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Procrastination: It's really just U=EV/IP

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Nicole Patterson practices a little U=EV/IP by doing a little Sudoku. The theater major says she has a play to study for class, but says "That's not due until Thursday." (Carmen Russell/CNS)

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Marc Minor practices a little U=EV/IP sometimes by browsing strange sites. The Internet content producer says he should be updating his resume or fixing his creative writing Web site. (Carmen Russell/CNS)

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Nicole Patterson and Marc Minor practice a little U=EV/IP. According to many experts, 95 percent of the population regularly procrastinate. (Carmen Russell/CNS)

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Nicole Patterson practices a little U=EV/IP by doing a little Sudoku. The theater major says she has a play to study for class, but says "That's not due until Thursday." (Carmen Russell/CNS)

As Mark Minor sipped coffee at Starbucks and studied the real estate listings on his laptop, he knew there was something else he should be doing. The voice in his head nagged him to update his resume.

He also should have been polishing his blog. An aspiring freelance writer, Minor knew that his Web site was what brought him the exposure that motivated him to write more.

But Minor, an interactive producer for an online advertising agency, put off those tasks to fantasize about buying a home.

"Looking at apartments is more fun than working on my resume," he explained as he scrolled through floor plans. "It's just human nature to put things off, I guess."

Minor didn't realize it, but he was practicing U=EV/ID.

The formula is the brainchild of Piers Steel, a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. He claims it can help determine one's tendency to put off what can be done today.

Steel formed his equation after 10 years of research on procrastination. He began by studying 250 college students and has since included data from other researchers. In Steel's equation, U stands for utility, or the desire to complete a given task. It is equal to the product of E, the expectation of success, and V, the value of completion, divided by the product of I, the immediacy of the task, and D, the personal sensitivity to delay.

What this means is that people like Minor tend to postpone things with delayed rewards in favor of activities that offer immediate ones.

"By far, the biggest predictor of procrastination is impulsiveness," Steel said. "Procrastinators tend to live for today rather than for tomorrow. It's short-term gain for long-term pain."

The college environment, Steel notes, is like the "perfect storm." Exams and essays offer rewards down the road, but students are tempted by parties and dating, which promise immediate gratification. As a result, 80 percent of college students polled admitted to being chronic procrastinators.

Many experts are intrigued by introducing a mathematical dimension to an area that is hard to conceptualize.

"This is something we need to be explaining both empirically and mathematically, but the math really does provide a way of being clear and precise," said Jeffrey Vancouver, a professor of psychology at Ohio University.

Until now, psychologists have generally linked procrastination to perfectionists who avoid tasks rather than turn out a less than ideal product.

Vancouver agrees with Steel that impulsiveness is probably a greater factor in procrastination than perfectionism. Vancouver said that perfectionists only procrastinate on a task because they are too busy "perfecting" the prior one.

Others academics are more skeptical. Bill Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, notes that Steel's work is mostly based on data from other studies. For example, by combining the results of different studies, Steel concluded that men were more likely to procrastinate. But Ferrari said that when taken separately each study did not produce evidence that supported Steel's conclusion.

Ferrari also disagrees that impulsiveness leads to procrastination. Feeling overwhelmed may be responsible instead. “They just see the forest of trees and say, ‘There's too many trees, I can't do this,’" he said.

To combat procrastination, Ferrari, who has written four books and dozens of journal articles on the subject, suggests rewards for early delivery rather than punishments for late delivery. For example, the government could offer a 2 percent savings for people who file their taxes before April 15.

"The early bird doesn't get the worm anymore," he said. "If you wait until the night before to do your Christmas shopping, what happens? They give you 70 percent off."

Most experts agree that 95 percent of Americans procrastinate regularly, while 15 percent to 20 percent of the population procrastinates to the point of damaging their careers and relationships.

Ferrari says that the numbers are consistent with studies in Europe, Latin America and Australia. “These people tend to miss sports, let the gauge go on ‘E’ before they fill the tank, let the milk go sour or show up late for the party.”

Whatever critics say, Steel is convinced that by isolating certain factors like impulsiveness, chronic postponers can learn good habits. He suggests making the desk a place for work only and eliminating distractions like e-mail, instant messaging and computer games.

Another trick is to set aside 10 minutes rather than an hour to work on a project. People are less daunted by the smaller time commitment and, once they get started, they find it less agonizing than they feared and continue working.

Minor might want to try that. A week after his visit to Starbucks, he was back sipping coffee. And instead of confronting a programming problem with his blog, he was looking at a bizarre anti-drug site for kids.

“It's frustrating,” he said, referring to the programming problem.

Steel’s theory rang true to Minor. "The idea that we go for immediate rewards makes sense," he said. “It’s easy to get distracted by all the things on the Internet.”

At a nearby table, Kait Brennan, a junior at New York University, ignored the organic chemistry book in front of her as she spiritedly gossiped with a friend.

However, Brennan firmly rejected that she was practicing U=EV/ID.

"I was the queen of procrastination in my freshman year, but I decided to start getting my stuff done,” she said tartly. Then she resumed her conversation.

E-mail: cmr2152@columbia.edu