Jan 04

“The Procrastination Equation” By Piers Steel: Don’t Put It Off

In short, as Norcross wrote, “Successful resolvers were also found to report employing significantly more behavioral strategies and less self-blame and wishful thinking than unsuccessful resolvers.” Piers Steel, The Procrastination Equation

Resolutions are made to be broken, they say. What do we give up on? According to Goskills.com, the most common annual resolutions are the following:

  1. Exercise more
  2. Lose weight
  3. Get organized
  4. Learn a new skill or hobby
  5. Live life to the fullest
  6. Save more money / spend less money
  7. Quit smoking
  8. Spend more time with family and friends
  9. Travel more
  10. Read more

Although this year 8 and 9 may be out of reach for most of us due to COVID-19, the others will still pertain.

What’s one of the main reasons we give up, though? It’s procrastination. Oh, we meant well. We just weren’t ready for the follow-through. Which could also be why this year we had the same old resolutions as last year and the year before and….

Psychologist Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation (2010), knows a thing or two about putting things off—he apparently began early in life. But he got over it, and now he’s extensively studied the subject and has expertise of a different kind.

What do reviewers think of Steel’s book? A couple examples:

Kirkus Reviews: “Everything you ever wanted to know about procrastination but never got around to reading.”

David Pitt, Booklist: “A useful, eye-opening book. Now, if only the people who most need to read it could find the time to do so.”

They jest, of course.

What is procrastination, as defined by Steel? Irrational delay.

So, as Steel says right there in the title of the book, he has an equation, which, according to Kirkus Reviews, is Expectancy x Value / Impulsiveness x Delay = Motivation. “Simply put, the equation means that the motivation to perform a particular task declines when the expectancy or value of a task’s reward declines or when there is an increase in impulsivity or in the delay of the task’s reward.”

Or not so simply put. More simply is something like, we’re not as committed as we’d like to be, it feels hard, we want what we want now, and besides, other stuff gets in the way. (If my paraphrasing is lacking, my apologies to Steel.)

Steel believes about 95 percent of us procrastinate, though not as many do it chronically—maybe 25 percent fall into this category.

Want to take the procrastination survey developed by Steel? Go to his site, procrastinus.com. (Go right now if you really want to do get it done.) (Well, finish reading this first.) (One of our problems? Too many distractions.)

Procrastination is actually a brain thing, having to do with the limbic system overruling the prefrontal cortex. Evolution has played a part, and in today’s world, computers and TV are two of the main things that distract us a lot from the tasks at hand and thus contribute to procrastination in a big way.

For future reference, Steel reports (Psychology Today) that making a New Year’s resolution does help toward achieving wanted change. In other words, at least it’s more effective than not resolving.

What works best, then, toward keeping those resolutions next time around?

What turns out to be the most useful is a combination of ‘inside/outside’ strategies. Use your willpower, your sense of agency and choice. Focus on how this is your life and you choose how to live it. However, don’t rely on willpower exclusively; you need to change your environment as well. Try to engineer a world for yourself where you rely on your willpower as little as possible by keeping temptation at a distance and keeping reminders of why you should not give in.

Jan 09

“Promise Land”: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s View of Self-Help

 I think it really serves a purpose in the culture. That said, I don’t really think it works most of the time. You know, that’s kind of the fate of being an American is that you’re never satisfied. It becomes this never-ending pursuit of improvement. There never really seems to be a point where people [think], You know what, I’m done. I’m good. Author of Promise Land Laura Lamb-Shapiro, The Cut

The “it” in question? Self-help.

Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, by Laura Lamb-Shapirocame out this week. From the book description:

Raised by a child psychologist who is the author of numerous self-help books, Lamb-Shapiro found herself at once repelled and fascinated by the industry to which her father had contributed so much. Did all of these books, tapes, and weekend seminars really help anyone? Why do some people swear by the power of positive thinking while others dismiss it as hokum? In the name of research, she attempted to cure herself of phobias, followed ‘The Rules’ to meet and date men, walked on hot coals, and even attended a self-help seminar for writers of self-help books.

Laura MillerSalon, calls Promise Land “Lamb-Shapiro’s deadpan, eyebrow-arched effort to comprehend the glass-half-full point of view despite her own half-empty propensities.”

Included in the book are analyses of such self-help-culture traits as being taught to follow a one-size-all type formula, following “law of attraction” theories that don’t really reveal how they’re supposed to work, and the all-too-common usage of a lot of psychobabble and buzzwords.

Lamb-Shapiro writes in Chapter One about not knowing how her quest to study self-help would turn out. “I wasn’t sure how this antagonistic plot was going to end, though it seemed there were limited options: one of us (me or self-help) was going to be revealed as the asshole, and for the sake of a happy ending I was rooting for self-help.”

Ultimately she does actually discover some value in certain self-help teachings. As she relates to Alexandra Primiani, Publishers Weekly, “Self-help is a reflection of our aspirations, our fears, and our values…On an individual level, I think it can offer comfort in difficult times. The trick is to strike a balance between relying on yourself and relying on others, so that you don’t disappear into a solipsistic black hole.”

