"The Procrastination Equation" by Piers Steel (best book on procrastination!)

This is a really important book, and if you haven't read it, you need to read it. I'm not going to summarize the whole thing, but here are the important points you need to know:

  • This book is 100% research based, not anecdotal. It was written by an academic.
  • He confirms what I intuited when I started this fellowship: procrastination is, at its core, an impulse control problem - just like drug addiction.
  • Procrastination is not mainly due to perfectionism, as we've been told for years. In fact, based on research duplicated many times, perfectionists tend not to procrastinate.
  • Steel discusses two other dimensions that affect procrastination - low expectation of reward (low confidence) and low value of reward (seeing what you have to do as pointless), but the big driver is impulsiveness, lack of self-control, the same problem that drives any other compulsive behavior (overeating, excessive drinking, promiscuity, etc.). He talks about the "craving" to do something more fun rather than what you should be doing (which I certainly have experienced). That is the language of addiction.
  • He specifically says that a 12-step program can be helpful with procrastination.
  • He quotes from forum posts on this Web site, Procrastinators Anonymous, in Chapter 7.

Steel says that 12-step programs work by removing denial - acknowledging that single failures of willpower will lead to a collapse of self-control. This made a lightbulb go off in my head:

We here in PA need to set personal bottom lines, just as they do in certain other fellowships (notably SLAA). For example, my personal bottom line in PA may be sticking to my daily work routine - I may need to count days on that, and that may constitute my PA "sobriety" or "abstinence" (we need a vocabulary).

I've known for a while now that we need a Big Book in this fellowship and I have had it in the back of my mind for a while now to write one, but I haven't because I wasn't quite sure what to write. It's starting to gel now! This book from Piers Steel is putting it all together for me.

If you haven't yet read this book, I can't recommend it strongly enough. It is qualitatively different from any other book on procrastination you have ever read, and it will contradict much of what you have read. It's extensively footnoted. Everything he says is rooted in hard research.

In the article I wrote when I launched this Web site and fellowship, Chronic Procrastination is NOT a Time Management Problem!, I said chronic procrastination was a form of "addictive escapism", "compulsive task avoidance". And that is what it turns out to be. Science concurs.

June 25, 2012

I'm adding to my previous comments with an important exception to the "not related to perfectionism" finding. It probably matters quite a bit how "perfectionism" is defined operationally in the studies that Steel refers to. He doesn't say. In 1978, a psychologist named D. E. Hamacheck wrote an article titled "Psychodynamics of normal and neurotic perfectionism", drawing a distinction between the two. I think this is key.

I still believe that impulsivity plays a major role in procrastination, but I think neurotic perfectionism is in there, too. This is beautifully laid out in Allan Mallinger's book Too Perfect. Mallinger describes the obsessive personality type (obsessiveness is associated with addiction), and how it is linked to both obsessive (neurotic) perfectionism and procrastination. He talks about how a neurotic need to do everything flawlessly can make every task loom impossibly large, how obsessive perfectionists can't distinguish between important and unimportant details and hold onto tasks too long, thus turning in assignments late, how they can't prioritize, how they can't discard things and thus can have clutter problems, and - most important of all - the role of Demand Sensitivity and Demand Resistance.

There is one brief article on Demand Resistance on the PA Web site, reprinted with permission, but it doesn't tell the full story. Mallinger defines it thusly: "A chronic and automatic negative inner response to the perception of pressure, expectations, or demands (from within or without)." That is, if you feel you have to do it, you automatically don't want to do it. And for obsessive perfectionists, everything feels like a "should". Even "wants" become "shoulds".

So this is a big issue - not to be dismissed out of hand with "most perfectionists don't procrastinate". I think we can say, most "normal perfectionists" (non-obsessive, non-neurotic) don't procrastinate. But obsessive perfectionists? They procrastinate.


I can't thank you enough for recommending this book.

The best part about this book is the taking action sections after each chapter. I already installed all the recommended software (since my time consumer #1 is my computer) and I am beginning to measure myself so I can improve every day.

