This Science-Backed Formula Can Help You Beat Procrastination for Good


When you’re sitting in front of a blank document hour after hour or surfing social media rather than making that all important call, procrastination can feel like a curse. Why were you born with so little willpower? Why is inspiration simply not coming?

But procrastination isn’t a mysterious curse. In fact, it’s a science. And you don’t have to take my word for that. You can actually ask a professor of procrastination.

Yup, such a job exists and currently it is filled by Piers Steel. The University of Calgary professor studies why people put stuff off for a living and styles himself a “professor of procrastination.” After years of research Steel has boiled down all his knowledge about procrastination into a simple mathematical formula anyone can use to diagnose the cause of their procrastination and figure out a cure.

The central insight of procrastination science

Steel laid out all the details in his aptly titled book The Procrastination Equation, but here’s the basic formula at the center of his work:


Even math phobics should be able to grasp the meaning of this simple equation. Motivation, it shows, is a function of these variables:

  • Expectancy. How much you expect to succeed at doing the task, and how much you expect to get the reward
  • Value. How much you enjoy doing the task and how much you'll enjoy the reward
  • Impulsiveness. How likely you are to going chasing every shiny new thing
  • Delay. How far in the future the outcome of the task is

That means anything you can do to raise the expectancy or value of a task is going to increase your motivation. Anything that boosts impulsiveness or delay is going to increase procrastination.

It’s fascinating to have such a clear explanation of the underpinnings of procrastination, of course, but it’s also useful. First, the equation shows not all procrastinators are the same. Some slack off because the task they’ve set themselves doesn’t seem valuable enough to overcome the short-term hassle of getting it done. Some struggle because they’ve surrounded themselves with pinging messages and other distractions that raise their impulsiveness. Some just keep putting off doing something because it seems far in the future.

But second, and perhaps most importantly, the equation also suggests ways to counteract whatever is causing your lack of motivation.

The ‘80/20 Rule’ to the rescue

Take the Value variable, for example. This part of the equation indicates that we’re much more likely to tackle tasks that we perceive as high value. This makes sense, you’re more likely to buckle down to hard work if you think it will make you a millionaire than if you think it will make you a fiver.

The obvious takeaway is that the higher the value of the tasks you tackle the higher your motivation (and the lower your procrastination) will be. Sometimes it’s easy to tell which tasks are low value. But other times it’s harder to determine which actions will offer you the greatest return for your effort. Fortunately, there’s a simple mental model that can help you consistently focus on the highest value tasks.

It’s called the 80/20 Rule and it’s a favorite tool of some of the world’s smartest, most successful people like super investor Warren Buffett and self-made billionaire Ray Dalio. It states that the majority of benefits (the 80) comes from a minority of inputs (the 20). In the real world that means just a few clients usually generate a majority of the profits for a business, and just a few of your to-do list items will have an outsized impact on your quality of life.

It also means that if you can identify those 20 percent of tasks, you’ve also identified the tasks with the greatest Value is Steel’s equation -- and tackling those tasks is most likely to skyrocket your motivation and kill your procrastination. How do you do that exactly? Check out my detailed 80/20 Mastery Manual for step-by-step instructions to figure out the highest Value actions in every area of your life.

Not only will that shorten the pathway towards all your goals, it will also make it a lot more likely you’ll quit procrastinating and take the first few steps down that road.

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