Book Review: The Procrastination Equation

Do you think procrastination is about perfectionism? Fear? Yeah, me too.

Though apparently not, according to The Procrastination Equation by Dr Piers Steel. The first lesson I learned reading this book was that perfectionists don't procrastinate anymore than anyone else -- it just upsets them more. And so they are more likely to try to fix it, or see therapists about it.

Steel's book lays out very clearly the reasons why we procrastinate. I found this refreshing, as once you know why you do something it is often easier to do something about it. And learning that it has nothing to do with perfectionism (or at least less than I thought - more about this later) was a relief.

There are three reasons we procrastinate. The first is expectation, the second is value and the third is time.

People who have low expectations of the outcome of an event or task are more likely to put it off. This is where I think that Steel may be slightly wrong about perfectionism not being part of procrastination. Although those people with low self esteem or a history of failure may have low expectations, perfectionists may also suffer with debilitating fear of failure (I wrote a bit about this in Life Is Messy). Regardless, whatever your reason for poor expectations, it can contribute to procrastination.

Tasks that we don't value, or we perceive as boring, are also targets of procrastination. No one really wants to file their tax return or do the dishes (well mostly no one). So if you dislike your job (or any task) or find it boring, you will be more prone to procrastinate.

Start saving for retirement or go on a cool sailing holiday? We are conflicted. According to Steel, this is an evolutionary problem. Our prefrontal cortex, which controls our thoughts and ability to do long-term planning is constantly battling against our limbic system, which is what makes us want to eat that snack right now (especially if we've just seen food), watch yet another episode of the Wire (even though it's midnight) and check our email over 50 times per day (sometimes not an exaggeration). Our ancient ancestors didn't need to plan ahead in the same way that we do, so the limbic system is slightly more troublesome for us when it comes to tasks that require a head start. It's what kicks in when you realize that the report for work is actually due tomorrow. But it certainly doesn't help you start it four weeks in advance – the time you really might need. Instead it keeps you checking your email or making yourself yet another cup of delicious hot tea.

After laying out the reasons why we procrastinate, Steel goes on to give helpful tips on how to avoid the three different pitfalls. Some of them are quite clever, others are common sense. But they all basically admit that our willpower is never strong enough to override the pesky limbic system, our low expectations or boredom. Instead, we need to devise methods of tricking or motivating ourselves. It made me think that we're all really well-developed children, deep down. I don't play video games because I know I would get addicted, and Steel pretty much confirms this. We are impulsive creatures.

At one point he even invokes the language of a 12-step program addict – admitting that we are powerless against procrastination can help. I'm not sure if I liked this association or if it was flippant, but procrastination can be a real problem for some people if it is incredibly chronic. Not filing your taxes can land you in jail and not addressing your present or future finances can have really serious consequences.

Accepting that procrastination is natural is a good place to start. You're going to want to do it, so devise some tools that work to help prevent it. And second, if you want to motivate yourself to get things done earlier, you have to think about the positive aspects of this.

I tried it last week with something that I hate doing at work – following up with people I've met. I speak at conferences and also go to meetings. And so I often collect cards and also promise to send people things. But there's nothing I like about entering their details into my database or following up with an email. So I thought about why I was doing it – and imagined meeting them again at another conference and how I would feel about actually following up with them. I thought about how they would treat me differently and also how they would be more willing to help me if I needed it. It actually worked. All of a sudden I had changed my relationship with the task. This was a clear example of procrastinating due to placing a poor value on something.

As with any self-help book, there were parts of this read that I could leave behind*, but also lots of good ideas contained within. Like anything, of course, you do have to adapt them to your own life and what works for you (Be Your Own Expert is my tag line).

I also think Steel could have taken his study of the limbic system versus the prefrontal cortex further. I wonder if meditation exercises or more specifically people's ability to focus and drown out impulsive distraction would be linked with better success at battling procrastination. My guess is it would. (There may even be research out there on this, but I have procrastinated on looking it up and now it is too late.)

*Steel isn't an expert on the science behind eating and weight and in the book constantly refers to dieting as yet another thing people procrastinate about. Of course, this book is not primarily about dealing with food or body image issues, but the number of ill-informed statements he made regarding this did irritate me.


Speaking of procrastination, if you read this blog (or any blog) but often forget to visit the site, try signing up for an email subscription. I was talking to a friend who sometimes reads my blog but said she doesn't really have much time to go online. She didn't realize she could get it delivered into her email inbox. Just pop your email address in the box on the right hand side of the blog. Easy as pie.

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  1. Aaah, filing, my nemesis. Yep, that's boring all right. Sometimes helps if I put on a rockin' playlist, or promise myself a goodie once I get it done.

  2. Oh filing! I have a bit of a problem with that too -- and I actually did not file a single thing in the 8 months in the run up to the wedding, which has created one of the worst backlogs I've ever seen. It's a huge pile that just sits there and stares at me! I may need to promise myself a big goodie to get it done...


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