I'm very motivated after reading the book and will commit to myself and all of you readers to follow through.

(even this forum is mentioned in the book!!!)

Just bought this...

...and am finding it fascinating. Particularly the three kinds of procrastination - to do with expectation, to do with value and to do with time. I scored low on the first - I don't have horribly low expectations of myself - medium on the third - I do procrastinate about aspects of my job I don't value - and super-high on the third - I'm TERRIBLE at starting things when the reward for doing them/punishment for not doing them is far into the future.

Reading it avidly. Many thanks, pro, for recommending it. 



One of the things I experienced that convinced me was the "withdrawal" . I re-read some of my experiences here, and can honestly say that I now think of myself as a person who "shows up" every day. That is a miracle and this may only make sense to me but, I can now be a dog owner, my white lab is the love of my life, because I know I will show up to take care of her every day.

Withdrawl discovery April 30, 2010 in pa:

Had a new discobvery last nite. I seemed to have the very familiar
feelings I had before whenever I tried to be a "normal/productive"
person, but could not quite identify them, until last nite. I actually

Mild withdrawal symptoms are often chiefly emotional. They can
include anxiety, confusion, moodiness, nervousness, irritability, and

Moderate withdrawal can include the aforementioned symptoms along
with physical reactions like headache, nausea, tremor, excessive
sweating, and increased heart rate.

In so many ways PA reminds me of the food. I used to binge eat and now I
time binge. I had to find a food plan I could live with and now I have
to find a productivity plan I could live with. I thought if I was a
certain weight all my issues would be gone. Now I feel if I could just
stop self sabatoge and procrastinating, all my issues will be gone.
There is so much more, but I am starting to "see" what this is for me.
And... I mean starting. In my other programs, I was never a person that
stopped cold turkey, it was always a stepping stone recovery. I guess
that is why "showing up" was so important for me here, my first stepping

When I quit smoking, for the first 5 years, I just felt like a smoker
who was not smoking at the time. It took me a very longtime to feel that
I was a non-smoker. I don't "think" of myself as efficient, productive,
etc., I have years and years of self sabatoge, and sad stories of "what
could have been....""such a waste of potential..."

My ONLY hope is the steps.... Thanks.

A few more insights I had today were if I am not working the steps, I feel like I am on a dry drunk with pa.

If I make a perfect "to do" lists, it feels like a "diet"

The things that I needed to do for reocvery in my other programs were

#1 Steps (ugh- now for PA)

#2 find out what Non procrastinators do as a way of life and try to find if any of those things could work for me.

#3 One day at a time, baby steps, progress not perfection, can't do this alone, etc.

"our mind is like a parachute....it functions only when open." unknown




re: vic's withdrawal symtoms

ok wow. For the last 4 days i have been "trying abstinence" and one day i had a splitting head ache, and i've had chills and anxiety. I knew the symptoms lined up with the timing of the attempts at abstinence, but i never let myself believe that...

i could get physical withdrawal symptoms from ... an entire day of staying on plan

So... even tho this sounds crazy... it might not be too off the mark to say i get high by escaping.

it's ncredible to ponder.

But, it makes sense. Because the impulsive escapist behavior is feeding a need. And that need is in the brain.
And it has to do with reward and that has to do with dopamine. And now we're into biology. So it makes sense that an entire day on plan means that my brain chemistry is out of wack ( vs a normal day for me ).

And this idea is a gift from god because,

1. now when i feel it, i will know that i am on the right track ( instead of wondering what's wrong )

2. i know that the longer i'm abstinent the lesser the withdrawal symptoms will become

3. there will come a day when an entire day on plan will not cause those symptoms, because that will be my normal brain chemistry.

That's very hopeful to me.

the touch of the master's hand: http://procrastinators-anonymous.org/node/1898#comment-27748

fall down seven times, get up eight - japanese proverb


re: Withdrawal

Thanks Vic, that is very insightful. I guess I'm going through withdrawal right now, from months and months of avoidance. It is truly a terrifying feeling as I watch my financial life tumble out of control, affecting my food intake, ability to drive, socialize, etc. What an unbelievable rolling bottom I am in. 

