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The Procrastination Equation

by Jennifer on March 3, 2011

This is a guest post from David Kassin Fried of dkfwriting.wordpress.com

A couple of weeks ago, lesswrong—“a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality”—wrote this rather scientific article on the nature of procrastination. To summarize, procrastination can basically be distilled down into a simple equation:

Decrease the certainty (expectation) of a task’s reward, people become less motivated. Decrease the perceived value of the reward, people become less motivated.

Increase the amount of time between now and the receipt of the reward (delay), people become less motivated. And increase an individual’s personal susceptibility to that delay (impulsiveness), people become less motivated.

Looking at it from that angle, it’s no wonder writers are so susceptible to procrastination. Writing a 50,000 word novel takes a long time (delay), and for a beginning writer, the (real, tangible) reward is almost nil.

My first book sold about thirty copies. Woo-frickin’-hoo. It’s no wonder I’d rather clean my keyboard than write another one.

Fortunately, when you put something in real, measurable terms like this, the solutions become a whole lot easier to spot:

Decrease the Delay
Let’s start with the easy one.

When I was in college, one of my professors said, “You wanna make a movie? Buy $5,000 worth of film, and then stick it in your fridge. Now you’ve got two years to make a movie, before the film goes bad. Better get moving.”

Of course, that advice is now defunct, since no one uses film anymore. But the fact is, deadlines are the most amazing motivators ever.

I’m currently working on two projects: one that’s going to a producer, who’s said she can’t wait to see it when it’s ready. The other is scheduled for a reading on March 6. Guess which one is commanding more of my attention, just at the moment. That’s right, the one with the deadline.

That leads us to …

Increase the Certainty of the Reward
That producer? Someone I met at Austin Film Festival this year. I went into AFF with a number of clear goals, one of which was to find someone who could forward the development of this Web series I was working on.  Then when I meet her, and we get to chatting, it turns out she was the perfect one.

Then I stepped up and actually started taking actions to finish this project, because I have someone who’s actually going to look at it. Only after that did this other thing become more urgent.

So if you have a problem with procrastination, figure out a way to increase the chances that someone will actually look at your writing.

Sell the pitch to a blog. Go, not to an agent’s conference, where you’re one of 1,000 people trying to pitch something to this agent, but to the place where agents hang out, where you’re one person pitching to a thousand agents.

In short, do whatever it takes to increase the certainty of your reward.

Increase the Value of the Reward
As someone who’s been working as a professional writer for a few years now, I can tell you that it’s a whole lot easier to work on a project that’s paying me $75/hr than it is to work on the one that the client already paid me for, but didn’t like, and which I now have to redo. My pet projects, which yield me a great deal of personal satisfaction, are a whole lot easier to work on than that project the client already paid me for.

Writing a guest blog about procrastination is a whole lot easier than the project that the client already paid me for, but didn’t like, and which I now have to redo.

Cleaning the litterbox, washing the dishes, folding the laundry, and punching a baby in the face are all more attractive than that project the client already paid me for, but didn’t like, and which I now have to redo. (Disclaimer: I’ve never actually punched a baby in the face as a way to procrastinate.)

But this is why you’ve gotta actually give yourself a reward that motivates you. If that’s a candy bar, great. If it’s a big fat check, great. Apply for a grant or something.

If it’s just getting something published, then just frickin’ commit to publishing it, and start selling advance copies. Whatever it is, make it something you personally value, and your chances of finishing it will go up, guaranteed.

Decreasing Impulsiveness
Apparently this is the biggest factor in procrastination, and it seems to be the toughest to control. Basically, everything above feeds into this: whatever feels better in the moment, that’s what we instantly go for.

So the solution: make it feel really, really bad to do something else. If you lock yourself in a room and throw away the key, you have no choice but to sit in your room. It’s the flip side of the reward: the penalty.

A few years ago I hired a business coach who I actually had to pay a cash penalty to every time I didn’t keep my promises. Making three phone calls a day very quickly became a whole lot easier.

After I graduated college, I kept telling my parents I would buy health insurance and kept not doing it. One day, my dad got sick of it and told me that if I hadn’t done it by a certain date, he would dock my inheritance $1,000 a day.

Suddenly there were few things more important than getting health insurance.

Here’s another one: This past summer, my wife and I started a 60-day workout program, the sort of thing that, if past performance was any indicator, we had about a negative three percent chance of actually finishing.

But this time, we said that if we missed even one day, then we couldn’t watch the season premier of Grey’s Anatomyever! Turns out, that was the thing that got us out of bed in the morning, and it took about five or six weeks and an injury before we finally called it quits.

So the solution here: Find something you can’t live without, and take it away if you don’t do the work. If necessary, give it to someone else, and make that person your referee.

Impulsiveness may not ever go away, because at the end of the day, watching a movie is just more appealing than getting rejected yet again. But doing yourself a favor and plugging some real, tangible numbers into the equation can go a long way toward boosting the motivation and getting the writing done.

How does the procrastination equation apply in your writing life?

About the Author: David Kassin Fried is an Austin, TX-based freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and co-author of the humorous travel memoir Ups & Downs. He blogs at dkfwriting.wordpress.com.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Piers Steel March 3, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Excellent article! The Less Wrong piece is based on my research program and later book, The Procrastination Equation. The techniques work but I’m finding that not everyone is equally adept at applying it to their personal situation. Step-by-step how-to-guides seems to be a useful accompaniment and this serves the purpose. Here’s one more: Take you PC to the shop and have the technician blow out the internet connection permanently, It is called precommitment and its used by quite a few writers. Alternatively, devised a 57 digit code you need to manually input to gain access to the internet.

Would like eventually to centralize all these ideas by topic (e.g., writing, taxes, dieting), but until then, this post will do nicely.

2 David Kassin Fried March 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Thanks, Piers! I don’t know that it would work for me to blow out my Internet connection, but the idea of a 57 digit code is an interesting one. I look forward to reading the book. You know, whenever I get around to it …

3 Eugenia Parrish March 5, 2011 at 1:51 pm

This article gave me instant motivation to find some sort of penalty for not finishing my novel. I decided to loan a friend a large sum of money, and if I didn’t have a workable, complete first draft by such-and-such a time, she never had to pay me back!
The problems popped up immediately — who would judge “workable, complete”? (I lie to myself a lot.) And I’m already owed significant amounts of money by family and friends and have never had the gumption to ask for payment. By November I’d probably be shrugging at the idea of one more. And turning on the TV. Have to reread this and try again.

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