Procrastination – not today…

It’s a Big Problem


It’s a familiar scenario to many of us. We have something to do, but we keep putting it off. Procrastination is a habit that just about everyone indulges in, at least from time to time. The word itself comes from the Latin “for tomorrow”.

It’s a hugely common phenomenon – some studies suggest that 95 percent of us have procrastinated at some point, with around 25 percent calling it a chronic occurrence. And the problem seems to be growing – in the 1970s, only 5 percent of survey respondents admitted to being chronic procrastinators.

Is it serious? Well, procrastination can cause wide-ranging damage. Some of the figures on the financial side make for scary reading. One study suggests that people procrastinating on their tax forms in 2002 subsequently made errors as they rushed to meet the deadline, resulting in more than $473 million as overpayments. Economists say that failing to build up savings for retirement is also a form of procrastination, because “many individuals lack sufficient self-discipline to begin saving for retirement in a timely fashion.” Researchers have shown that procrastinating is not good for your health, because it means putting off regular checkups and other behavior associated with your wellbeing. Procrastination is correlated with a higher frequency of poor performance and other negative consequences like stress.

When we don’t feel like doing something we’re supposed to, we’re quite good at coming up with various excuses, sometimes even fooling ourselves. We might pretend the task is not that important, or pretend that doing it later will produce better results. We might blame it on external conditions or try to rationalize our procrastination by pretending we are doing something more urgent. Entrepreneur and Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham considers procrastination to be most dangerous when we’re doing something less important. That’s when it doesn’t feel like procrastination because we’re getting things done, and the lack of a desired result at the end could be very damaging.

So why do we procrastinate? It turns out that science has done a lot of work to explain some of the factors behind procrastination. We can use this knowledge to better combat this behavior, which Cicero called “hateful” all the way back in 44 B.C.


It depends on who you are…


Procrastination is sometimes associated with various personality traits. A number of studies have been done in this area and, in a seminal meta-analysis of over 691 correlations, psychologist Dr. Piers Steel looked at the traits most reliably associated with procrastination. A study with twins shows that there is a genetic component to procrastination. The common belief that perfection may be linked to procrastination has been disproved – perfectionists  do stress a lot more when they put something off, but they don’t tend to procrastinate any more than non-perfectionists. Links between procrastination and depression are mainly due to the lower energy levels and lack of self-confidence associated with the latter. There is a correlation between procrastination and neuroticism, which is partly due to low self-confidence as well. The increased anxiety that comes with neuroticism is not strongly related to a tendency to procrastinate. However, neuroticism is also associated with a certain level of impulsiveness, which is a very important factor determining whether you are prone to procrastination.

Recent research in neurology suggests that we are wired differently than originally thought. Instead of being right or left brained, we are “top-” or “bottom-brained”, dividing us into four categories of people – movers (both sections used actively and equally), perceivers (more bottom-brain), stimulators (more top-brain) and adaptors (both sections used passively). Movers are the best planners and are most sensitive to deadlines. Piers Steel refers to the limbic system as the older part of the brain which tends to want pleasant emotions now; it is more powerful than the newer prefrontal cortex, which we use to make our long-term plans. So whenever you need to do something now for long-term benefit (like starting to write a report that you manager needs in a week, rather than do something more fun like getting a cup of coffee with a buddy at work) a “battle” begins between these different parts of our brain. The limbic system pushes you to get that cup of coffee now and procrastinate, while the prefrontal cortex reminds you that you have a lot to cover in the coming days, so you better get started now. The personality traits mentioned earlier give the edge to one or the other.

Ok, so we are who we are. Does that mean we’re doomed to always make the same mistakes and procrastinate? After all, each of us has felt how we never get some tasks done on time, but we have no problem with some of the other items on our to do list. Our personality doesn’t change from task to task – so what else causes procrastination?
…but also on the task
Besides being personality-specific, the reasons for procrastination are directly related to the task at hand. As part of their Temporal Motivation Theory, Piers Steel and Cornelius J. Konig proposed this equation -

Motivation formula

Here, value is the reward associated with the task and expectancy is the confidence that you can complete the task. The ‘reward’ can vary – if a task is pleasant then it in itself is of high value. Perhaps it will result in something good for you, like a good performance evaluation at work and a bonus – it is high value in this case as well. Delay is the amount of time on hand to get the reward. In this definition, impulsiveness (remember this one from the personality traits?) is your sensitivity to delay and usually tends to decrease with age, i.e. we take deadlines more seriously as we grow older. This is also reflected in everyday usage of impulsiveness – if you’re more impulsive, it is easier for a current distraction (coffee with a buddy) to get your eyes off a distant target (getting that report done).

