Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel, PhD with an apology to the author

The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done
By Piers Steel, PhD
Copyright 2011
Harper - Psychology/Self-Help
320 pages

Before I get into the review of this book, I must apologize to the author for thinking him arrogant within the first 30 pages of The Procrastination Equation (and saying so on my blog). I believe I owe him an official apology.

Dear Piers,

Thank you for your very polite message requesting that I continue to read your book and for clearly explaining that you asked your editors tone down the portions I considered annoying. Thanks to the fact that you were kind and persuasive, I finished your book; and, it may possibly have even earned the this year's award for Most Post-it Filled Book. I enjoyed The Procrastination Equation, learned some new techniques to avoid procrastination, and plan to hang onto the book for a reread. My humblest apologies for misinterpreting your attempt to explain your qualifications as "arrogance". I was wrong.


Nancy, aka "Bookfool"

And, yes, I mean every word. I was definitely put off by the opening section of The Procrastination Equation, but after the author left a very polite comment I actually asked my husband, who has a doctorate in engineering, if there was some reason he knew of that the author would feel obliged to spell out his qualifications. Huzzybuns informed me that one has to insert such information in journal articles (and added that's why he hates writing them).

In The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Steel describes why we put specific tasks off and what we can do to stop ourselves from continuing to indulge in bad habits and time-wasting activities instead of doing what we know we really should be doing. He describes the difference between the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex and what those parts of the brain have to do with being lured away from our tasks versus reigning ourselves in. In other words, you can blame being lured from your tasks by the part of your brain that responds to certain signals, but you can overcome the limbic system by doing a few things that will help you maintain focus: turning off your computer volume to avoid e-mail signals or simply unplugging from the internet while you do a set number of hours of work, for example.

Every time you stop your flow, you have to once again decide to work and then it takes time to become fully re-engaged. Unfortunately, we are conditioned to answer e-mail instantly, responding to the tell-tale "ding" like Pavlov's dogs. Unless you have a pressing reason, check your e-mail at your convenience, during natural breaks in your productivity.

What we are doing here by changing our e-mail settings is regaining stimulus control. Part of our decision making occurs subconsciously, in our limbic system. This is not the brightest part of our minds; it takes much of its lead from environmental cues--that is, from the stimuli of sight, smell, sound or touch.

--p. 178 of The Procrastination Equation, Uncorrected Proof: Some changes may have been made to the final print version

The author talks about how much dawdling costs individuals and organizations and how easy it is for people to get distracted by games, television and other mindless activities. And, he talks about the fact that we feel guilty because we know what we're doing is illogical.

Incredibly, after graduate students have gotten into a competitive academic program, done all their course work, perhaps even gathered their dissertation data, and need only to write it up and defend their thesis, at least half never complete the process despite the immense investment of time and the significant rewards for completion (on average, a 30 percent increase in salary). Procrastination is the primary culprit.

--p. 87

I think one of the most interesting aspects of this book is that the author talks about not only putting things off because they're just not fun to do, but how some people delay work because they're overly optimistic and believe they can get work done in less time than a job actually requires to be done well. He describes why some positive thinking books feed on over-optimism in a way that's counterproductive (my wording).

The Law of Attraction separates positive belief from action, leaving belief free-floating and unconnected. It changes the story of the Little Engine That Could from "I think I can" to "I think it will." That's a big difference.

To prevent ourselves from falling into over-optimism, we need a teaspoon of pessimism. As Freud put it, we need to activate the reality principle: to confront the reality of the situation when we are seeking the best way to achieve our goals. Invoking the reality principle is a sign that we have outgrown our childish and impulsive ways and can acknowledge the price we must realistically pay for our dreams. This entails imagining what could go wrong and how you would prevent or mitigate potential pitfalls. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, used this principle during his lunar escapades. "Well," he would say, "I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that's when something snaps up and bites you."

