Prevent procrastination: how to get things done. The Psychology of Action (Part 1)

Why do we do the opposite of what we want to do?
We tend to behave against our intended plans such as working on assignments because we may have worry thoughts anticipating the result will not be as good as we want it to be, or perhaps because we think what we are doing is wrong. Sometimes we think there is only one right way to do it, or believe that we shouldn’t make mistakes. When thinking like this we can feel discouraged and then we are likely to stop working on the task because we don’t feel confident we can do it well. It could also be due to having a feeling of aversion because we think it is too hard so we delay getting on with our work.

When we worry that we may not reach a high standard we may inadvertently create obstacles that prevent us from making progress. Although we may not be fully aware of it, we are likely to behave in what seems a paradoxical way (ie doing the opposite of what we want to do) to protect our self-image. We want to see ourselves in a good light, and when studying we want to see ourselves as being academically capable.

We are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept (Baumeister, 1996). If we do not achieve our goals, or if we assume that when a task is hard it means that we are not intelligent enough to do well, we may feel frustrated and worried anticipating negative consequences. If we have not done well because we started too late, or had a problem that prevented us from making progress we rationalise our behaviour by explaining to ourselves and others that there are reasons for not doing well. We would rather have some explanation for not working than taking the risk of putting in a lot of effort and then finding out that we didn’t do well. We have a tendency to prefer to deal with a negative outcome when it is as a result of not trying rather than finding out that we didn’t do well because we do not have the ability.

Why would we tend to do this? It could be because we don’t like having doubts about our capacity for academic work, and we worry that we are not capable of reaching the high standards we expect of ourselves. Another common tendency is to avoid the task because we anticipate it being difficult and hard work. As human beings we have the tendency to avoid difficulty and discomfort:  we much rather feel comfortable and not have to make efforts to achieve things. So avoiding getting started, or not persevering with assignments, may be due to not wanting to experience the discomfort of what we perceive to be too challenging for our ability. This is based on the assumption that if a task is difficult it reflects on our ability, however, by changing your perspective and view hard work as a sign that the task is a challenge and it requires more effort to learn it so that you can build your knowledge. Any task that is of value will require more effort and will challenge us, so if you view the task as something you want to learn it is more likely to be motivating and it will allow you to tolerate setbacks better as these are viewed as part of the learning process (Gollwitzer,, P.M. & Oettingen., G. (2015).

What can you do to persevere with your efforts?
You can encourage yourself to get on with the task by reframing the task as something that you choose to do because you want to increase your knowledge, and develop your skills. You can also reflect on how you are perceiving the task: what makes it so hard, do you need more information or guidance? Do you feel it is hard for you but not for others? It is important not to compare with others as we each have different skills and ways of doing things. Instead, look for what you can learn, and remind yourself that with practice and continued effort it will eventually become familiar.  Imagine the benefits of increasing your knowledge and honing your skills (report writing, researching, synthesising information, etc). These skills will be very useful as part of your personal and professional development.

Learning to motivate yourself and being able to persevere with tasks are also essential skills for your professional life. Practice reaching beyond your comfort zone, a little at a time, and you will notice you can do more than you think you can which in turn will strengthen your intrinsic motivation. This is when we are motivated by personal interests such as wanting to build knowledge, being curious about the subject, and enjoying the sense of achievement that comes from the effort we put into the task.  By reflecting on our progress we can derive positive feelings and this contributes to building our confidence and sense of self-worth. By focusing on our values and identifying what is meaningful it will stimulate making the decision to persevere with efforts to complete a task (Deci & Ryan, 2000).  

How can you stimulate your motivation and take action?
Motivation is what moves us to do something. If we do not feel like starting with a task we can reflect on what are the obstacles that prevent us from doing so. It could be that we have a preconception about the task, for example, we may think it is not important, or we may feel we do not have control/do not have the necessary resources to do it well. It could be that we are too focused on what we perceive to be an inevitable negative outcome, so we delay getting started.

One solution is to see the obstacles/difficulties as challenges rather than threats, which in an academic setting tend to affect our confidence in our academic ability. To get started with the task check your perception of the task, break it down into small steps and reframe it as a challenge that you can do. Then, start by working on one step, then another, and another until the task is completed.   

