Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function
Developing volitional skills to reduce procrastination
Posted Feb 22, 2013
In a blog post a couple of years ago, I focused on a study published by Laura Rabin, Joshua Fogel and Katherine Nutter-Upham (Brooklyn College of the City University of New York) relating executive function to procrastination. Their focus is well placed – procrastination as self-regulation failure. They write,
“Procrastination is increasingly recognized as involving a failure in self-regulation such that procrastinators, relative to non-procrastinators, may have a reduced ability to resist social temptations, pleasurable activities, and immediate rewards . . . These individuals also fail to make efficient use of internal and external cues to determine when to initiate, maintain, and terminate goal-directed actions” (p. 345).
The characteristics the authors summarize associated with procrastination are numerous:
- Reduced agency
- Poor impulse and emotional control
- Poor planning and goal setting
- Reduced use of meta-cognitive skills
- Poor task persistence
- Time and task management deficiencies
A recent reply to my blog post reflects similar problems. A reader noted,
“As someone who scored very low on the "conscientiousness" scale of the Big Five, I am disheartened. I believe I can learn these self-regulatory skills, but I don't know where to start. Meanwhile, my endeavors suffer. Although I have improved over time, I can't seem to shake the tendency to procrastinate, even on projects that interest me. Performance anxiety, and a lack of ability to focus, plague me. I have found that some projects present less of a challenge than others, and I am trying to work my way into a professional position that would involve those kinds of projects. Yet, in general, I procrastinate everything. It is an exhausting way to live.”
This quote and the research by Rabin and her colleagues reveal a common underlying self-regulatory system commonly referred to as “executive function” associated primarily with the pre-frontal cortex.
Executive function consists of numerous self-regulatory processes such as:
- novel problem solving,
- modification of behavior in response to new information,
- planning and generating of strategies for complex actions.
Although there is limited previous research that implicates the frontal system network in the self-regulatory failure of procrastination, no previous research had examined which aspects of executive function were most strongly related to procrastination. This is the gap that Rabin and her colleagues have begun to fill with their neuropsychological research.
One of the reasons I like this paper so much is that the authors wrote a very good discussion section where they consider a number of implications of their findings. Specifically, they discuss the implications for remediation of problematic delay.
Here’s a list of the key ideas. Each is of interest for those individuals who are seeking to procrastinate less. I use many if not all of these strategies with my own students who struggle with needless, voluntary delay on their work. Each is also a part of my own personal work as I continue to develop the habits that I want in my life. To keep the blog post manageable, I have added links to other relevant posts as appropriate.
In relation to the Initiate, Plan/Organize, Organization of Materials components of executive function, possible strategies to increase executive function and decrease procrastination include:
- set proximal sub-goals along with reasonable expectations about the amount of effort required to complete a given task
- use contracts for periodic work completion
- work towards mastery of subgoals before moving on to other goals
In relation to the Inhibit, Self-Monitor, Working Memory, and Task Monitor aspects of executive function, strategies include:
- Focus on “giving in to feel good” by first developing an awareness of this process and its subversive effects on achievement. Keep aware of the fact that we procrastinate for the short-term gain of task avoidance – feel good now, pay later. This will help present self make different choices about future self.
- Use strategies like distraction-inhibiting implementation intentions to shield one intention from a competing intention or to manage intrusive negative emotions associated with an aversive task.
Other volitional skills or competencies to develop include:
- control immediate impulses through the establishment of fixed daily routines (specific times for learning and leisure activities) as well as more effective time management. In other words, we need to do the hard work of establishing new habits.
- Block access to short-term temptations (“pre-empt that which tempts” – remove distractions from the study area, shut off social media, etc.)
- Focus on the value of achievement motivation by setting more difficult goals and learning to enjoy performance for its own sake. Sometimes we put off tasks because we’re bored, not challenged enough.
- Use peer monitoring with accountability and consequences for not meeting deadlines
The trouble with lists
The problem with a list of strategies is that it’s tempting to try and use them all. I’ve found that this simply won’t work, at least not at first.
An analogy with sports is that we might have 6 things that could be improved in our performance (e.g., tennis or golf stroke, running stride), but trying to change all of these at once will usually make us unable to do anything at all, and it is impossible to focus on all of the strategies at once. The key to effective coaching is to identify a “keystone” strategy that might be the first to master.
As a former tennis coach, I found that this was often as simple as keeping my student's attention on “get the racket back sooner” or “follow the ball with your racket” (i.e., better follow through). I could spend hours feeding balls to a student coaching him or her to “get the racket back.” It takes this repetitive supported (scaffolded) practice before a new technique or strategy will become a muscle memory or habit in the individual’s stroke. The same is true for change in other areas of our lives.
As you read and re-read the list above, think about the ONE thing you will do differently. This will need to be a conscious, effortful process for some time as you establish a new habit around this strategy. When you “own it,” then you can move on to another strategy. In short, change comes slowly, but change will happen if you commit yourself to the process.
A final caution
Of course, I too see the irony here as we try to bootstrap more effective executive function with processes related to executive function. I say this because it’s all too easy to use this as an excuse not to try and try again. We all have existing executive function skills that we can leverage to our advantage. What is required is daily commitment and some “sweat equity.” I don’t know anyone who doesn’t require this. This is part of the human condition.
Rabin, L.A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.
To hear Dr. Rabin discuss this research, listen to this episode of iProcrastinate Podcasts.