--pp. 131-132

I also love the bits about breaking down large or overwhelming work into small, manageable tasks, which are well-described in this quote by Mark Twain:

"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

--Mark Twain

The author uses the word "subgoals" to describe those smaller tasks and tells how one should break down larger tasks into subgoals, "allowing work motivation to crest above the temptation line sooner." Setting subgoals also naturally makes tasks less intimidating. There are quite a few more principles but if I wrote down all the quotes I marked you'd be here till March, so let's just move on, shall we?

What I loved about this book:

The Procrastination Equation is well-written (be patient if you plan to read this book; after the first 30-40 pages it picks up) and the author has a great sense of humor. Plenty of anecdotes liven up the material and make it easily accessible. There are some fresh ideas and he clearly describes the various procrastination triggers, why we react the way we do and how to prevent procrastination. The principles in this book can be used in just about any area of life -- at work, at school, at home, to make your diet and exercise program work.

What I disliked about this book:

The one thing that I found lacking in The Procrastination Equation is a good, solid summary. As soon as I closed the book, I thought to myself, "This is great stuff. But, I'm going to have to read it again and take notes." I think a tear-out sheet with bullet points to remind readers what they've read and jog the memory about how to prevent problems would have been really helpful. I'm planning to create my own list when I reread this book. I have to flip through it to remind myself what I'm supposed to be doing, already. The information slipped away pretty quickly and I'm sure it will take time and practice after I manage to get those reminders written down.

The bottom line:

Great ideas for how to fix your procrastination problem, written with humor and backed by solid research. Keep a notebook handy to take notes to remind you of the principles you need to put in action; there's no summary so it's best to write your own. Recommended for both individual and group use (in the workplace) and for just about anyone who needs help figuring out how to stop waffling and just get the job done.

Cover thoughts:

I love that cover. I'm assuming the clamp on a clock is a visual metaphor for getting a grip on the time you've got, but that's just a guess. It's definitely visually appealing and refreshing to see such a nice bold, colorful image. Books on time management, procrastination and other "get it together" issues are often very, very dull. I am particularly put off by books with big, splashy photos of their authors on the cover.

My thanks to Harper for the review copy and to the author for the gentle nudge to continue reading. Actually, Piers, could you write to me at the address in the "About Me" portion of my sidebar? I have a few questions.

In other news:

I hope you all had a terrific Valentine's Day or Singles Appreciation Day (<--stolen from a comment made by Bermudaonion) if you're significant-other-less. My spouse was out of town on business, so he didn't get to hear the tremendous bang when a teenager hit our mailbox post, last night. That was interesting. I went outside to see what had happened and the fellow who hit it had already driven away but came running up the street to say, "Hey, sorry, I hit your mailbox. I'll replace it for you, no problem." I thought that was just lovely. He could have easily skipped out on the responsibility. For today, though, I've got an indoor mailbox and had to chase down the mail truck to get my mail.

I haven't received any books in the mail, this week, and I've been too tired to read so I may take off a day to see if I can catch up on rest. I'm only on page 30 of Let the Great World Spin, my F2F book club's February choice, and our meeting is tomorrow. Eeks! I'm just going to go unprepared, again, I guess. I'll save the book for some other time; I do want to read it but it's definitely a heavy read. As soon as I've rested up, I want to move on to some other books that are calling to me. I am still enjoying The Mental Floss History of the United States, believe it or not. I'm going to try to finish that by the end of the month (if not sooner), although I've loved reading it in little bits and pieces. It's about time for it to take its turn being reviewed, so I need to shove forward a bit.

Later, gators.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I did mention that I had been lurking on your website for almost two months wondering what you think of it and here's proof - one of the first to comment. Thank you so much for reviewing and I take full responsbility for any arrogant overtones the author note at the start has (everyone can feel free to skip over that section). I believe my editors thought I needed to establish my crediblity and I acquiesced, thinking "Well, this is what you do for an American audience." Canadians, such as myself, are trained from birth to be softspoken and it did not come naturally.