                                          “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” (Mark Twain)

The key is to focus on the process rather than on the outcome. And while focusing on each step remind yourself that you are learning, and that each step you take builds your academic competence, and your sense of self efficacy – the belief that you can do the task well enough. To persevere with the task when it gets difficult, or you notice your motivation decreases, focus on increasing your tolerance of uncertainty and of making mistakes. 

                                           “Failure is success in progress.” (Albert Einstein)

Keep in mind that mistakes are part of the process of learning. If you notice that you are delaying getting started/continuing with the task ask yourself: “Am I doing this (what you are doing instead of getting on with your work) as a way of having an excuse in case of a negative outcome?” Once you notice what you are thinking, pause, and redirect your attention to what is meaningful to you: what you want to achieve, and then keep going.                                  

                                            “There’s no beginning too small.” (Thoreaux)

You can remind yourself that by persevering with small steps you can make progress through the difficult parts of the task. Once you notice a little progress this will become motivating. If your focus is on having it finished this will prevent you from what you can do right now. However, if the focus is on what you are learning as you make progress with each step, it will allow you to keep going. Noticing the progress will builds on your curiosity to see what you can find out – what you are learning. 

How can you maintain your motivation and make progress?
To implement our intention of doing something we need to regulate our behaviour, and to do this we have to manage our cognitive and emotional responses. As stated above, we have a tendency to want to think well of ourselves and to protect our sense of self-worth when we anticipate failure. To protect ourselves from possible negative evaluations we create some responses, for example we may view an event by rationalising it: eg. “I didn’t do too well because I did it last minute, if I had done it with more time it would have been better. Or, the essay is not very good, but it could have been much worse as I only spent a little time on it.” Another way of protecting ourselves is by inattention as when we prevent ourselves from noticing something (Baumeister, 1996). If we don’t know about it then we cannot act on it. For example, we may not notice the deadlines and without realising it we find that the deadline is approaching fast, leaving us with little time to work on the assignment, or revise for the test as we wanted to do. 

To maintain motivation for long-term goals it helps to create mental representations of the goal we want to achieve, or the behaviour we want to change to create a new healthy habit (Baumeister, 1996). For example, imagine researching for your essay, then seeing the words on the page as you tell your story of what you are learning. The more you focus on the process rather than on the result, and the more detailed the steps it is more likely that you will feel motivated to take action. In addition, notice your self-talk (the running commentary that we all have as we go by our day), when thoughts turn into negative evaluations of what we are doing it can be very discouraged, frustration and restlessness. We divert our attention to protect ourselves from feeling bad because we think we are not doing well, or think the end is too far away and we are likely to be distracted.

To increase your concentration notice what is happening…pause, and change your perspective of the task by reminding yourself that you can view it as a task that requires practice, time and effort and that you can persevere because the overall goal is important to you (Duckworth, 2016).

At times it may feel as if we are of two minds: one part of us wants to keep going with the work because we value doing well, and another wants to do something easier or less demanding. Notice this tension, acknowledge it and then remind yourself of what you want to achieve. Yes, you could stop your work and watch a youtube video (so easy as the internet is only a click away!), or you can remind yourself that you chose to work for 25 minutes and that in your break you will do something that you are looking forward to (maybe contact your friend or family, or check the youtube video). This will reduce resistance to doing the work, and allow your thoughts to flow so that you can express what you are thinking about the topic you are working on.

Instead, develop a perspective of a curious observer or that of a researcher (McGonigal, 2012). Focus on what you see just like a scientist observing an experiment. View what you notice as information to adjust your efforts. It takes time, and requires a lot of patience. The key is to remind yourself of your values, why you are doing the task. As you practice your ability to persevere and maintain your efforts will increase gradually (Duckworth, 2016).

References:

Baumeister, R. F. (1996) “Self-regulation and ego threats. Motivated cognition, self-deception, and destructive goal setting“. In The Psychology of Action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 6. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation.  Penguin Books: New York.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford: Elsevier. pp.887-893.

McGonigal,, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. How self-control works. Why it matters, and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Books.

Mischel, W. (1996) “From good intentions to willpower.” In The psychology of action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 9. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.