Procrastination is not just a failure to get started. We can face a variety of problems and needlessly delay action at many stages of goal striving. I think an important way to understand procrastination is to begin with an understanding of the psychology of action, particularly the problems that we must overcome during goal pursuit. Here are four potential problems that you need to know.
As readers of my Don't Delay blog well know, I'm a fan of Peter Gollwitzer's concept of and research about implementation intentions. I wrote about implementation intentions as a strategy for change a couple of years ago when I began my blog, and I have suggested them at every opportunity when asked for a potential intervention strategy to reduce procrastination.
Given this emphasis, it won't come as a surprise to learn that while reading an early copy of one of the latest books about procrastination, The thief of time: Philosophical essays on procrastination (to be published by Oxford Press in April), I quickly turned to a chapter written by Frank Wieber (research associate at the University of Konstanz, Germany) and Peter Gollwitzer (New York University).
It is clear that implementation intentions serve us well as a self-regulatory strategy, so they deserve careful discussion. I'm going to break down my writing about Wieber's and Gollwitzer's chapter into a two blog entries. Today, I'm beginning where they do with goal setting and striving within the context of a theory of action.
Peter Gollwitzer's theory of action is very similar to my own graduate advisor's model of project pursuit which preceded Gollwitzer's work. Brian Little shaped my thinking about personality in relation to project pursuit, including an understanding of the stages of this pursuit. These stages include 1) inception, 2) planning, 3) action and 4) disengagement.
Gollwitzer's work follows a similar pattern, and in his discussion of procrastination he puts his emphasis on four major problems that occur throughout these stages of goal striving, including: 1) the initiation of action on a goal, 2) staying on track and warding off distractions by shielding our intentions, 3) disengaging from failing courses of action, and 4) avoiding depleting our willpower (self-regulatory resources).
My purpose in writing today is to summarize their thinking on how these problems can contribute to procrastination. (In a subsequent posting, I'll focus more specifically on implementation intentions and the research that indicates that this technique will enhance goal success despite these challenges.)
1. Problems with initiating goal action
The first and most prominent challenge in goal pursuit that is commonly identified as procrastination is getting started. That's one of the reasons that my most often-offered strategy is simply, "just get started." As Wieber and Gollwitzer acknowledge, the problem of getting started with procrastination is that the person has to overcome his or her initial reluctance. And, as I'll discuss in my next posting, they argue that implementation intentions can help with this by having the signal for initiation of action in the environment and more of an automatic response to this stimulus. I agree with their approach here, but would put increased emphasis on emotional regulation as well, because the temptation is to "give in to feel good" when we face this initial reluctance due to task aversiveness.
2. Staying on track
Of course, even once we've initiated action towards a goal, we have to avoid unnecessary disruptions. The example that Wieber and Gollwitzer provide is that "a student might start writing an outline for his or her thesis but then become distracted and put off continuing this activity by checking e-mail or surfing the Web" p. 189). I know from my own research that Internet technologies in particular are particularly potent distractors, as "it will only take a minute to check my email," and then hours later you find you're still off task. Again, of course, they argue that implementation intentions can work to shield our intentions from competing intentions as they can take the form of "if. . .then" statements that anticipate distractions. More on this later.
3. Disengaging from ineffective strategies
The general principle here can be thought of as "good money after bad," where we keep investing our time and effort in an approach to our goal pursuit that isn't working for us. We can find many ways to justify this to ourselves as we are functionally stuck in our approach, but it's important to know when to change strategies to achieve our goals. Yes, Wieber and Gollwitzer argue that implementation intentions can play a role here too (am I whetting your appetite for my next blog entry? ☺ )
4. Keeping willpower strong
The final challenge that these authors identify in our goal striving is one that readers of this blog know well in terms of self-regulation failure, and that is avoiding overextending ourselves and depleting our self-regulatory resources. Drawing on the work of Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, Wieber and Gollwitzer identify the willpower is like a muscle metaphor along with the work on ego depletion to identify a possible procrastinatory problem. In this case, our needless delay is a result of inability to muster the willpower to shield ourselves from competing intentions, stay on task or even re-initiate action. We just feel "too tired today." Yes, there is evidence that implementation intentions can bolster self-regulatory resources.
In sum, Wieber and Gollwitzer do a nice job of situating the problem of procrastination within a psychology of action, and, in doing so, they help us identify potential problems that we can address to reduce our likelihood of procrastination. Their solution is to strategically use a specific type of intention, an implementation intention, that specifies what you will do in what situation to achieve your goal.
In my next blog posting, I'll explain this in more detail and summarize the research that demonstrates the effectiveness of this strategy for more successful goal pursuit.