Thursday, March 29, 2007


Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow? The arch-nemesis of productivity, procrastination is the act of avoiding something that should be completed. Whereas procrastination is the maladaptive form of the behavior of prioritizing, this behavior has been shown to be one of those things that separate the “haves” and the “have-nots” in society. Productivity is a trait commonly found in the affluent and often found missing in those on the opposite side of the wealth continuum.

George S. Patton was fond of drilling “boldness, speed, simplicity” into those in his charge. It was epitomized by his quote that “executing an imperfect plan today is better than executing a perfect plan tomorrow.” The search for perfection often has diminishing returns, especially when coupled with the adage coined by a general in the American Civil War about being there “the firstest with the mostest.”

So, why do people procrastinate?

U =

E x V

I x D


U is the desire to complete a task.
E is the expectation of success
V is the value of completion
I is the immediacy of the task
D is the personal sensitivity to delay.

Let’s take a quick look at how the variables relate to one another.

Expectation of success multiplied by the value of completion: What is the likelihood of task completion? What value does this task have once completed? If you believe that you have absolutely no probability at completing the task, it doesn’t matter what the value of completion is, because when zero is multiplied by anything the result is still zero. Likewise, if you have a high probability at success, but the task means nothing to you completed, then the result will be nothing. Both E and V are direct motivational factors: Expectancy is an internal variable and value is an external variable.

Immediacy of the task multiplied by personal sensitivity to delay: What is the priority of the task? How does delay play into your personal prioritizing skills? Immediacy and delay sensitivity are both subjective factors where your perception of the task might make it more important than I would. Likewise, I might be an impatient individual and have a high sensitivity to delay, and thus work diligently at task completion in order to ease my burden of having the task open. Someone else, on the other hand, might have a lower delay sensitivity which manifests itself as—yes—procrastination.

The numerator and denominators—that is the top and bottom results—must produce non-zero numbers. Having a numerator that is zero translates into “having zero parts of something,” while a zero denominator (bottom part of the formula) translates into “some parts of zero.” Certainly, if you have no parts of something or some parts of nothing, it still ends up being nothing.

Let’s take another step back: Presuming the top equation is the motivational function (internal and environmental), then motivation must come from the individual or the task must be enough to cause the motivation necessary for its completion. The bottom part of the formula are numbers that have subjective meanings—such that the perceived values can (and likely will) be different from person to person. Perception is the key word here: Have you ever heard the saying that “perception is reality?” The world is how each individual person sees it, not any differently. Your perception of utility or value of the immediacy of the task and how this fits into your priorities must be enough to complete the task.

Motivational factors divided by perceived value equals desire to complete the task. That’s straight enough. How can we harness this to get a better handle on our lives?

· Always maintain motivation: Internal motivation can be the single most important factor of all of this: Doing so can increase the value of the numerator in this equation such that if there is any value on the bottom—that is, there is any perception of value in the completion of the task alongside any non-zero delay—then the desire to complete the task will always be high.

· Quantify the value of the task: Is the task worth it? If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well and it is worth doing in a timely fashion. Keeping in mind this line of thought immediately can make the task at hand a priority and help to increase your delay sensitivity.

· Urgency: A sense of urgency is one of those traits that employers often look for but don’t often find. A healthy sense of urgency (not to be confused with the maladaptive form of urgency commonly known as impatience) can foster an environment in your life where procrastination is no longer a problem; and with procrastination no longer a problem, you no longer need to be studying the procrastination equation to get a better handle on a lack of urgency in your life!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

People Mechanics, Part 3

Human Mechanics: Profiling and The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory

I’ve long used the MBTI, or Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, to help me quantify the various traits of people and establish a profile of them. With the negative connotation that profiling has received in the past several years: This term, often coupled with the word “racial” suggests that profiling is used by the nefarious in order to pigeonhole people that are different from the profiler and fit them into an agenda.

Or some such nonsense.

Rather, the way that I’ve always been familiar with profiling is that it isn’t tied to any particular set of race, although it could be tied to a particular culture: Cultures often promote certain values, whether they are good or bad, and behaviors will thus permeate throughout the culture and its various subsets. For example, eastern cultures are fond of tradition and honor whereas recent studies point at those currently of college age in the United States (by contrast, a western culture) as being narcissistic. Profiles can be as simple as patterns in an individual’s behavior that can be used to predict their future behaviors or correlate these patterns with other traits that may exist with them.

