I’m in love with my girlfriend for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that she’s a huge fan of Assassin’s Creed. And Blade Runner. Oh, and Ready Player OneDevil May Cry, lots of great anime, and classic arcade games. Put simply, she’s a complete nerd.

Thomas Frank - GF Birthday Site

Knowing this, I wanted to do something cool for her birthday this year – so I decided to hide her present and devise an elaborate scavenger hunt filled with clues, puzzles, and challenges that she’d have to solve to get the final location. Yeah, Ron Swanson’s jealous.

It’s a good thing she was out of town during the weekend I was setting everything up, though, because I ended up cutting out a ton of work for myself. Between coding a PHP-driven website that accepted the codes won in each challenge and slowly revealed a QR code, hiding clues in library books and secluded hiking spots, and creating a journal filled with hints and Assassin’s Creed 2-style code wheels, the project probably took me 30 hours to complete.

It was as I scoured a local bookstore for 3D glasses (so I could create decoder glasses to simulate Ezio’s Eagle Vision ability) that I realized something: I was super motivated to finish this project. Even though the work was complex, mentally taxing (you try dreaming up 10 inventive challenges and then building them all in a weekend), and long, I never got tired. My motivation levels were sky-high the whole time.


Contrast that my usually less-than-successful attempts to write consistently, keep my inbox clear, or do homework assignments earlier than the night before they were due. While I’d like to say my lack of productivity in these instances isn’t my fault – while I’d like to say it’s the fault of compiling code, guys in banana suits running up and stealing my notes, etc – it’d be a lie.

The simple truth is that I–and I’m probably not alone here–don’t always have enough motivation to do the work. Sometimes it’s internet distractions, other times it’s an avalanche of ideas flooding in that makes it hard to focus. I’m not just letting low motivation levels be a thing in my life, though – I’m always on the hunt to push those levels to where they should be.

This seach is what actually led me to HackCollege as a freshman, and was a primary reason I decided to start my own blog a few months later. Recently, it has unearthed a concept called Temporal Motivation Theory. Among other things, this theory proposes that your level of motivation to complete a particular task can actually be derived by using a formula.

Here it is:  On the left side, we’ve got the end value Motivation, the resource you’ll use to complete a task for which you expect a particular reward. For example, if your task is to build the world’s first working cold fusion reactor, the reward might be getting an epic high-five from Obama.

Procrastination Equation

Using that example, let’s break down each of the formula’s components on the right side:

  • Expectancy: Your perceived odds of being able to complete the task and get the reward. If you’re a particle physicist, your expectancy will likely be higher than that of a professional skateboarder. If you’re both, that’s freaking awesome.
  • Value: How valuable the reward is to you. Do you want to get an epic high-five from Obama? Will there be a photographer there so you can put it on Twitter, get 18 million retweets, and rub it in Ellen’s face? I imagine these are the things most physicists aspire to do.
  • Impulsiveness: How likely you are to get sidetracked. Is your physics lab right next to a place where you can drive go-karts and play laser tag at the same time? This might end up being a problem. (Side note: If you open a place like this, I will be your #1 customer.)
  • Delay: The time it’ll take to achieve the goal and get the reward. This is often the factor that you have the least influence over.

Even if your task isn’t something ridiculous like creating a cold fusion reactor and getting a high-five from the President, the equation still holds. Therefore, if you’re procrastinating, that means you need to do one or more of these things:

  • Increase your expectancy – Do something that makes you more confident in your ability to complete the task.
  • Increase the value of the task – Add more to the reward, or make the process of completing the task more pleasant.
  • Decrease your impulsiveness – Figure out how to avoid distractions and keep working diligently.

Usually, you can’t do much to tweak the Delay part of the equation - term papers, for instance, have a fixed deadline – so the other three components are what you should focus on improving. Still, this is pretty awesome.

Systematic Thinking

The equation offers you a systematic way to look at your problems and identify the root causes of them. To round out this article, I’ll look at each of the three components you can exert some control over, and mention to some techniques you can use to improve them.

While it might be tempting to go overboard and try using all of them, I think a better approach is to figure out which area you’re most lacking in, and then try out one technique to improve it.

Increasing Expectancy

  • Success Spirals - Trying to tackle a daunting task head-on is likely to end in demotivating failure. Instead, break it down into small pieces, and work on one until it becomes easy. This builds your confidence and optimism for the next one.
  • Ride the Accomplishment High – I’ve been using this technique for years. If you feel stuck in one project, you can boost your optimism by going out and accomplishing something else. Even if it’s something simple like hitting the gym, it works.
  • Embrace Realism – Essentially, plan for the worst but hope for the best. Being overoptimistic (as people often are) can lead to demotivating failure. If you can learn to plan more realistically, you’ll be more likely to see actual success.

Increasing Value

  • Make Tasks More Pleasant – The journey is just as important as the destination. Work on achieving flow, optimizing your work environment, ensuring you’ve got energy to happily work by staying healthy, etc. I have a day of the week dedicated to process improvement for this reason.
  • Get Better Rewards – you can increase motivation by rewarding yourself when you complete a task. If you do a term paper, the “default” reward might be the grade, but you can augment that with a movie, or letting yourself buy something you’ve been wanting.

Reducing Impulsiveness

  • Build Strong Habits - habitual behaviors take less effort than non-habitual ones. Example: I’ve been forcing myself to get up at 6am for a few weeks; now, my body wakes up naturally around that time.
  • Pre-commit - Set up a system that forces you to focus on your goal. You could hire a member of the Russian mob to clobber you if you don’t write 1,000 words a day. Or you could use Beeminder.

There are tons of productivity hacks you can use to get things done more efficiently, so these are just a small sample. However, I think the most important thing is to think deliberately about what causes you to falter in your work, and to focus on shoring up those weaknesses.

What part of the Procrastination Equation do you think is the most important area for you?