Yeah, those pesky steps (I think ugh, too, only because I don't have a sponsor yet in any program, as getting one is a huge issue of avoidance and fear for me). I love the steps what I know of them from my workbooks, but I have yet to truly "work" them in a sense that would see better results. But I'm trying to do what I can. Definitely baby steps. 


"If you feel you're about to drown, remember Tool 1 and Break .. It .. Down"

Re: "The Procrastination Equation" by Piers Steel <-- READ THIS!

THANK YOU to whoever bumped this post by commenting on it (I hadn't seen it -- in fact, I need to read more of the posts/articles on this site).

This is a HUGE RELIEF to see some academic backing for this being an actual "addiction" because yes, I experience it completely as an addictive compulsion (or compulsive addiction). 

Yes, it seems far too simplistic to assume that it's just about perfectionism, time management, etc. The bottom line is I genuinely feel a fix or high (short-term relief) from putting things off and avoiding. It's like being out of control makes me feel IN control somehow. 

I will definitely look more into this ... because though I am also a codependent love addict, my avoidance of people, places and things and procrastination have done more to damage my life than any other compulsion I have. Of course, they're all related, but the avoidance is my chief tool for acting out and it has destroyed my life. 

Thank you pro for posting this!!!

p.s. I just thought of something regarding the part about "the "craving" to do something more fun rather than what you should
be doing" -- not only is this the language of addiction like you said, pro, but comparing to SLAA actually is spot on, because they deal with not only sex and love addiction but FANTASY addiction, which I would say is very much related to this impulse to want to escape, have fun, etc. It's like being a romantic lover, you just can't get enough of what "feels good" although I suppose you could say the same for any addiction, because that hit of whatever it is always "feels good" ... but yeah, I would liken the procrastination to be getting a hit of some fantasy -- escaping the reality of tasks that face us by doing anything else that seems more pleasurable. 

For me the perfection thing

For me the perfection thing is actually trying to avoid criticism, if you do something perfectly then people can't say anything bad about it, which in turn I seem to think they are saying something bad about me. (Just like my dad.)

 I fit into the harsh, critical father category big time.

 I could never get compliments from my dad, only criticism.

This goes to the extreme, criticising me while I won a national Judo competition, critisising me about a small mistake made at a cricket game while I was captain of the cricket team.

I fear that same criticism as an adult, even constructive criticism.

Sometimes I avoid certain work because I have to send it to clients and I fear their comments, even though there is nothing wrong and they never comment.

Totally irrational, but there it is.

I may not be a perfectionist as I definitely make regular mistakes in everything I do from lack of something.

Basically perfectionism to me is not wanting to make mistakes because I don't want to be critisised as I feel even critisising my work is critisising me personally.

avoiding criticism through procrastination

Your comment reminds me of this article from Psychology Today. I posted it in another message earlier. No one commented - maybe no one saw it?

Delay as a Self-handicapping Strategy: I Can Protect My Self-image by Procrastinating?

The basic idea is that we don't want to know the true limits of our capabilities, so we procrastinate so we have an excuse in case we fail.

brilliant pro

You always find the most insightful articles!

Thank you for this.

thanks, pro!

Thanks for the write-up, Pro. I own and have listened to the audio edition of The Procrastination Equation, but appreciate the recap. Too Perfect sounds like another book I'd be interested in. Did you find useful tips for recovery in it, or is it pretty much focused on the problem?

"Too Perfect" by Allan Mallinger

> Too Perfect sounds like another book I'd be interested in. Did you find useful tips for recovery in it, or is it pretty much focused on the problem?

Good question. Its strength is in pulling together a bunch of apparently disparate symptoms and showing they are all part of the same problem - and not what you expect. It is weaker in describing how to fix this problem because the author is a therapist and essentially his solution is therapy.

