors influencing your actions. If you can learn to game the Procrastination Equation, you’ll be one step closer to doing more of the things you want.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.