The way we perceive a task’s value is also time-sensitive. Studies on “delayed gratification” have shown that most subjects prefer getting $100 the same day to $110 a month later. Economists use the term “hyperbolic discounting” to describe how, when given a choice between two rewards, we tend to give a higher value to the one that occurs sooner. In his book, psychologist Dan Ariely talks about “hot states vs. cold states” to describe how we are level-headed about temptation when it is not immediately present, but find it hard to resist when it’s there. When planning your study sessions a couple of weeks before an exam, you might think in your “cold state” that you can skip watching the big game. But when the day arrives, the game puts you in a “hot state” that makes the temptation to watch irresistible, so you put off studying.

Dr. Steel elaborates on value, expectancy, impulsiveness and delay in his book, but let’s look at another example to make things clearer in this post. A student with an exam is more motivated to study for a subject he or she enjoys and knows well, because the enjoyment is of greater value and there is a greater confidence (expectancy) that studying will lead to a desired outcome, i.e. high grades. If the exam is a month away (delay), the student will be less motivated to study today (unless he or she is very sensitive to deadlines, i.e. less impulsive) but as the exam day gets closer, the motivation to study increases.

So this theory explains why you are more motivated to do something you enjoy (higher value), but procrastinate another task. However, once your deadline looms, your motivation to do the unpleasant task increases. You are also more motivated to do things when you are more confident in your skills (higher expectancy), or when you are less susceptible to distraction (lower impulsiveness).

Here’s another illustration of the effects of deadlines, the “delay” in the equation above. In one study, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch looked at how deadlines affect students’ tendency to procrastinate. In some classes Ariely imposed set deadlines for three papers his students had to submit, in another he suggested that they could submit all three papers on the last day of the semester and in a third group, he instructed the students to set their own “official” deadlines, which they would commit to and communicate to Ariely at the beginning of the course. He found that the class that did worst was the one with papers due on the last day of the semester – the students in the third group performed better because they had artificially increased their motivation by setting themselves deadlines that were earlier.


So to avoid procrastination…


Having this understanding of what kind of personality you possess and what kind of task lies ahead, you can choose to take certains steps to increase your motivation and beat procrastination.

If you know your weaknesses, you can take certain steps to mitigate their consequences, like Ulysses asking his men to tie him to the ship’s mast, knowing that he would not be able to resist the song of the sirens. If you’re easily distracted, you might change the conditions in which you work, minimize noise, stay logged out of certain websites, maybe even switch off your phone. After all, you’re never really doing nothing when you’re procrastinating, you’re simply not doing what you should be doing at that time.

Part of this self-analysis is also to check your tendency towards optimism. The psychologist Roger Buehler and his colleagues asked students to predict when they would finish an extended assignment, along with “best-case and worst-case predictions. On average, the students predicted it would take thirty-four days to finish, but in fact they ended up taking nearly twice as long— fifty-six days. Only a handful finished by the date of their best-case prediction. The worst-case prediction, based on the assumption that everything would go as poorly as it possibly could, should have been easy to beat— after all, rarely does everything go wrong— but in fact it wasn’t. Not even half the students finished by their worst-case predicted date.” When you think that you only have about a day’s work to do and you leave it to the last day, you usually find that something else comes up or there is more to do than you expected. Your over-optimism put you in a situation where you had much less time than you originally thought. Counterbalance your optimism with a dose of reality to avoid this planning fallacy.

After you analyze yourself, it’s time to closely analyze the task at hand. Is there a specific part of it that is of low value? You can artificially increase this value by promising yourself a reward at the end, a kind of self-bribe. or by linking your task to something of greater value. You can try to make mundane tasks more enjoyable, through music or by trying to make a game of it. You can also create peer pressure by pre-committing to a friend or colleague – this increases the value of the task (because you want to look good to your friends and colleagues) and can reduce the “delay” if you set yourself a tighter deadline.