What books in the self-help genre does she actually like? It’s clear she’s into the classics, including Ben Franklin‘s autobiography and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.

The deeper Lamb-Shapiro went into her research, by the way, the more her own inner and unresolved stuff needed to be addressed, i.e., the loss of her mother very early in childhood. Readers discover later in the book that it was from suicide.

Selected Book Reviews

A.J. Jacobs, author: “Here are two important self-help rules. Buy this book. Read this book. You’ll feel better about yourself and the world. Promise Land is funny but not sneering. It’s poignant but not maudlin. It’s smart but not pretentious. This is gazpacho for the soul, which I much prefer to chicken soup.”

Publishers Weekly: “A sincere and hilarious picture of the personalities and ideas found in this field of self-promotion and discovery…Lamb-Shapiro’s journey through self-help culture fascinates and entertains, and as much as it also serves as a quasi-memoir, it excels.”

Daniel Smith, author: “Promise Land is not only a raucous, engaging account of all the hope, despair, faith, fear, falsity, and truth that comprises America’s centuries-old obsession with self-improvement. It is also a deeply felt personal story about family, secrecy, and grief. Read it and you might just find yourself improved.”

Jan 05

“Bridget Jones’s Diary” and New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are the cornerstone of both the 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding and its screenplay adaptation of 2001. The heroine (played by Renee Zellweger in the film) starts off her year with good intentions toward making significant life changes–and a diary to keep track of it all.

The book, which Fielding acknowledges is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “…was an instant success, and Bridget became a ‘cultural icon,’ the quintessential ’90s woman trying to balance a career and a love life while contending with ideas about how a modern woman should look and behave” (Dallas News).

Primed by the novel, many flocked to see the movie when it came out several years later. Stephen Holden of the New York Times elaborates further on Bridget Jones’s Diary:

Bridget Jones, in case you didn’t know, is a 32-year-old bachelorette who works in a London publishing house and frets with sad amusement about her increasingly iffy prospects for finding a long-term relationship. Summoning up her shaky willpower, she decides to adopt the usual self-improvement regimen to make herself more desirable. She will lose 20 pounds, cut down on alcohol, cigarettes and sweets, and land the boat of her dreams. Her diary entries are prefaced with meticulous records of her progress (and lack thereof) in achieving her stringent numerical goals.

What makes Bridget irresistible is that even when downhearted, she maintains a rueful sense of humor…

Below is the film’s trailer:

In the end, although Bridget feels compelled to admit that she hasn’t made the changes she’d wanted and that her diary is “foolish,” there is a significant measure of progress–albeit against her own inclinations–in one specific area. She’s managed to stumble into a decent relationship.

And it’s this special man, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), who says the key words to Bridget that might make all those earnest resolutions seem not so important after all: “…I like you very much. Just as you are.”

Jan 03

New Year’s Resolutions? Or a Different Kind of Goal-Setting?

New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken, goes the saying. Or was that rules are made to be broken? Well, whatever. The thing is, those things—things like that—usually do get broken. I’d quote some grim statistics on this, but I don’t really believe in those either.

According to USA.gov, the most popular yearly New Year’s resolutions are as follows (and why does the government have this kind of info?):

  • Drink less alcohol
  • Eat healthy food
  • Get a better education
  • Get a better job
  • Get fit
  • Lose weight
  • Manage debt
  • Manage stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle
  • Save money
  • Take a trip
  • Volunteer to help others

Issues regarding drinking, eating and exercise, weight loss, stress, smoking, etc….all familiar stuff to therapists and clients.

But if more thought doesn’t go into a resolution than just saying it, it’s just a wish, isn’t it—versus a real outcome that’s likely to happen. For example, you want to cut down your drinking? That’s a resolution. And…so…? Well, good luck with that.

Some things to actually consider: How much will you cut down? By when? Have you done this before? If so, how’d you do? Do you have people you can tell your resolution to and/or report to? Will they be supportive? How can you make the journey an enjoyable choice versus a self-assigned punishment?

Goal-setting can help change that too-broad-based resolution thingie into something more attainable. Make it SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Jen A. Miller‘s New York Times article offers details about how to do this. Excerpts follow:

  • Specific. “Your resolution should be absolutely clear…”
  • Measurable. And, “Logging progress into a journal or making notes on your phone or in an app designed to help you track behaviors can reinforce the progress, no matter what your resolution may be.”
  • Achievable. “This doesn’t mean that you can’t have big stretch goals. But trying to take too big a step too fast can leave you frustrated, or affect other areas of your life to the point that your resolution takes over your life — and both you and your friends and family flail…”
  • Relevant. “Is this a goal that really matters to you, and are you making it for the right reasons?”
  • Time-bound. “Like ‘achievable,’ the timeline toward reaching your goal should be realistic, too.”