Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

The Role of Goal Focus in Reducing Procrastination

Where should we focus our attention - process or outcome? It depends.

Boy with flashlight at night
http://www.thegreenhead.com/imgs/light-for-life-tactical-flashlight-6.jpg
If we want to overcome procrastination, is it more important to focus on the means of goal pursuit (i.e., how we will do a task) or to focus on the outcome of the task (i.e., the possible reward)? A paper just published in the European Psychologist provides an answer to this question. Our focus depends on a number of things and interacts with task aversiveness, our fear of failure and our sense of self-efficacy. In a word, it’s dynamic.

Kathrin Krause and Alexandra Freund (Department of Psychology, University of Zurich) published their paper entitled How to Beat Procrastination: The Role of Goal Focus in a recent volume of the European Psychologist. I had the pleasure of meeting Kathrin in Amsterdam in the summer of 2011 at our biennial conference on procrastination research  where she and Professor Freund presented a poster on a similar topic, “Delayed or Done: About Goal Focus as a Self-regulatory Mechanism to Reduce Procrastination.”  Kathrin is an outstanding young scholar and a fellow of the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE). Given that her doctoral studies involve motivational aspects of learning as well as self-regulation, this new paper has a focus on academic procrastination.

In fact, “focus” is a key word in this theoretical piece.  As the authors write,

“. . . we investigate whether it is more beneficial for overcoming procrastination to focus on the means of goal pursuit (e.g., review lecture notes, discuss questions with fellow students), or to focus on the outcome (e.g., think about the importance and consequences of passing the final exam) in order to initiate and maintain goal-relevant action” (pp. 132-133).

This is an important question, where should we put our focus to overcome procrastination?

I particularly like how the authors think about procrastination over time. We certainly experience procrastination that way. For example, we know that at times we might procrastinate on getting started on a task while at other times we get started without a problem, planning what we need to do, but we stall out when it comes to action. Theoretically, there are a number of psychologists who identify stages of action. Kathrin and Alexandra draw on the work of Heckhausen for a temporal model of action, whereas in my own research, my students and I have drawn on the work of Brian Little and Peter Gollwitzer. In the end, there are more similarities than differences between these models, as each sets our goal pursuit as unfolding over time with different actions and motivations associated with each stage.

Of course, procrastination can and does occur at different stages of our goal pursuit, and we need to make sense of needless delay as it may change across these stages. We may, for example, delay early in a task because it lacks meaning for us, or as these authors note, because we may have a fear of failure that immobilizes us. Later in the stages of action where in fact we should be acting, we may interrupt or stop our goal pursuit because we have coping doubts. That is, we have self doubt about our ability to cope with the tasks at hand. Alternative activities that are less difficult or evoke less doubt look a lot better at this point, and as I have written extensively in the past, we “give in to feel good” – we procrastinate.

At the same time, the most common emotion associated with procrastination is guilt, and the authors note that this guilt may actually help many of us as it motivates us to get back on task. We can terminate the guilt by getting back on task. As the authors write, “Wanting to stop this feeling might be the reason why students start to reengage in goal pursuit” (p. 134).

In any case, the focus of this paper and what I want to share today is this notion of a goal. It’s close to my own scholarly interests as my doctoral work was supervised by Brian Little with a focus on personal project pursuit. In fact, it was noticing the effects on well-being of goal-pursuit breakdown that led to my specific focus on procrastination as my area of research. 

Kathrin and I agree that the cognitive representation of goals – how we think about goals – is an important aspect of understanding procrastination. What Kathrin and Alexandra address specifically here is how we think about goals. Is our focus on the how or the why, the means or the ends, the process or the outcome? They argue it matters. I agree, but how this plays out is complex and changes over time and by the nature of the goals involved.

I like the metaphor they use here, “We can imagine the person’s goal focus as beaming a flashlight on either the means or the end of goal pursuit” (p. 134). Where do you shine your goal flashlight? What are the effects?

Brian Little’s research and theorizing offers a similar perspective. In the years I spent under his supervision, he taught me that we can think of both the manageability and the meaning of a project or goal. We have to manage things well, and they have to be meaningful. One without the other doesn’t work very well. The trick to successful project pursuit is a balancing act. Drawing on the flashlight metaphor, sometimes we’re better off focusing the light on how to manage our projects; sometimes we have to focus the light on why we’re doing this project at all – the “why” of goal pursuit.

So, with procrastination, which is it? What did Kathrin and Alexandra conclude?

This is already a long post, so I can’t address every aspect of the dynamic model of procrastination that they propose in relation to goal focus. Below are the highlights in point form. I begin with some general effects contrasting a process versus an outcome focus, and then I summarize some of the factors that affect each of these. I follow that with some general conclusions and thoughts.

