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Thomas Frank’s Simple Equation to Fight Procrastination

Written by Alex McMurray

Procrastination affects us all. I planned to write this article today, and it’s now four in the afternoon and I’m just starting. I usually get up at noon, but still. Clearly, it’s a problem that affects me, so I’m just going to assume that everyone else suffers from it as well. The amount of time I waste is normal… right? RIGHT??!?!?

Ok so maybe you would have started this earlier than I did. Fair enough. Even still, I think a lot of us wish we could get more done than we do now, and Thomas Frank is here to help. He looked at his own behaviour and came up with a relatively simple formula to describe why he might not be as motivated to finish a task as he wants to be. I’ll share his formula with you, then I’ll explain what it means and how to use it to become more productive. Here’s the formula:

So, motivation is the resource that you need to complete any given task. If you aren’t motivated, you won’t really care whether or not you finish the task. Some things sort of create their own motivation. For example, if you were tied to a table with a laser slowly working its way up to cut you in half, James Bond style, you would probably be pretty motivated to do something about that. This is because, being a spy like James Bond, you EXPECT that you’ll be able to complete this task and you see great VALUE in doing so. Plus, it’s unlikely that you’ll get IMPULSIVE and focus on something other than the laser that’s about to bisect you, and the DELAY between when you start and finish the task will be small. Well, it has to be small, or you’ll be dead. Easy motivation, right?

Formula Breakdown

So, to fully explain each element of the formula,

Motivation: The resource that you need to complete a task. This makes it the result of the formula because the more of it that you have, the more likely you are to complete a task instead of procrastinating.

Expectancy: The likelihood of your success. Are you cooking a complicated recipe for the first time? Are you a man who was raised by wolves who is about to go toe to toe with a small, rabid dog in mortal combat? You calculate your own odds here, and the higher they are, the better.

Value: When you finish the task, what will happen, and how much does that matter to you? Compare a homework assignment that’s only worth 2% of your final grade to a Smash Bros match that will decide, once and for all, who’s the best Captain Falcon in your social group. Does the reward matter to you, and if so, how much? The more important and meaningful the reward at the end of the tunnel is, the more likely you are to put in the work to get there.

Impulsiveness: How distractable are you, and what are the chances of you being distracted while you complete this task? Are you working in a calm, quiet environment, or are you trying to focus during a bar fight? The more impulsive you are or are likely to be, the less likely you are to finish your task.

Delay: How long will it take from start to finish to call your work a success? You often can’t really control this factor, but the larger it is, the harder it is to be motivated.

Increase Motivation with the Formula

So, I’m no math whiz, but I think I understand some basics. The idea here is that there are a few ways to increase your motivation:

  1. Improve the expectancy; become more likely to succeed at the task.
  2. Improve the value of the task; change the reward so that it’s more important to you.
  3. Lower your impulsiveness; try to fight distraction and become more focused.

If possible, you could also lower the delay. However, the only way to do something much faster is usually to make sacrifices in other areas, such as the quality of the final product. Streamline the process if possible, but it’s usually more helpful to focus on the other three factors. So, how can you accomplish these goals?

Specific Suggestions: Expectancy

How can you become more likely to succeed? There are many ways, so I’ll list the things that I think are most helpful:

  1. Practice, learn, grow. Today’s version of you may not have the skills to pay these bills, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t practice competencies, take classes, or otherwise improve yourself. You may not have time for this when working on any given specific task, but you might. Never forget that the current version of yourself is just a step, not a statue.
  2. Break any given task down into steps. How achievable is building a tower that goes all the way into space? Not very. However, how achievable is building a box that’s five feet tall? Not too hard. Take the first step and consider that one task by itself. Suddenly, your formula is a lot more positive.
  3. Boost your confidence. Sometimes, you just need to believe in yourself a little more. Perhaps you could tackle something that seems easier, complete it, and then feel more likely to succeed at something else.
  4. Be realistic. This may seem counterproductive, but if you constantly plan for the very best and think you’ll be great at everything, you’re more likely to fail. These failures can lead to a lack of confidence. So, don’t be too hard on yourself, but remain aware of the challenges ahead and plan for the worst, just in case. This should lead to a more prepared version of you who will, therefore, be more successful and more confident.
  5. Don’t go it alone if you don’t have to! Some things are solo tasks, and that’s that. However, some of us tend to take all the work onto our own backs when others would, could, or even should share that weight. There’s no shame in asking for help, as long as you’re trying your best. As they say, two heads are better than one.

Specific Suggestions: Value

Same deal here, there are lots of ways to affect this factor so I’ll list some that I like:

  1. You can always double-up on rewards. For example, if you feel like you should spend at least two hours studying for a test, the reward for doing so should be a better grade. Still, we all know how long it can take to get that grade, plus, studying isn’t a guaranteed path to success. To increase the value gained from the task of studying, you could promise yourself something like a chocolate bar, a fun study break with a friend, or a gaming session to motivate you to finish. Add rewards to the end of the process to increase the value of getting something done.
  2. Make the task a reward in and of itself. This one can be complicated, but gurus are always saying that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. If you have a project where you have some control over the topic, why not pick something that interests you? Suddenly, the reward isn’t just the grade at the end of the work, it’s everything you learn along the way as well. Think of ways to make your labour more enjoyable or otherwise valuable to you.
  3. Change your perspective. This is the hardest one on the list, but it isn’t impossible. I often had difficulty caring about homework at school because I felt like it didn’t matter. Now, in some cases, I was mostly correct, but in others, I was willfully ignoring things to support my cynicism. If possible, examine how much you care about finishing the task, and check if perhaps you aren’t seeing the whole picture. One assignment that’s only worth five percent of your grade? Sure, not super important to me either. But maybe, instead, it’s the one easy assignment that could be a guaranteed good grade. Life is mostly what we believe it to be. If possible, change your view of the reward.

Specific Suggestions: Impulsiveness

Last but definitely not least, here are some of my favourite ways to reduce your likelihood of being distracted:

  1. We here at SLN have entire articles dedicated to this search for focus. Find some here and here.
  2. TURN OFF YOUR SMARTPHONE. No, seriously. Silence it, turn it off, place it in a safe that only your third cousin, twice removed, has the combination for. Instagram won’t help you write that essay unless the essay is about Instagram, and even then…
  3. Choose your working environment wisely. Aim for quiet, visually calming, and as isolated as possible.

Obviously, there are entire books on the topic of reducing impulsiveness so as to focus and get more done. I could go on, but definitely check out those SLN articles linked above if you need more help here.


All in all, the clear lesson here is that procrastination isn’t some magical demon beyond the realm of human control. By breaking it down with this formula, you can easily start to improve your level of motivation. Work to be more likely to succeed, make the reward more valuable or try to see it that way, and reduce the chances of being distracted. With any combination of these three tips, you’ll see improvements in your efficiency. Get up, get out, and do something, right? I just did, and you can, too!

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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.