Do you ever suffer with procrastination? You know what you need to do, but actually starting that thing is tough, right?
Procrastination is one of the most common problems I come across when talking to people about productivity. Getting started on a task is often the hardest part and even with a clear goal in mind, making the first step can be hard.
In preparation for this post, I spent some time reading about different types of motivational theories to deconstruct why we procrastinate. In doing so, I’m hoping to make an argument that all you really need in order to stop procrastinating and start executing is a system for doing the work.
This post gets a bit geeky, so grab a coffee and let’s do this!
“THE EXECUTION FORMULA”
This little theory I’ve come up with is called “The Execution Formula”. I see it only fitting that I name it this as “executing” is the polar opposite of “procrastinating”. The best way I can illustrate this theory of mine is like this:
Motivation + System ➞ Discipline ➞ Execution
Let me talk you through the stages:
First, in order to execute effectively and stop procrastinating, we need to be motivated (more on this below). This means we need to be either pulled or pushed to do something i.e. we have to do something because we need to do it (like paying your bills) or do something because we actually want to do it (like going to the movies). But motivation on its own isn’t enough. This is why you find people who feel motivated to do something but struggle to start; they’re lacking a system.
If motivation is WHY you’re going to do something, then the system is HOW you will do that thing. The system helps create a sense of discipline. It’s also very important for helping you structure your work so you know when, where and how you’re going to do certain tasks.
When you have the motivation to do something and a system for executing, we arrive at “discipline”. This is basically the result of the previous two inputs. Discipline is particularly important for pull motivation when you have to do something you don’t necessarily want to do. Because we don’t really want to do this thing, it requires more discipline than if we were motivated to do something we genuinely want to do (push motivation).
Finally, we reach “execution”. If you’ve effectively motivated yourself and you have a system for doing the work, your improved discipline will help you execute and start working on the task at hand.
Okay, so that’s a basic look at “The Execution Formula”. Let’s dive into some of these components a little further to work out why we procrastinate and learn what we need to do to execute effectively.
TEMPORAL MOTIVATION THEORY
Temporal Motivational Theory can be defined as:
“Introduced in a 2006 Academy of Management Review article, it (temporal motivation theory) synthesizes into a single formulation the primary aspects of several other major motivational theories, including Incentive Theory, Drive Theory, Need Theory, Self-Efficacy and Goal Setting.”
And as an equation looks like this:
In other words, Temporal Motivation Theory combines the best of other motivational theories together into one master theory.
Let’s break apart this formula and define each component:
- Motivation – Is your desire to reach an outcome.
- Expectancy – Also know as self-efficacy, expectancy is your perceived probability of success. It’s your belief in yourself that you can do something.
- Value – This is the reward associated with completing the task. For example, when you pay your bills, you’re rewarded with electricity, heating, and internet.
- Impulsiveness – This is a person’s sensitivity to delay and is very closely linked to procrastination.
- Delay – This is the amount of time you have to do something. Generally when you have more time to do something, the motivation to start is less.
As a basic example, let’s say you need to do some grocery shopping because it’s 4pm and you have no food for dinner. Your level of expectancy is likely to be pretty high (i.e. you believe you can succeed) in your shopping trip. The value that comes from the trip is that you’ll have food to eat for dinner later. Impulsiveness is low because procrastinating would mean you have nothing to eat later. Likewise delay is pretty low because you need dinner in a few hours and don’t have much time. Hence, your motivation to go shopping is high and you jump in the car and get going.
Now let’s look at an example that leads to procrastination:
Imagine you have to write an essay and you have four weeks to do it in. You’re pretty confident in your ability, but at the same time you don’t expect to get an A+. You’re not going to get a ton of value from this essay. Sure you might get a good grade if you really try, but it’s not like this essay is going to earn you any money. For these reasons, you become more impulsive. Let’s face it–there are more interesting things to do with your time, right? And of course, you have four weeks to finish the essay, so there’s no urgency to get going right away, so you leave it for now. Boom – procrastination!
There you have it – the basic components of motivation. Now let’s look at how having a system helps address each of these components of motivation so that you can avoid procrastination.
The Solution is a System.
When I say “system” what I really mean is a way of organising your work. For example, my system comprises of tools like Asana, Evernote and Sunrise Calendar which allow me to stay organised, plan my time, and execute effectively. But a system is about more than just the tools you use. It’s about adopting the right habits that allow you to work more effectively. For example, taking the time to plan your tasks for tomorrow, journaling and conducting monthly reviews. A system is an all-encompassing method that explains HOW you do your work.
Let’s look at how having the right system can work together with motivational theory:
Expectancy – A system helps create the belief that you can do something. For example, you may often think you don’t have time to do stuff. Well, think again! Work out how long a task is likely to take, then schedule blocks of time needed to complete it on your calendar. When you put everything onto your calendar like this, you can literally see how long the task is going to take. In your mind, you can see yourself completing it on time. Going through this scheduling process helps improve your self-belief that you can, in fact, get stuff done.
The other thing to note here is when you keep all your ideas and mental reminders locked up in your head, it can get a bit overwhelming. By going through the process of getting everything out of your head and into a system using tools like Todoist or Asana you don’t have to worry about remembering to do stuff and you naturally start to believe in yourself more.
Value – Any good system usually starts with planning. By going through the proper planning process and working out your most important goals, you can increase the perceived value that can be gained from doing something. In a nutshell that’s what goal setting is, right? It’s about clearly defining the outcome you want. By getting clear on your goals you have more reason to do the work necessary to reach them and you’re less likely to procrastinate.
Impulsiveness – When you go through the planning and scheduling process above you make a silent commitment to yourself that you’re going to do something. You’re saying: “I’m going to achieve ABC by XYZ date and when I do I will achieve this result.” When you create structure around your goals and work like this, you’re less likely to be impulsive as you hold yourself accountable to these outcomes.
Delay – This one is a little harder to mitigate because most of the time it is outside of our control. When you don’t have much time to do something, your system can help you plan, prioritise, and execute on the most essential steps necessary to reach your outcome. When you have lots of time to complete a task, you have a bit more flexibility. But just because you have more time, doesn’t mean you should use it all. Your system can help you finish the job early and ensure you don’t spend too long on a task.
Having the right system puts structure around your work and this allows us to mitigate the causes of procrastination.
A WORD ABOUT DISCIPLINE
As I touched on above, discipline is your willingness to do what is necessary when motivation isn’t present. So when you’re experiencing pull motivation (i.e. you’re doing something because you have to not because you want to) then you need to be more disciplined. However, if you are working on something you’re passionate about, discipline is less important.
That’s not to say you don’t need to be disciplined when you’re working on the stuff you want to do. You still need the discipline to prioritise and choose the right things to work on first.
The good thing about having a system is that it helps create more discipline around your work regardless of whether you want to do it or not. So if you don’t want to do something but you have a system you can still execute effectively. And if you’re disciplined and you’re doing something you care about then you’ll be highly motivated and much more likely to execute and avoid procrastination.
Now that you’ve learned more about the psychology of procrastination and the underlying components of motivation, why not take some time to refine your system? If you want to learn more about how I work, head on over to my website and check out my free email course: The 7-Day Productivity Plan.