One approach to tackling the “expectancy” variable in Steel’s equation is to improve self-confidence by setting a series of smaller and more easily achievable tasks first. This division of a large task into smaller pieces also results in shorter delays, further boosting motivation. This is well illustrated through the Pomodoro technique. The concept is simple – you set a timer for 25 minutes and try to complete a specific task in that time period. That makes one pomodoro (Italian for ‘tomato’), after which you take a short break for a few minutes and start on another task for the next 25 minutes. After four such pomodori , you take a longer break. This method keeps delays small and expectancy high, because you are focused on one particular task. The frequent tasks also help with energy levels, boosting expectancy further. Timeboxing is a similar concept used often in project management and software development.

It’s not just about smaller tasks and frequent breaks, though. It’s also about clarity. Author David Allen advises making sure that your to do list includes the immediate next action for every task. Tasks like “write report” or “discuss with partner” are more likely to be procrastinated because they are complex and consist of a few steps. The to-do list should consist of specific and smaller actions like “prepare income table for report” or “set up appointment with partner for Friday.”

Procrastination as a bad habit can be overcome by developing “good habits”. Piers Steel gives illustrates how this works in his book, “Exercise programs, for example, should take place at regularly scheduled times, leaving little guesswork about where and what the fitness activities will be. Like clockwork, every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00, you go and lift weights, and every Thursday morning at 6:00, you go running. Take whatever you have been putting off and specify where and how you intend to implement it.” Another method that Steel outlines is called the implementation intention. This is particularly useful to avoid the self-deceptive excuses that were pointed out at the beginning of this post. It works when you use an “if-then” approach to plan how you will do something, tying the procrastinated task in some way with another event. Steel says, “Take whatever you have been putting off and specify where and how you intend to implement it. For instance, make a vow: ‘When breakfast is finished on Saturday morning, I will clean out the storage room.’ This seems so easy and simple that it couldn’t work, but it does. When you make an explicit intention to act, the desired behavior just happens.” In one study, women set themselves the goal of performing a breast self-examination over the next month. 100% of women who used implementation intention fulfilled the task, compared to 53% of women who did not use these implementation intention techniques. How’s that for reducing the negative health effects of procrastination?

A novel approach (and that’s a pun – some authors use this trick!) to avoid procrastination is called the Nothing Alternative. Psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Dianne M. Tice have documented the tendency that procrastinators often avoid doing what they need to do by simply doing something else. By using this fact, Baumeister proposes a new way to overcome procrastination–the “do nothing” alternative. The idea is to set some time aside for a task and tell yourself that you will either do that particular task or you will sit idly and do nothing else. Baumeister illustrates this using some advice that author Raymond Chandler gave to encourage a budding writer, “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.”

To make a more profound change in how you approach tasks, you might want to think about willpower. Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister’s book on willpower describes how belief in a greater cause has had profound impact on people trying to achieve something. Work songs, for example, were developed to increase the productivity of group work both by making work less boring and, more importantly, by creating a sense of unity and a greater cause. For example, Henry Stanley led his men through the jungles of Africa with poems about the glory of England. Baumeister’s studies show that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened, which means that you can work on reducing your overall tendency to procrastinate. More willpower means less impulsiveness, so you don’t give in to distractions and focus on the task at hand.


Is it all bad?


Maybe not. Some people are suggesting that procrastination can be forged into a powerful tool.

Author Robert Benchley believes that “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Stanford professor John Perry says that if you need to get something done, put it on a to do list below an item that you would much rather do less, calling this structured procrastination. “The trick is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal sorts of things have two characteristics, First, they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don’t). Second, they seem awfully important (but really aren’t).”

