Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Greek to Me

According to Canadian procrastination expert Piers Steel of the University of Calgary, the formula presented here, which he calls the Temporal Motivational Theory, can be used to explain why we procrastinate.  (And what are all these procrastination experts doing in Canada, anyway?)  

In Professor Steel's equation, Utility (a task's "desirability")  is a function of E ("the expectancy a person has of succeeding with a given task") multiplied by V ("the value of completing the task"), divided by Γ (the Greek letter capital gamma--"the person's sensitivity to delay"), and Dwhich represents the task's delay, or how much time will pass before the task's payoff.

Utility = E x V / ΓD

I don't know about you, but the density of this formulation, multiplied by the density of my currently caffeine-deprived brain, makes me want to procrastinate.  But in the interests of science, I am going to attempt to apply Professor Steel's theory to a situation in which I typically find myself procrastinating, to see if I can understand what he is saying.

To begin with, I can see that the formula attempts to express relationships among a set of variables, none of which can be quantified.  Thus it can, at best, only predict procrastination in relative terms.  We won't be able to say that one particular set of circumstances will result in 10 procrastination units (hours or days of delay?), but only that, for example, a relatively greater degree of sensitivity to delay, all else being equal, will decrease a task's utility.  Procrastination is apparently to be seen as inversely related to the utility of the task.  For non math majors, this means that the greater the task's utility (desirability), the less likely we are to put it off.

One task that I have had trouble with in the past is paying monthly bills.  Right away, Steel's formula sheds some light on why this might be the case.  If E is my expectancy of succeeding with the task, then I have frequently been plagued by low E values, resulting from insufficient funds--which makes bill-paying less desirable, which makes me want to delay. This is so, despite a fairly high V (value of completing the task) which represents the importance of keeping the lights on and the water running and my mortgage unforeclosed. 

Γ, too, (my sensitivity to delay, or what has been called inability to delay gratification) has been a problem, but not so much as D.  I typically have difficulty finding my check register, and remembering the passwords that permit online viewing of my "paperless" bills and where I've stashed the avalanche of health bills and "explanations" of benefits which will guide me through the labyrinth of amounts really owed.  

Now compare the Utility of paying bills which my income doesn't cover to, say, checking the email inbox I just checked 10 minutes ago.  High E, medium V, low D.  If my Γ is assumed to be a constant across tasks, then the Utility of checking my email, despite the lower importance of this accomplishment, is probably much higher.  

If we assume that these variables are mostly subject to manipulation, then presumably that is what Professor Steel would have us do.  We can increase E by working on self-confidence, and lowering standards.  We can decrease D by having materials at hand, establishing routines, etc.  I'm not sure what to do about Γ.  

Professor Steel, a self-admitted procrastinator--thus his interest in the subject--describes the 10-15% of us who habitually procrastinate as "impulsive." He says that this characteristic may be genetic.  We will, however, have to wait a bit longer to learn more, since the publication of his opus on the subject, The Procrastination Equation: Using Motivational Science to Maximize Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness, has apparently been delayed. 

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