People are creatures of habit: On average, doing something 21 times makes something a habit; more or less depending on the individual. Changing behaviors requires energy, focus, and time: One method is continually modifying targeted behaviors to elicit the results for which you are aiming. This is analogous with the concept of inertia in physics: An object at rest will have a tendency to stay are rest, an object in motion will have a tendency to stay in motion—both are contingent upon energy being added to the system to put the object in motion or stop it from moving. We’ll come back to this.

While people may be creatures of habit, we are very adaptable. This can either be as a matter of survival or as a matter of preference. The classic example is the “fight or flight” reflex often told in textbooks as the early hunter encountering a much meaner predator—a lion, a tiger, or a bear (oh my)—and making the decision in that moment whether to fight with the beast or to run away. And analysis of risk aside, if you fought the animal the last time you encountered one and were successful, you’d have a propensity to fight it again—especially if winning gave you a good feeling. However, if you fought the beast before and it left you with a bad feeling, your tendency might instead be to not fight the beast and run away. The same two options can be added to the flight reflex: If you run and it is coupled with a good emotion then you’re likely to flight again; if you run and it results in a bad emotion, then you’re likely to fight. Lastly, the fifth option will be to do nothing and let nature take its course. Suffice it to say that the emotional elements in the scenario would probably be somewhat more complex; this analysis still demonstrates the fundamentals of the encounter and the decisions that could be made therein.

There is not necessarily a correct answer; there is not necessarily an incorrect answer: It all depends on your point of view. Is your preference to fight rather than run? Is there some utility to be had by fighting: Does killing the beast mean that you’ll have meat for your family? Is there utility to be had by running: Have you already killed your food for the day, headed back to cook it, and have exhausted your energy for hunting for the day? The end result, in some form, will result in an economic decision by you in terms that you and the predator are both “intelligent agents.” Which way will you maximize your satisfaction?

The decisions that we make on an everyday basis are formed within the construct of the “nature and nurture” of our past and influence the quantitative aspects of our profile. Furthermore, certain behaviors (differing with cultures) can indicate your tendency to act one way over another. Actions, if not entirely rational, deliberate, and reasoned, will almost always have a rational component—at least in the mind of the person partaking in said action. This extends itself to the notion that behaviors are not necessarily isolated in a person: Behaviors are often manifestations of other traits or behaviors such that people are very much a cause-and-effect mechanism. These manifestations can range from the simple biochemical to the devious and manipulative.

When September 11, 2001 happened, I was serving in the U.S. Army. Quickly rushed away to be trained for a forthcoming mission, I found myself being trained in the “quick and dirty” methods of spotting the out of the ordinary in the environment that I was in. To this day I cannot walk into a room without doing some level of threat assessment.

Profiles can be simple or complex things. You can rely solely on experience without being completely aware of the mechanics involved; or you can be a constant student of the human (mechanical) condition like I have become. Either way, you simply need to be mindful to look for patterns and not to rely on misplaced actions to establish a firm profile.

Psychological inertia: The tendency of someone to stick with certain personality traits without additional energy and effort being added to the formula. People will often form behavioral patterns because they have found that those behaviors are effective in dealing with the environment around them. This could be as simple as putting a smile on their face when they walk out the door in the morning or relaxing in a good book at the end of a stressful day. It could, however, mean that they have found that pouting means they can get what they want or some other maladaptive behavior can elicit an outcome favorable to them (albeit probably unhealthy).

The Myers Briggs Type Inventory offers a powerful insight into people, while minimizing the number of “paradoxes” of each personality type. Each individual possesses preferences in managing, coping, and dealing with their environment: The Myers Briggs Type Inventory identifies these preferences and, it is believed in some circles, treats them like skills that can be improved:

According to Myers-Briggs Theory, while types and traits are both inborn, traits can be improved akin to skills, whereas types, if supported by a healthy environment, naturally differentiate over time. The indicator attempts to tell the order in which this occurs in each person, and it is that information, combined with interviews done with others who have indicated having the same preferences, that the complete descriptions are based on. The indicator then, is akin to an arrow which attempts to point in the direction of the proper description.”

Take the Myers-Briggs yourself and see how it works for you!