Procrastination: It's Not Me, it's the Situation!
Are your tasks boring, frustrating, difficult?
Posted March 28, 2008
Of course we all procrastinate at times. We put off what we don't like to do. Psychologists call this task aversiveness. So, what makes a task aversive?
Research reveals that there are some fairly consistent features of tasks we think are aversive. Tasks that are described as unenjoyable or unpleasant, particularly because they are boring, frustrating, difficult or resented, are aversive tasks that we are likely to put off.
As Piers Steel notes in his recent review of procrastination research, aversiveness has been studied across a variety of types of tasks including personal projects, daily tasks, academic tasks and job-search behaviors. One of these studies was completed and published by a graduate student at Carleton University, Allan Blunt. Allan really added to our understanding of task aversiveness because he demonstrated that what makes a task aversive changes over time.
Allan collected data about the personal projects in participants' lives. These are everything from our mundane daily activities to our more meaningful lifetime goals. Participants rated each project on a series of dimensions such as how enjoyable, stressful, boring, difficult, controllable, or important each project was. At all times, projects that were boring, frustrating and resented were considered aversive, and participants procrastinated more on these.
However, when he analyzed these projects over time and factor analyzed the dimension ratings, he found that what made a project aversive changed. Early in the life of a project, when we're just thinking about or planning them, projects that were not personally meaningful were more aversive. In contrast, during the action phase of a project, lack of structure was a defining feature of aversiveness.
What this means for you . . .
What this means is that we might need different strategies to deal with procrastination depending on where we are in the lifespan of a project. Early in a project, we have to make the project more meaningful if we want to make it less aversive. In a sense, we have to be "spin doctors" and see our projects in a more positive light, perhaps by linking them to our core values or important goals.
For example, I might find doing my daily workout aversive because it's difficult, the repetitive weight routine can be boring, and I resent the time it takes from my day. To make this project more meaningful, I have to remind myself of my health and esteem needs that working out is serving - I'll feel and look better if I keep fit. More meaning, less aversiveness and less procrastination will result.
Later in the project when we're actually doing something, not just planning, we have to ensure that we understand what to do. We have to ensure that the project is well structured. This might mean seeking advice when we're uncertain of what to do next, or breaking down complex tasks into more obvious steps so that we have a concrete plan of action.
Finally, it's important to note that we can't really separate the perception of the situation from the person. In fact, perception is part of personality. To the extent that we chronically procrastinate, we also tend to perceive tasks as more aversive. The situation or features of a task are not objective in nature. It's partly how we see the world. That's important to remember. It's the way we see things, how we construe tasks. Change our thinking, and we might just change our behavior.
Note: You can always find the complete reference for any of the research I discuss at procrastination.ca.