If our goals are not well aligned with our values or our sense of self, we're more likely to procrastinate. Value congruence and self-identity are part of our sense of the overall personal meaning of our goals. Our latest research indicates that low meaning is related to higher procrastination.
I'm off to the annual convention of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology later this week. It's the first time I'll be attending. An invitation from a colleague in the Netherlands to join him and two esteemed colleagues from the U.S. and Canada drew me to the symposium.
Our symposium is entitled, "Why do we put things off? Self-regulation, task characteristics and procrastination." My contribution with co-author Matthew Dann is about the task characteristics related to procrastination.
Matt conducted this research as part of his M.A. thesis. He collected data about students' personal goals. Participants provided a list of 8 personal goals, and for each they appraised these goals on a fairly long list of psychologically relevant dimensions, including: importance, enjoyment, difficulty, visibility, control, initiation, stress, time adequacy, outcome, self-identity, others' view of importance, value congruency, positive and negative impact on other projects, progress, challenge, absorption, boredom, frustration, capability, uncertainty, and (of course) procrastination. Basically, they rated each goal/project on each dimension on a scale from 0 (none at all) to 10 (completely).
When you get a picture of someone's project system with his or her appraisals on all of these dimensions, you get a very interesting and revealing snapshot of his or her life. For example, it's easy to see which projects: are creating stress, challenge and frustrate the individual, provide an opportunity to relax, etc. In fact, previous research has provided clear evidence that these project dimensions are very good predictors of our well-being. Project systems that are personally meaningful and manageable, projects for which we feel competent and are supported by the community while being relatively low in stress are related to enhanced well being.
The key question that we asked in the research we're presenting was, "What are the project-dimension profiles of approach and avoidance goals?" I've written about approach and avoidance goals before, so I won't get into that again here. What I will emphasize is that Matt's research did demonstrate that avoidance goals are related to more procrastination, but the surprise for us was that we can experience more procrastination on our approach goals when they lack meaning.
Approach Goals and Project Meaning
My previous blog entry on Matt's research highlighted the potential pitfalls of avoidance goals. My focus here is on our approach goals; those goals or projects that we construe as approaching success, not avoiding failure. When we looked specifically at these approach goals, we did find that procrastination varied, and that this variability was related to the variability in project meaning.
For those approach goals participants appraised as lower on value congruence or self-identity, they also appraised these goals as slightly higher on procrastination. Even though these were goals that we don't typically think might be prone to procrastination, when they lack personal meaning for us as evidenced by lower scores on value congruence and self-identity, we are more likely to put off the timely pursuit of these goals.
I really like to watch people participate in this type of research project. When they take time to list their goals or personal projects and appraise each on these various dimensions, they typically tell me that they learned a great deal about themselves in the process. I know this is true in my introductory personality classes when we consider projects and goals as a unit of analysis. It makes sense to people to think about what they're doing in their lives.
What this research project added to the literature is further emphasis on the central role that personal meaning plays in our goal pursuit. I noted earlier that project meaning is related to enhanced well-being. To the extent that our goals are seen as less meaningful, less related to our values and self-identity, we also know now that we're more likely to needlessly put off our task engagement. Given that previous research that I have discussed has also shown us that progress on our goals is very important to our well-being, this may well be an indirect route that meaning affects well-being.
Why meaning plays this role was not addressed in our research, but I speculate it has something to do with whether or not we have a commitment to the goal. Without a commitment, we're less likely to act in a timely fashion.
Project meaning - it involves an "examined life." Have you thought about your own project list? Are your goals meaningful to you? Are they value congruent and typical of who you are? Do you feel deeply committed to these projects? If not, it may be time to think about why you're pursuing these goals.