This article is a sub-topic of the ultimate guide, How to Stop Procrastinating (Even If You’re a Lazy Bastard). Check it out if you’re interested.
Procrastination, as we see it, is a bit of a motivation problem. (It’s more of a decision-making/emotional type of problem, though.)
But have you ever wondered how to motivate yourself intentionally?
Have you ever wondered “where” you could get more of it? The answer isn’t “motivational videos/quotes/stories”–motivational videos don’t work; it’s just a temporary solution to a permanent problem.
That feeling you want to get more of? That’s inspiration.
It’s something that comes from within yet stimulated externally—it’s because of your values, identity, aspirations, or future visualizations. Sure, motivational videos spark this feeling, but again, it’s a temporary solution.
Here’s the thing: Motivation is different from inspiration.
For example, you’re never inspired to brush your teeth, eat food, nor take a bath, but you do them anyway because you always have the motivation to do them. You don’t have to use willpower to do these activities.
Okay, I get that habits are the exception rather than the rule. But let’s say you have a deadline tomorrow, and you have to finish everything by 10 pm or else you’ll lose your job or get kicked out of school—wouldn’t you do everything in your power to finish it?
You’ll feel motivated to do it because of the consequences, but not necessarily inspired. That’s the difference I’m talking about.
In this article, you’ll learn four elements that contributes to that motivation; I hope this will give you a framework that allows you to think of your own strategies for motivating yourself.
Let’s get into it.
This Equation Will Teach You How to Motivate Yourself
Now that you know the difference between motivation and inspiration, let me show you something that will blow your mind.
Everything that has been studied about our motivation can be summarized into a single equation.
That’s right—one equation.
And it’s famously known as The Procrastination Equation, developed by psychologists Piers Steel and Cornelius J. König and was even called the “Best Theory (yet) to Explain Procrastination” in a 2010 study.
The equation goes like this:
All variables in this equation are actual major contributors of motivation, according to Behavioral Economics and are also highly backed by scientific evidence.
When Expectancy and Value increase, motivation increases.
When Impulsiveness and Delay increase, motivation decreases.
I like how Dr. Steel demystifies how motivation works by using such a simple equation; a truly excellent feat.
Now, let’s discuss each one of them.
Note: I’ll take my definitions from the developer of the equation himself, Dr. Piers Steel.
Expectancy refers to the odds or chance of an outcome occurring.
This variable is the one I really like and is somehow one of the core values of this blog.
The major reason why I can motivate you and other readers is not just because of my ability to persuade them using facts, stories, or psychological proof.
It’s also because I can convince you that you are in control of your results.
Perhaps the biggest reason students are notorious for procrastinating is that they don’t feel like studying will give them the results that they want—they have low expectancy.
Often, when I tell my mentees about having a growth mindset and actual techniques to learn faster despite not being gifted, they instantly become motivated to study.
They felt more in control, thus increasing their expectancy to reap the rewards of their goals.
In a study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers even concluded that humans are born with a desire to be in control.
In other words, we like being in control and dislike otherwise, to the point that we can actually learn how to “accept our fates” if we get used to it.
“Why try hard when you’ll fail anyway?” —(Me as a 2nd-year college student)
This “accept the fate” feeling is called “Learned Helplessness“.
Have you ever tried to solve a Math problem again and again, and then realized you’re not a math person?
Have you ever tried to wake up early for a week, failed, and then decided you’re not a morning person?
That’s learned helplessness in action—and it’s the worst form of low expectancy. Heck, you can even call it zero expectancy.
So, how in the world can you manipulate expectancy? The best way is by using Success Spirals.
Success spirals kickstart your motivation by giving you confidence for the next tasks.
What you want to do is simply do the hardest, most important task first thing in the morning.
Brian Tracy calls this as “eating the biggest, ugliest frog”, because as Mark Twain says, “Eat a live frog the first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
The same is true for your tasks.
However, it doesn’t make sense to just start with the hardest task—you’re not even motivated yet to start it!
This is where Value comes into play.
Value refers to how rewarding that outcome is.
As a student of direct-response marketing, I’ve learned that the way to make your target market buy your product is to channel their desires into it.
