Sunday, August 18, 2013

How to beat procrastination.


At this point in my life, while also completing my full-time residency in child and adolescent clinical psychology, I am supposed to be writing my dissertation and planning my wedding. Thus, I thought I would use this week to talk a bit about procrastination. In psychology, procrastination is defined as the tendency to delay the initiation or completion of goal pursuit to the point of discomfort. In other words, putting off or working on or finishing things you know you need to do, even though it causes you distress. Now, it’s usually dangerous to say anything with certainty in the sciences, but I’m going to go ahead and say all of you have procrastinated before.

Luckily, psychology has a lot to say about who procrastinates, when, why, how, and even has some ideas about what to do about it. Even more fortunate for all of us, I have a close friend, and colleague, who currently leads the field in this research, Kathrin Krause at the University of Zurich, who just published a theoretical review on how to beat procrastination. Unlike previous weeks, this review doesn’t focus on the design, results, and implications of just one study. Instead, her theoretical review integrates decades of research in psychology and related fields on human goal pursuit, motivation, decision-making, and self-efficacy.

In this review, she explains that there are four distinct phases of goal pursuit: the pre-decisional, the pre-actional, the actional, and the post-actional phase. In the pre-decisional phase, we are deciding whether to adopt a goal. In the pre-actional phase, we are deciding how we will accomplish the goal. In the actional phase, we are implementing our means and maintaining goal pursuit. And finally, in the post-actional phase we are evaluating our methods and the results of our goal pursuit. Procrastination is a problem in the pre-actional and the actional phases of goal-pursuit. Procrastination can be reduced in the pre-actional phase if an individual focuses on how to accomplish the goal, rather than whether they are accomplishing their goals. As the goal approaches, per perhaps as the deadline approaches, an individual can avoid procrastination by focusing more on the outcome of reaching the goal. For my two big projects, dissertation and wedding, I am in the actional and pre-actional phases respectively. Thus, right now I should be focusing on how I will to dedicate resources towards the project and maintain those efforts over time.

What we know about motivation and the phases of goal pursuit is that self-efficacy plays a big role. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief that they have the capacity, competence, and the resources to accomplish their goals. For me, I have a generally high sense of self-efficacy related to both of my goals, with the exception of resources. I lack the time to dedicate to each project, so when I come home from work later than expected, instead of spending an hour writing my dissertation, I opt for much needed sleep which leads to distress over time because weeks will go by without any progress.

She also summarizes the two ways that we can focus on a goal: in a process-oriented or a goal-oriented manner. If we are process-oriented, we are focusing on the means by which we will achieve that goal. Being process oriented about a goal has been the most effective when trying to lose weight by exercising, or earn a good grade on an exam by studying. For example, if your goal is to be thin or fit, you would focus on achieving the daily habit of exercise as opposed to focusing on the way you will look and feel once the goal is achieved. Process-oriented goal focus also has positive implications for people who are having trouble with sadness and negative mood. For example, on days when you’re in a not-so-great mood, you are motivated to improve your mood by spending time with friends or doing things you enjoy. Often, engaging in a task that will contribute to a long-term project doesn’t do much to improve your mood, but finishing a small piece of that process may boost your sense of self-efficacy. In my case, after a long day at the hospital, I may not be in the mood to work on my dissertation if I’m just making small gains toward a large goal of being called “doctor.” But, if I think of it in a process-focused way, it may improve my mood if I sit down to just finish one paragraph.

The most important piece of the theory discussed in this paper integrates all of this previous research to suggest when taking a process-focused or a goal-focused approach is optimal for the projects in your life. Basically, it comes down to how high your “fear of failure” related to that goal is, and how aversive the means of accomplishing the goal may be to you. Aversiveness in this case is broadly defined and can often include boredom, resentment, or frustration. Their theory, based on previous research, is that if your fear of failure is high then taking a process-focused approach will reduce procrastination. In contrast, if the activities necessary to accomplish the goal are highly aversive, then taking a goal-oriented approach will reduce procrastination.

This may sound obvious to you, but really it reframes the idea many of us have that the same goal should be approached similarly by different people. Losing weight is a common and easy example. Some people are trying to lose weight for a specific reason (e.g., a wedding or high school reunion), others simply want to be healthier. For some people, going to the gym, running, and eating healthy, low-fat foods is quite aversive, while the consequences of not achieving their goals are not too great. For these individuals, taking the goal-focused approach of inundating themselves with images and cues related to their goal (e.g., posting photos of the bikini they can wear when they’ve met their goal, or posting their target weight all over the house, pinning an Abercrombie model to their treadmill), will reduce their procrastination. Others find exercising and eating healthy to be manageable, while the fear of failing to achieve weight loss goals (e.g. arm flab in your wedding photos) is overwhelming. For these individuals, even though their goal is the same, their focus should be on the process; exercising a little bit every day will reduce the procrastination for the larger goal of losing weight.

So, how can this psychology research help you with your goals? First, think about where you stand on the fear of failing versus aversiveness continuum. Then, think about what phase of goal pursuit you are in. Finally, develop a way to reward your goal pursuit efforts that are consistent with the goal orientation and phase. If you are process-oriented, then create a way to reward yourself daily, while a goal-oriented pursuit should be rewarded with reminders of the long-term goal. And finally, don't let your mood get in the way. A bad mood can be boosted by making a small dent in a big chore, and a bad mood can be worsened by increasing the size of tomorrow's to-do list. For me, that means writing every day, and setting paragraph by paragraph goals in the completion of the dissertation, and for brides everywhere that means focusing on each component of the big day (e.g., venue, dress, caterer, band) instead of getting bogged down by the important-ness of the event in the course of your life.


Krause, K., & Freund, A. M. (2013). How to Beat Procrastination. European Psychologist, 1-13.

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