Effects of a process focus:

  • When we focus on process we can identify and define concrete goals that are more likely to get done (I have written more on this if you want a process strategy to use today).
  • We’re more likely to move from broad goals to specific implementation intentions (which have been shown across a variety of research to increase goal engagement and completion).
  • An attitude of “the way is the goal” may render tasks more pleasurable and reduce procrastination.
  • If we fail in employing a specific means/process, we’re more likely to substitute an alternative and stay on track.
  • Self-efficacy may be enhanced because our focus is on our evaluation of the means, not on the self or distance from the outcome (which can undermine our confidence).

Effects of an outcome focus:

  • Provides a clear standard on which to base current performance (a key aspect of self-regulation)
  • Of course, if the discrepancy between outcome state and actual state is large, this may undermine motivation, increase self-efficacy doubt or just increase negative emotions that might in turn undermine motivation.

There are factors that influence these things such as:

  • Fear of failure may be higher if we focus on the outcome and potential evaluation. Focusing on the process (the how) takes attention away from evaluation and reduces fear of failure (and in turn, procrastination).
  • When a task is aversive because the “doing” is aversive (“I dislike writing” for example), procrastination is more likely, because we put off aversive tasks. Consequently, if the task process is aversive, an outcome focus may be important as it may motivate action through a focus on goal importance or the consequences of failure (and we work to avoid this failure).
  • Self-efficacy, the confidence one has about completing a task, may benefit from a process focus, hence reducing procrastination. Why? As I manage to complete each process, with my focus on the process, my confidence increases with each success. I’m not comparing myself with the distance to the goal but with my last success on a recent process to the goal.
  • Similarly, in a long-term goal pursuit such as a dissertation or thesis, a process-focus might help because I feel the daily success of task completion, not the defeat of moving only slightly closer to a still distal goal. In fact, regular process focus with action in a routine manner daily helps automate these behaviors, and goal pursuit becomes much more non-conscious.
  • As goal achievement becomes more of a reality – when the deadline is actually close – an outcome focus makes more sense, as we need to monitor our output with the outcome expectations and time remaining.

In sum, what Kathrin and Alexandra argue is that “ . . . a process focus is more adaptive than an outcome focus in the non-urgent part of the actional phase. A process focus allows a person to be flexible with regard to new opportunities or situational changes . . . when a deadline approaches and a person enters the urgent phase, the outcome might become more salient” (p. 139, emphasis added).

Concluding Thoughts

If you can’t tell by the length of this post and the details I’ve provided, I can simply say, I like this paper. It’s a thoughtful theoretical account of how our goal pursuit changes over time in relation to our motivational state and the context of our goals. It speaks directly to everything I studied as a graduate student, and the authors note some of our work directly as an example of research that does explore procrastination from this perspective.

What is particularly important as a take-away message is how our focus must change during our goal pursuit, and this change in focus must be strategic.

At times, particularly in the early stages of a project or for long-term goals, we need a process focus to build confidence through frequent rewards, reducing the effects of temporal discounting by taking the focus off of the distal outcome, and reducing fear of failure that may result when we look at how far we have yet to go.

At the same time, an outcome focus is required when the task at hand is particularly aversive –when our visceral reaction is “I don’t want to” – so that the importance of the goal or the consequences of not finishing might offset the desire to procrastinate to cope. As you know well as a reader of this blog, procrastination is an avoidant coping strategy that provides short-term mood repair just when task aversiveness overwhelms us and we don’t want to do what we know we should/must do.

Finally, as the authors note, it’s good in theory, but much more empirical work needs to be done to specifically test the associations in this model. Although it is compelling based on previous related research, there is much that remains to be done. Fortunately, Kathrin and Alexandra have an active research program doing exactly that. So, there will be more to come – and you’ll hear about it here first, you can count on it, as I expect we’ll be together in Germany next summer discussing their latest studies.

References

Krause, K., & Freund, A.M. (2014).  How to beat procrastination: The role of goal focus. European Psychologist, 19(2), 132-144. DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000153

Blunt, A.K., & Pychyl, T.A. (2000). Task aversiveness and procrastination: A multi-dimensional approach to task aversiveness across stages of personal projects. Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 153-167. DOI 10.1016/S0101-8869(99)00091-4

Blunt, A.K., & Pychyl, T.A. (2005). Project systems of procrastinators: A personal project-analytic and action control perspective. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1771-178-. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2004.11.019

Pychyl, T. A., & Little, B. R. (1998). Dimensional specificity in the prediction of subjective well-being: Personal projects in pursuit of the PHD. Social Indicators Research, 45, 423-473.

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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