Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Enhancing Your Interest in a Task Affects Energy and Action

Procrastination: No interest, no energy, no action

"I break complex projects down into smaller tasks, and plan the order in which I will perform these tasks."
"If an activity gets boring, I can usually find a way to make it fun again."
A recent study indicates that people who endorse statements like these as typical of them are less likely to procrastinate.

In the most recent issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences (Volume 45), Peter Gropel (University of Trnava, Slovakia) and Piers Steel (University of Calgary) present their findings of a mega-trial research project. A mega-trial is a study with an unusually large sample size and is often used in the medical literature. The power of large samples is that the results may be more generalizable. In this case, Gropel and Steel collected their data on the Internet, so it's questionable as to how generalizable the findings are, but their results are of interest in any case.

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The authors base the rational for their study on Steel's Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) which I have discussed previously (see TMT: Formula or Folly?  for a description of the theory and a related limerick to make you smile). Although couched in the language of this theory, they needn't have done so as their results do little to test the theory itself. In essence, they argue what clinical psychologists have for years as general advice to defeat procrastination: 1) set short-term goals, 2) learn and use strategies to make the task at hand more interesting and 3) look past the initial negative feelings you might have about a task that may manifest themselves as "I'm too tired to do this" or "I don't have the energy." In any case, we needn't summarize their theory here to learn something from their results

Their Study
Using the Internet, Gropel and Steel collected data from 9351 people (5938 males). Although they make no mention of the over-representation of males in the study, their sample is not typical in this respect, and it may indicate the effects of Internet sampling.

Each of the participants completed the short form of the Volitional Components Inventory that includes 4-item measures of self-regulatory skills and related outcomes. They used 4 of the measures: procrastination ("I postpone many things which I have to do"), interest enhancement ("If an activity is boring, I can usually find a way to make it fun again"), goal setting ("Several times per day I rehearse the things that I want to get done"), and lack of energy ("I usually lack energy"). They used the data from these scales in a series of correlational analyses, including analyses to explore interactions among the variables in the prediction of procrastination.

The Results
Lack of Energy
What interested me most in their results was that the largest correlation in their data set was between procrastination and lack of energy (r = .60). This is certainly something that people will report in regards to procrastination, "they don't have the energy to do that right now." The question it raises for me is whether these people truly lack energy overall or whether it's task specific or whether it's simply a rationalization for not acting now. In other words, could it be just another way of saying, "I don't feel like it"? The answer to this question awaits future research, but I would certainly like to hear what you think about this.

Interest enhancement and lack of energy
Using a mediational model, the authors showed that the relationship between interest enhancement and procrastination was mediated by lack of energy. In other words, "Persons low in interest enhancement reported on the low level of energy and, as a result, scored higher on procrastination. Conversely, interest enhancement affected the increase of energy and, in turn, facilitated initiation of actions" (p. 409).

These results reflect an important message about interest enhancement which I have addressed previously (see Lighting the Fire for Learning). Given that interest is an emotion, I suspect we'll see quite a bit of research yet that reveals important individual differences in the ability to enhance interest. For example, extraverts are known to be happier and higher-energy individuals. I wonder if extraverts tend to use interest enhancement (enhancing their positive emotions) more as a strategy for self-regulation, as opposed to people who score low on emotional stability who might need to harness their fear of failure more to motivate action.

Goal setting versus interest enhancement
Not surprisingly, Gropel and Steel found that ". . . people high in goal setting and interest enhancement scored lower on procrastination" (p. 409). Each of these volitional skills, being able to set short-term goals and being able to increase your interest in the task at hand, reduced procrastination. Most importantly, however, the authors also note the following,
"Goal setting is less effective for those who already have interest enhancement in their self-regulatory repertoire" (p. 410).

As the authors conclude, ". . . self-regulatory techniques are not automatically additive in effect. Consequently, determining what is already in a person's motivational repertoire becomes critical in recommending new techniques . . . We need to learn boundaries of our techniques as well as learn how to match people to those techniques they would most likely benefit from" (p. 410).

Concluding thoughts - What is in your motivational repertoire?
Are you able to find ways to make a task interesting when it's not? Can you break a task down into manageable pieces that include immediate short-term rewards? Can you keep the larger meaning of a task or its relevance to your value system in mind as you labor at the immediate sub-task to get it done? Can you tolerate the negative feelings that seem to overwhelm you as you begin an aversive task?

Each of these questions reflects self-regulatory skills that are important in reducing procrastination. Perhaps the most important question to pose in my blog is: What strategies might you develop for each of these areas to reduce procrastination?


References
Gropel, P., & Steel, P. (2008). A mega-trial investigation of goal setting, interest enhancement, and energy on procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 406-411.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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