That means you make them feel the rewards that your product will give them.
That’s why talking about features usually suck. No one cares about the Super XYZ ingredient your product has. All the customers care about is how it could solve their problems; a rewarding experience in itself.
The reason this is so effective for direct-response marketing is that it makes the customers feel the reward.
And if the reward is big enough, readers will become more motivated to buy your product.
That’s why a lot of people’s main strategy for motivating themselves for a certain goal is by visualizing the future reward.
However, we face one problem when we apply this to our own lives—all long-term goals require you to do the hard thing consistently.
And that’s not rewarding at all! When every task is something you dread every minute you do it, the Value will plummet.
To solve this issue, I’d like to introduce you to something called Temptation Bundling.
Temptation Bundling only requires that you tie in something you want to do with something you need to do. For example:
- Only scroll on social media when you’re walking on a treadmill
- Only watch Netflix if you’re using a stationary bike (like this guy)
- Only play video games after you’re done studying
- Personal Example: I only drink coffee when I’m reading books
But make sure you do not cancel the benefits of what you’re doing, i.e. studying while playing.
You can learn more about Temptation Bundling from Professor Katherine Milkman in this video.
Other tactics include:
- Transforming your tasks into a simple game.
- Using approach-oriented goals. “Do X” rather than “Avoid Y”.
- Telling other people (who care) about your progress, or better yet, track your progress.
Impulsiveness refers to your sensitivity to delay. The more impulsive you are, the less you like to delay gratification.
Despite having a huge reward waiting for us in the end, our brains still prefer immediate rewards over delayed rewards.
I talk about this in detail in Why Do We Procrastinate? (& How to Solve it).
Essentially, it’s only our self-control that prevents us from acting upon our desires for immediate rewards—that’s why you don’t punch someone in the face right away when you get into an argument.
Now, some people naturally have high self-control and some otherwise.
Regardless, there are some proven strategies you can use to reduce your impulsiveness and therefore, increase your motivation:
Sleep. Why? Because tiredness is one of the top reasons why we procrastinate, according to a study in the University of Canterbury.
Exercise for 5 minutes. Exercise is NOT an exhaustive activity, but rather a restorative activity. And yes, a 2010 study found that just 5 minutes is enough to increase your self-control.
The Precommitment Strategy. This is perhaps the best way to reduce your impulsiveness, whether you have the willpower or not.
Basically, you “burn the ships”, leaving you with no choice but to stick to your plan.
For example, buying an expensive gym membership ‘precommits’ you to sticking to a habit of exercising regularly.
Using StayFocusd to block your browser from accessing social media or news sites precommits you to do what you really need to do.
In a recent study, researchers even found that the Precommitment Strategy maximized motivation and caused the participants to stick to doing more difficult tasks. (which often give the most rewards later on)
Yes, I agree that it’s common sense—but it’s not common action.
The trick here is to burn down every bridge that connects to harmful, immediate rewards that cause you to procrastinate.
Delay 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.
In short, we suck at taking action when we can not reap the rewards immediately.
Obviously, the longer the delay between your action and your reward, the less motivated you become.
Again, it’s because the brain prefers immediate rewards.
In behavioral economics, scientists see this as the present bias. We tend to favor the present and compromise the future—that’s exactly what we do when we procrastinate.
Would you rather receive $100 now or wait for $200 after 3 years?
For most of us, we’d rather choose the $100 now.
Time effectively shrinks the value of a reward, this is why good habits are hard to build, and bad habits are hard to break.
Relevantly, I created a post on breaking the habit of procrastination in 4 steps, check it out if you’re interested.
But here are two things you can do to decrease the delay:
- Short-term, process-oriented goals. By focusing on what you “do” instead of what you “get”, you reduce the delay between accomplishment and your action.
- Use “Next Action” rather than queuing the plain task. Finishing that action means an immediate feeling of accomplishment.
Strategies for manipulating motivation can be derived from the Procrastination Equation.
Have you already thought of motivation strategies from this equation?
Let’s talk about your idea in the comments!
That said, if you want zero effort ways to beat procrastination (and learn faster), you can check out my free book.