Motivation and its evil twin: procrastination

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graphic and background image by Lesley Evans Ogden

by Lesley Evans Ogden


To make a go of it as a freelancer, an abundance of motivation is crucial. But as we all know and hate, motivation doesn’t come in steady waves. It tends to ebb and flow over time, sometimes waning when we need it the most. Procrastination is one of those nasty habits that sometimes gets in the way.

This summer, one of the sessions at Courage Camp, a Colorado-based workshop for freelancers, specifically delved into the prickly topics of motivation and procrastination. Julia Galef, President and Cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality, led off the session by dispensing with some conventional wisdom about procrastination: that it exists because we are perfectionist overachievers. “Research,” says Galef, “has not borne this out.” One of the leading researchers in procrastination is Dr. Piers Steel, a Professor at Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics at the University of Calgary.

Steel has developed a “procrastination equation,” written a book by the same name, (and even provided tongue in cheek instructions for writing your very own article on procrastination).

As Steel describes it, motivation, the level of our readiness to take action, can be defined as follows:

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What does this mean?

Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring, while Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is [emphasis added].” Tasks, says Galef, can have low value either because they are tedious and boring or because they actually unpleasant – such as things that are stressful, painful, or force you to confront your weaknesses. Pitching, suggests Galef, might be an example of low expectancy activity, because the chance of success even if you’ve worked really hard on it is relatively low.

On the bottom of the equation, Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to distraction and your level of self-control in terms of stick-to-it-iveness. As Steel explains it, “The more impulsive you are, the less you like to delay gratification.” Impulsivity, argues Galef, “is by far the biggest factor in whether or not we procrastinate.” She admits to being impulsive herself, something she has self-identified because she tends to procrastinate even on tasks that really aren’t that unpleasant. She refers to impulsivity as the “oooh, shiny” factor, something that gets a laugh of recognition from the audience of 24 freelancers.

Finally, Delay, explains Steel, “indicates how long, on average, you must wait to receive the payout, that is the expected reward. Since delay is in the bottom of the equation, the longer the delay, the less motivated we feel about taking action.” The tasks we are most likely to procrastinate on are those that are unpleasant now and only provide rewards in the distant future, explains Steel.

As you can imagine, procrastination is a popular research topic, so Steel’s equation is based on just one of the leading explanations, called Temporal Motivation Theory. (If you need an excuse to procrastinate, there are plenty of other theories to read up on).

Breaking down this equation, argues Galef, there are ways we can manipulate our motivation in a positive direction. One of the ideas suggested by workshop participants is to increase the perceived value by incorporating small rewards for baby steps towards the final goal. Galef recommends breaking work steps down into Pomodoros, and setting pre-commitments with colleagues or friends.

“You can be creative,” says Galef, adding that “I once had a bet where if I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain, I would change my Facebook status to whatever my friend said,” an admission that gets a huge laugh and more than a few groans from the audience.

Perhaps it’s the modern day equivalent for the lengths writers Victor Hugo and Ernest Hemingway allegedly went to with their creative pre-commitments. According to this post, both used enforced nudity to force themselves to write. If that’s a little extreme for your tastes, Galef suggests breaking goals down into tiny baby steps that are not painful at all. Her own first step for going to the gym, for example, is not putting on her gym clothes — it’s the tiny motion of leaning forward in her chair. (More audience laughs).

Fellow instructor, journalist and author Bruce Barcott, borrows the phrase “worry early,” as a piece of advice that may help to avoid delays that erode the motivation to get cracking now.

“If you’re working on a project like a feature story or a big project that is going to take days and weeks to develop, give your self a quick chunk of time early to begin worrying about things you need for the project,” such as arranging interviews. Part of his process is that on Mondays and Tuesdays, he contacts via email the people he is hoping to interview the following week.

“Saying ‘do you have time next week’ is much more courteous than saying ‘do you have time tomorrow,’” suggests Barcott.

Motivation, suggests Barcott, is also boosted by taking time off.

“Don’t take your work with you on vacations,” he advises. He also suggests that you can’t expect motivation to be optimal every single day.

“You don’t get the great days without the lousy days. The lousy days pay for the great days.”

And who could resist procrastinating the end of an article by closing with an inspirational quote? Not me! So in the words of Amelia Earhart:

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.”


Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. A recovering scientist, she parachuted into journalism from the ivory tower, stopping for inspiration along the way at the Banff Science Communications Program and the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. She is a contributing writer at BBC Earth, Natural History and Earth Touch News, and frequently contributes to New Scientist and BioScience. Her work has also been featured by BBC Future, Science, Nature, CBC, Mosaic, and The Washington Post, amongst others. Say hello at and on Twitter @ljevanso.

Posted on November 12, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

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