Baumeister advocates the use of “positive procrastination” for other purposes. He says that postponing something tempting but harmful might make it less appealing later, helping you to avoid it. “If a TV show is keeping you from getting back to work, record it and tell yourself you’ll finish watching it later. You might discover, once you’ve finished work and don’t need an excuse to procrastinate, that you don’t really want to watch the show after all. Vice delayed may turn out to be vice denied.” Remember the “hot and cold states” that Dan Ariely described? When it comes to reducing impulsive buying, he prescribes the “ice glass method” – another example of positive procrastination. You put your credit card in a glass of water and put in the freezer. When you’re browsing online and see something you want to buy impulsively, you take out the glass and have to wait for the ice around your card to freeze. By the time this happens, the impulse to buy might have waned – you put off the purchase by a few minutes and saved money by cooling down from that hot state.

Paul Graham describes three kinds of procrastination, depending on what you are doing instead of what you should be doing. You could be doing a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important. He gives the example of absent-minded professors to explain that type-C procrastinators are good for society – “they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.” Of course, there will be people who will be irritated by this inability to do “small stuff”, but big thinkers should not let errands kill great projects.

It is Graham who can sum up in just a couple of sentences all the aspects of the procrastination research out there, in order to point out how to overcome it. He writes, “I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you. Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you’ll leave the right things undone.”


Key Ideas: Realistic Optimism, Raise the Stakes, Add Joy to Your Task, Burn Bridges, One Foot in Front of the Other, Make One Deadline Many, Know What’s on Deck, Enforce Good Habits, Implement Intent, Nothing Alternative, Thy Will – Done!, Positive Procrastination, Find Your God


Further Reading


Eisenmann Reviewed – The Forgotten Secrets of Enterprise Giants by David Barrett

Each year, Harvard Business School’s Tom Eisenmann publishes his list of the most influential articles in the field of entrepreneurship. Spanning a wide range of topics in the field, this list captures some of the foremost academics, commentators, entrepreneurs and investors at the peak of their power as they share their insights and research with the rest of the world. Over the course of this series, we will be extracting the necessary insights, or key ideas, from these articles to highlight the actionable information presented by each author. Use these Key Ideas to make informed decisions based on the highest quality research and expert commentary.


#2 – David Barrett, “The Forgotten Secrets of the Enterprise Giants”


The Forgotten Secrets of the Enterprise Giants, from founder and CEO of Expensify, David Barrett, demonstrates that some of today’s best practices were once radical experiments. Many of today’s largest companies pivoted a number of times before they found their place in the market. The ideas in the minds of the people behind today’s giants were not always universally accepted as true, so one shouldn’t always listen to the “self-styled” experts. As Barrett writes, “Don’t be afraid of failure. Be afraid of not trying. Salesforce, Concur and Intuit weren’t, and now we can’t imagine a world without them.”


Thanks, David, for the incredibly insightful post!


KeyIdeas: Right and Unpopular, Pivot, Do Not Jump, Product/Market Fit, Go the Extra Mile


Money OR Power

Choose between maximizing wealth or retaining control of your startup. You will get better returns by focusing on either wealth or control, as opposed to chasing both. Moreover, control motivated entrepreneurs receive lower pre-money valuations than do wealth motivated startups, confirming that control-motivated founders pay for making control-motivated decisions.


When founders attempt a hybrid strategy by combining certain wealth-motivated decisions with control-motivated decisions, they are likely to end up succeeding in neither. Therefore, founders are best off prioritizing one motivation or the other- not both. To enable objective decision making, founders should not only be aware of their primary motivation- either wealth or control- but also objectively align their key decisions with that motivation.


Further Reading

What You Know, Made Abundantly Clear


Why do we start companies in the first place? It turns out that attaining wealth and retaining control of the enterprise are two huge motivating factors. You probably did not need a multi-university academic paper to tell you this, but what is striking is just how important these motivations are.


First, almost every entrepreneur is driven by desires for money and power. “Kauffman Foundation’s study of 549 founders of American technology startups – 75% of the respondents said that building wealth was a very important motivation for becoming an entrepreneur and 64% said the same of wanting to own their own businesses.”


Second, wealth and power are not just important motivating factors, but are in fact the foremost driving forces for entrepreneurs. One study “asked 1,214 respondents about their motives for starting a business. The top six motivations were control motivations, such as freedom to take one’s own approach to work and fulfilling a personal vision, and wealth-building motivations, such as gaining financial security and building great wealth. [...] Other motivations, such as intellectual challenge, altruism, and prestige, can prove important, but across entrepreneurs as a whole, wealth and control compose the big two, and are also the two that repeatedly come into conflict with each other.


