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Expectancy and Procrastination

What motivates us to work toward complex goals? And why does that motivation fall short at times?

Piers Steele gives one of my favorite answers.

Steele’s Procrastination Equation

Steele says motivation is a matter of a simple equation:

Motivation = (Value X Expectancy)/(Delay X Impulsiveness)

Stick with me if you’re a bit math phobic. This isn’t really math. We won’t be doing any algebra with this expression. It’s just a handy way to highlight what the main factors are that affect our motivation and tendency to procrastinate.

  1. The Value of our project is a matter of how much we desire the outcome.
  2. Expectancy is a matter of how likely we think it is that we can reach the outcome.
  3. Delay is a matter of how long we expect it to take to complete the project.
  4. And impulsiveness is a matter of how distracting our work environment and our lives are — given our particular personality traits (so it varies with environment and personality).

Steele calls this the Procrastination Equation.

The terms in the numerator (Value and Expectancy) are things you want to INCREASE to produce more motivation.

And the terms in the denominator (Delay and Impulsiveness) are things you want to DECREASE to produce more motivation.

Pretty simple, right?

According to this theory we can troubleshoot any bout of procrastination by running through the 4 factors:

  1. Does the outcome of the project lack value for me (perhaps when compared to other options currently on the table)?
  2. Do I have a low expectation for reaching the outcome even if I work hard at it?
  3. Is the finish line too far away to be motivating?
  4. Am I easily distracted by less important things right now?

When we lack motivation, according to the theory, at least one of those four factors has to be the problem. And there are specific strategies to apply depending on which factor best explains the procrastination.

To see a good (but incomplete) list of possible procrastination remedies, go here: Remedies for Procrastination.

I haven’t mapped the remedies to the 4 terms in Steele’s equation, but that seems like an interesting exercise for the reader :) So I’ll leave it there for now (and will probably map the remedies to Steele’s scheme in a future post).

If you’re interested in learning more about Steele’s theory, I go into more detail in the email course you get when you take this quiz about how to stop procrastinating.

And, of course, you can hop over to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Procrastination Equation and read it, too. Highly recommended.

Now, Steele didn’t invent this equation out of whole cloth. He stands on the shoulders of giants in his field, one of whom is Victor Vroom.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Here is Vroom’s motivation equation:

Motivational Force = Self-Expectancy X Outcome-Expectancy X Valence.

While they might look substantially different, the two equations are actually almost indentical.

Steele’s “Value” IS Vroom’s “Valence”.

Steele’s “Expectancy” IS Vroom’s “Self-expectancy X Outcome-expectancy”

And Steele’s denominator is just a way to acknowledge that motivation is attenuated by delay and impulsiveness.

As I’ve been thinking through various theories of motivation, I’ve often stopped to wonder why Vroom thought it important to make a distinction between self-efficacy and outcome-efficacy, whereas Steele chooses to collapse that distinction into a single term.

Let’s start by asking . . .

What’s the Difference Between Self-Efficacy and Outcome-Efficacy?

First, let’s make sure we understand what Self-Efficacy and Outcome-Efficacy are, and how they differ.

is the degree of confidence we have that, if we put in the effort, we will be able to complete the project.

Outcome-Efficacy is the degree of confidence we have that, if we complete the project, the desired outcome will follow.

Consider the causal sequence: Effort –> Good Performance –> Desired Outcome.

Self-efficacy is about the first link, and outcome-efficacy is about the second link.

Let’s say you want to get 100 more visitors per day to your website, and you think that writing 5 new articles for your blog this week is a good way to reach that goal.

And perhaps, as you start working on this project, you start to have doubts that threaten your motivation.

There are two different kinds of doubts you might have.

  1. You might have doubts that you will be able to produce the work. Perhaps you’re unsure that you can write articles of high enough quality on the given topic to maintain the high standards your website is known for. Or perhaps you’re unsure you can write the articles in the time frame you have to work with. This reflects low self-efficacy.
  2. On the other hand you might be worried that, EVEN IF you perform well and get those 5 articles done, you still might not get the traffic you want. After all, Google is rather fickle at times (have you heard?). This reflects low outcome-efficacy.

And, even worse, you might have BOTH kinds of doubts.

On the face of it, this seems to be an important distinction.

When we’re unsure we can produce an outcome it seems sensible to ask where the source of the problem is — is the problem internal (a lack of skill or knowledge, a matter of self-efficacy), or is it external (factors beyond our control, a matter of outcome-efficacy).

But for Steele the distinction doesn’t carry enough weight to change his 4 factor model into a 5 factor model.

Steele prefers to have us ask a single question: do we have doubts about whether our effort will produce the outcome?

Instead of asking two questions: 1) do we have doubts about our effort leading to adequate performance? and 2) do we have doubts about adequate performance producing the outcome?

So let’s consider:

Does it pay to make a distinction between Self-Efficacy and Outcome-Efficacy?

Consider two procrastination equations:

Steele’s 4-Factor Equation:

Motivation = (Value X Expectancy)/(Delay X Impulsiveness)

The Steele-Vroom 5-Factor Equation:

Motivation = (Value X Self-Expectancy X Outcome-Expectancy)/(Delay X Impulsiveness)

In favor of the slightly more complicated equation, low self-expectancy and low outcome-expectancy seem to 1) come with different emotions, 2) and typically require different remedies.

What feelings come with low self-expectancy? Inadequacy? Shame?

Which come with low outcome-expectancy? Helplessness? Powerlessness? Being at the mercy of external forces?

These are different emotions, and give our hesitations a different flavor. Shame might make us want to withdraw and hide, whereas helplessness might cause us to reactively detatch from our outcome.

And, because the two emotions motivate different reactions in us, low self-expectancy and low outcome-efficacy also have different remedies.

With low self-expectancy, we might benefit from consciously accepting ourselves and our current skill and knowledge levels. Perhaps we need to stop pretending we already have the skills or knowledge. We need to come out of hiding, face reality, and focus on improving our skills and knowledge. Maybe we need to get help from a mentor, or read a book, or outsource the project.

With low outcome-expectancy perhaps we need to learn more about the external forces that dictate the outcome so we can control them better. Or we need to develop a new mindset — turn the pursuit into a “numbers game”. Prepare for rejection or failure, and convince ourselves if we just throw enough stuff against the wall, some of it will stick. Or, maybe we need to take stock and find a more deterministic strategy.

In favor of the less complicated equation, on the other hand, there really is a big difference between remembering 4 things and remembering 5. Sounds small, but simplicity is a very important virtue for a theory, and shaving 20% off the complexity is a big deal. A 4-factor equation is more elegant than a 5-factor equation.

When great power comes packaged very simply (E=MC^2 !), our inner geeks go gaga.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much. If you use the 4-factor equation, and determine that you are suffering from low expectancy, you can still ask the question about self-expectancy vs outcome-expectancy. It just becomes a follow-up question rather than a first-level question.

Perhaps it’s mostly a matter of framing and elegance.

And, . . .

Remember the Big Picture Here

Steele’s Procrastination equation (whether we choose a 4-factor or 5-factor version) is just one rubric for troubleshooting procrastination. The flow-killer stuff I’ve written about earlier (inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) is another.

There are surely other good schemes as well.

Our goal, remember, is to be able to 1) notice that we’re procrastinating, 2) run through a good troubleshooting algorithm (such as those mentioned), 3) arrive at the right procrastination remedy, so we can 4) apply it, and 5) get back to working with flow.

Stay tuned for more on these matters in future posts.

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