    I think your criticism that the applied section could be more, well, applied is spot on. An extra chapter or two giving examples of use would be helpful to a lot of readers. Only way to fix that now is an accompanying workbook. Still, the techniques are as solid as science can make them - people just need little more assistance putting them to use.

    Thanks again!

    Piers Steel

  2. hm, I should read this. Adding it to the list!

  3. Piers,

    Yes, you did mention you've been lurking and I'm grateful for that. I knew you'd get to read my apology. I'm glad you unlurked to ask me to keep reading and definitely thrilled that I ended up loving your book after that nudge.

    I didn't realize you were Canadian by birth. No wonder your'e so polite! I love Canadians. :)

    A workbook would actually be a wonderful addition. Tell your publishers Bookfool said you should get started writing a workbook right away. It's okay if they say, "Um, who said that?"


    I really enjoyed it. It's not every day you come across a book that you think is worth rereading (and note-taking for future reference). A lot of self-help is kind of worthless, in my humble opinion. This book is a good one. And, the author is Canadian!! I hope that means it's readily available in your neck of the woods.

  4. Great Review! I put this on my PBS wishlist. I used to have horrible procrastination issues. They are still there but not as bad. I think my Mom trained some of it out of me. lol :)

  5. I came by earlier to read this review and I was going to comment but I procrastinated!!! Nothing like putting this idea into action, huh!?!?

    In all honesty this is something I really want to work on and go into some details in my life about. I appreciate this in-depth review AND the advice to be patient with the pacing of the book. Thanks for putting together a well thought out review.

    Watch now, I'm going to the library website to make sure I can get this on reserve!! Aren't you proud?!

  6. This sounds like a book I would get a lot out of. I am sometimes pretty bad at procrastination - oops :) I'll be adding it to the ever growing wish list!

  7. This book sounds like it could really help me, and I need all the help I can get with the procrastination. I am glad that you kept going even though the author seemed a little arrogant, because it sounds like this book had a lot going for it once you got past that aspect. Great review on this one. I might have to pick it up!

  8. You guys are all making one author very happy, right now. ;)


    Good for your mother!! I'm working on my teenager. He falls into the "overly optimistic" category. It's nice to finally understand where he's coming from, but hard to get a happy optimist to face up to reality. LOL Hope you can get your hands on a copy soon!

    Inside a Book,

    Funny you should say that because I put off this review for a while. Guess what worked? I broke it down into smaller tasks -- first put up the image and info about the book, then came back to write up quotes and then I finished up by writing the actual review. Hey, it works!!

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review. :)

    Yep, proud of ya. You go, girl!


    You seem like such a go-getter! Procrastination has been a life-long curse for me. I'm really anxious to reread the book with a notebook in hand, but apparently I've learned a bit, already. I hope it helps you, too! :)


    I'm glad I kept going, too! I'd have missed out on some good stuff if I'd decided to go ahead and abandon the book. Thank the author. It apparently pays to politely ask a person to continue reading. That was a new experience for me! :)

  9. You are just the coolest. And your review today is timely. I'm right now blogging and looking at 'just one more!' before I dive into taxes and then run off to tutor... then back to my accounting. It is hanging over my head like a soggy drippy rain cloud of gloom. But I will feel so much better when it's all dropped off at the accountants!!!!!!! <--- attempts to motivate by what the result of my work will bring me.
    Also, I just read another blog that addressed getting over perfectionism and how to make an inner harsh critic a bit more gentler on ambition. Lots of self-help books going onto my wishlist today!

  10. Care,

    I know that particular soggy dripping rain cloud of doom. We're still getting tax documents in the mail, though, so I can't even get started on taxes, yet. Yep, you'll be happy when the job is done.

    My inner perfectionist needs to come back to the surface and clean its house!! But, that's something I've battled with my whole married life. It's hard being a perfectionist and living with Mr. Chaos. I could spend all day cleaning up after my fella. I learned a little too well how to let things go to keep from going nuts and now I need to reign myself back in. Hope you like this book!! I'd give you mine if I didn't plan to keep using it.


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