Still, I found the book extremely useful. It is one of the most valuable books I own. There are many things about myself that I never understood until I read this book, idiosyncrasies that I never even knew were related, and suddenly it all snapped into focus. I gained huge insight into myself. Sometimes just understanding where inexplicable feelings and behaviors come from is enough to rise above them, and he says that in the book. You can talk yourself through things when you understand the source of the anxiety compelling you.

He does have some tips for self-talk at the end of each section. I found these somewhat superfluous. The insights themselves were what I found most useful.

procrastination as addiction

I definitely experience procrastination as an addiction. Like my alcoholism, eating disorders and codependency, it is definitely more difficult to "resist the beginning" when I'm under stress and/or emotionally upset. Of course initially, addiction just IS...so the temptation (compulsion) is constant. But once I'm applying Steps and Tools and have some freedom from compulsion, I dare not rest on my laurels because even the smallest change in my routines can trigger procrastination.

These are meaty ideas, pro, thanks.  I wonder: Are there "bottom line" commonalities among us, as in classic substance addiction, that can define abstinence?  Or is it more like compuslive eating, where triggers (foods and/or behaviors) are so individualized that no single "first drink" analogy can be found that's universally accurate?

I'm curiously resistant (ha, surprised?) to committing an exact bottom line for my PA abstinence - which in other 12-Step programs would mean I'm not entirely ready. Hmmm... 

"My boundaries enclose a pleasant land." Psalm 16

First Post

This comment has been moved here.

PA sobriety and bottom lines

PA sobriety needs to be both very specific and defined, and very individualized. The way SLAA defines "bottom lines" provides a good model. Here is a workbook from SLAA in San Diega (SLAA is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) on how to define your bottom lines. The end of the workbook talks about "healthy behaviors". These are usually called "top lines".

Obviously this is a different fellowship, but this workbook provides a good model for how to figure out what your bottom lines and top lines in PA need to be - e.g. no Facebook during the workday, sticking to routines like getting up at a certain time, going to the library, etc.


Procrastination Equation and Role of Perfectionism

I added onto my review above. I did it that way instead of adding a comment because depending on how other people post their comments, the part I added can get widely separated, and I want to make sure people see it.

On reflection, I think that perfectionism probably does play a role - it all depends on how you define perfectionism!

Read the part below the horizontal line, dated 6/25/2012, for the update.

The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and

by Piers Steel.

Excellent, excellent, excellent!.  Very clever and witty author.  Entertaining to read and based on scientific, empirical data.  More importantly, half of the book is devoted to self-help.  I read the book cover-to-cover today (as a way of procrastinating, of course).  I'm really excited to try out the techniques.  Let's hope I don't put it off.

Procrastinators Anonymous is even cited in the book!  Get the book and see if Dr. Steel quotes your PA post (there are at least 2).


P.S.  I think it's cool that two of the three most prolific procrastination researchers are Canadian. smiling   

perfect timing, pro

This is too funny.  I was rereading the Procrastination Equation just this morning.  Then I sign on and see that PRO reposted my review of the book (from over a year ago) this afternoon.  By far the best procrastination book!  The only problem is that it's such an enjoyable read that you'll find yourself using it to procrastinate.

I fully support making the Procrastination Equation the paradigm of this recovery fellowship. 

I didn't see your review until after I posted mine.

I didn't see your review until after I posted mine. Movingalong sent me the link to yours and I grafted it on so both would be together.

It's an important book - very different from the rest.


The book is also available as an audiobook.  Audible.com


i've been meaning to get this one!

just put a hold on this one at the public library!

Sounds interesting, can't wait to read it 

Embrace the suck!

giggling @ "Just put a hold on this one at the library..."

...unless I get there first and have already "borrowed" it, in which case I'll probably procrastinate returning for so long that the fine will be huge....so...I may as well buy it online, probably cheaper, lol!

"My boundaries enclose a pleasant land." Psalm 16

wish we had "Like" buttons in this forum :)

LOL! smiling