Procrastination: Motivation Deficit vs. Regulation Failure
Motivation may be helpful, but it’s not sufficient.
Posted Jun 12, 2019
Readers of this blog will certainly know that I understand procrastination to be a problem of self-regulation. In fact, in the research literature, procrastination is seen as the quintessential self-regulation failure.
The key thing we have learned through research is that we mis-regulate ourselves by believing task avoidance will make us feel better, or that we give in to it to feel good. This understanding of self-regulation failure has prompted me and my colleagues to embrace the mood-repair model of procrastination as a theoretical framework for understanding procrastination.
Axel Grund and Stefan Fries at Bielefeld University (Germany) have proposed that there may be another way to think about procrastination: a motivational approach. In a nutshell, they argue that procrastination occurs because people pursue goals that are not in line with their personal values or needs. They note that there is a fundamental difference between whether people are not able to perform an action and whether or not they want to perform this action. Not everyone is motivated to do the same things, so Grund and Fries think that procrastination may be better understood by acknowledging the motivation behind our behavior choices.
Grund and Fries conducted three studies to demonstrate evidence for their motivational approach. In Study One, they explored whether one’s orientation towards achievement versus well-being predicted procrastination. They reasoned that when students in their sample preferred diversion and community more than rigid achievement goals, they would be more likely to delay academic work. In Study Two, they examined to what extent the self-determination of their participants’ goals was related to procrastination. In other words, did students procrastinate more on goals that were not self-endorsed or were low on intrinsic motivation? Finally, in Study Three, they had participants read vignettes about the delay of academic tasks to explore how attitudes towards societal norms might be related to attributions of moral failure around procrastination.
The findings certainly support the importance of motivation in understanding procrastination. Participants who more strongly endorsed well-being value orientations over achievement orientations put off academic work more (Study 1), and the lower the self-determination (intrinsic motivation) of an activity the less likely it was to be completed (Study 2). As the authors write, “We can conclude that procrastination becomes more likely when individuals do not actually 'want' what they intend to do and that 'procrastinators' do fewer things they perceive as self-determined” (p. 125). Finally, the results of Study 3 revealed that holding “post-modern, liberal” beliefs as opposed to “modern, conservative” beliefs was associated with more situational attributions of procrastination such that the individual is not seen as having some sort of moral failure as indicated by problem with self-regulation but rather that circumstances were to blame. Although most participants did attribute procrastination to a lack of self-discipline, attributions such as “not having enough time for friends” were more common among participants with higher “post-modern, liberal” ideological beliefs.
I found these studies interesting and an important contribution to our understanding of procrastination. Motivation matters as do our attitudes. However, do these data really mean that procrastination is better understood from a motivational perspective?
Where I take issue with the interpretation of the results made by the authors is their belief that these data stand against a self-regulation failure perspective of procrastination. In fact, they argue that “. . . academic procrastination occurs simply because individuals are not motivated enough to study or are studying mainly because of introjected and/or external reasons” (p. 128), adding that procrastination may even be considered rational, or at least understandable. People can simply lack the motivation to engage.
I think a more parsimonious explanation of their findings is that a mismatch between one’s motivation and/or attitudes with the task at hand is part of what makes a task aversive. In fact, when the authors write about what makes a task or goal intrinsically motivated they show that it’s equivalent to “because I enjoy doing it” (one of four items use to operationalize this type of motivation). Of course, the inverse of enjoyment is aversiveness, so it’s not surprising that we would procrastinate less on the task which we enjoy: The task isn’t aversive.
The key point is that while motivation or lack thereof may contribute to our procrastination, this perspective does not conflict with a self-regulation perspective on our understanding of procrastination. The basic idea of the self-regulatory failure or mood-repair perspective is that when we don’t want to do a task because we find it boring, anxiety-provoking, we resent it, it’s frustrating or it lacks meaning to us (all part of task aversiveness), we avoid these negative emotions by avoiding the task. We mis-regulate our emotions by giving in to feel good. Procrastination is an emotion-focused coping strategy, and a lack of motivation can contribute to the negative emotions that trigger this coping response.
What Grund and Fries have shown is how self-determination and attitudes can contribute to our perceived task aversiveness or the “why” to help explain the feelings captured by “I don’t want to” or “I don’t feel like it.” The thing is, whether we want to or whether we feel like it isn’t the issue in many circumstances in our lives. For example, the students in this study may want to get a degree as evidenced by their enrollment in a program and paying tuition, but they may not feel intrinsically motivated to do a particular assignment. This lack of motivation may make it “understandable” that they would prefer to hang out with friends instead, but it doesn’t make it a rational choice given their long-term goals. Procrastination is still a case of self-regulation failure; a failure that has motivation as a causal component.
Finally, I want to note that not all data collected about self-determination theory and procrastination reveal the same pattern of results. I recall a paper presented at a conference in Atlanta in 2011 when a Dutch colleague summarized the results of his study which revealed that students typically only did the work that was externally motivated. Why? Because they had no other choice, they might fail or be fired if they did not. In contrast, goals for which they held more intrinsic motivation seemed to suffer from problems related to self-regulation.
In the end, the takeaway message is that while motivation matters, we can’t rely on motivation to keep us on task. Or, as Steven Pressfield expressed in The War on Art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles, you can’t wait to be in the mood. Just get started.
Grund, A., & Fries, S. (2018). Understanding procrastination: A motivational approach. Personality and Individual Differences, 121, 120-130.