What You Don’t Know  Can Hurt You



Optimism leads founders to make overly rosy predictions about their own chances of success, including their ability to maximize wealth in their company while retaining higher levels of control. “Optimism leads founders to underestimate their initial resource requirements, and to fail to plan for foreseeable problems. As a result, founders often fail to attract the resources they will actually need, increasing their chances of failure. Overconfident founders may attain smaller initial endowments and may be more committed to the initial opportunity, causing them to be less flexible and more prone to failure.” “Too much hubris, confidence, and passion  can hinder a founder from exploring alternative approaches and making necessary adjustments. As a result, higher-optimism entrepreneurs have 20% lower revenue growth and 25% lower employment growth than lower-optimism entrepreneurs, who would be less susceptible to the perils of optimism.”


The Rich and the King


Starting a company is an inherently risky business, and entrepreneurs are, by nature, risk takers. Author Noam Wasserman writes that failing to understand one’s own motivations leads many entrepreneurs to bite off more than they can chew in terms of their goals for the company. Know whether you want to be “rich” or a “king”.


“Founders who consistently make decisions that build wealth are more likely to achieve what I call a “Rich” outcome (greater financial gains, lesser control), while founders who consistently make decisions that enable them to maintain control of the startup are more likely to achieve what I call a “King” outcome (greater control, lesser financial gains)”. Founders who consistently make wealth decisions are more likely to reach what I call the “Rich” outcome, in which the founder generally loses the throne but sees his or her venture pursue its business opportunity to the fullest.” Choosing one of these paths provides a more realistic path to success than trying to maximize both factors.


 Cake, and Eating It


The increasingly popular narrative is one of founders who retain control of their companies on the road to making a great deal of money.  Facebook, Path and others make headlines as companies that took the initial founder’s vision and grew to great heights accordingly. Even investors, like Peter Thiel and Founder’s Fund are betting that entrepreneurs can grow great businesses without relinquishing a great deal of control.


However, research suggests that this narrative just is not often realistic. Wasserman writes “My quantitative analyses suggest that few founders— especially first-time founders— can maintain control and create maximal value [...] “Controlling for a wide variety of differences across the 460 startups I analyzed, founders who had kept control of both the CEO position and the board of directors held equity stakes that were only 52% as valuable as those held by founders who had given up both the CEO position and control of the board. [...] Such hybrid strategies may indeed reduce the probability that founders will end up as exclusively Rich or exclusively King, but they may also increase the probability of ending up Failures. Just as entrepreneurial firms that pursue multiple strategies can get “stuck in the middle,” so too should entrepreneurs who make inconsistent choices be more likely to end up with muddled strategies and face greater risk of failure.”



Eisenmann Reviewed – How Spotify Builds Products by Henrik Kniberg

Each year, Harvard Business School’s Tom Eisenmann publishes his list of the most influential articles in the field of entrepreneurship. Spanning a wide range of topics in the field, this list captures some of the foremost academics, commentators, entrepreneurs and investors at the peak of their power as they share their insights and research with the rest of the world. Over the course of this series, we will be extracting the necessary insights, or key ideas, from these articles to highlight the actionable information presented by each author. Use these Key Ideas to make informed decisions based on the highest quality research and expert commentary.

#1Henrik Kniberg, “How Spotify Builds Products”

Henrik Kniberg outlines the process of product development at Spotify, which include the KeyIdeas concerning achieving product/market fit through the development of a minimum viable product, highlighting the importance of rapid iterations. “Spotify’s vision is to bring you the right music for every moment. That is, unlimited access to all the world’s music, and the ability to share it easily; and the more music that gets shared and played, the more money goes back to artists. Starting as a music player a few years ago, their products are now evolving into a ubiquitous platform for discovering new music and connecting artists with their fans directly. [...] All major product initiatives go through four stages – “Think It”, “Build It”, “Ship It”, and “Tweak It”.


Kniberg also mentions the importance of having a small team to build the first version of the product. “If management agrees that the idea is worth exploring, a small cross-functional “Think It” squad is formed. This typically consists of a developer, a designer and a product owner. Their job is to write a product definition, and build a compelling prototype.”