Perseveration: The Deep Rut of Change Procrastination

Do you procrastinate on change in your life?

Posted Mar 05, 2009

Although we often think of procrastination as putting off a necessary task, procrastination can reveal itself in perseveration - sticking to a task long after we should have stopped. We stick to a well worn path even when we know this path doesn't lead to our desired destination. We make a deep rut in our lives and lack the courage to change.

To persevere is a virtue. In fact, all of my recent blog postings have been about how to regulate our own behavior to persevere on an intended task instead of procrastinating.

Why is it a virtue? As Spinoza, among others have defined it, virtue is the power of acting according to one's true nature. To persevere in tasks and actions towards goals that affirm our essential self, is virtue.

Perseveration is a problem. It's defined as the continuation of something usually to an exceptional degree or beyond a desired point.

As a professor, I have seen this in graduate students who, striving maladaptively for perfection, refuse to submit their work, continually and unnecessarily revising. I've even heard of at least one student who, thesis written, wouldn't submit and never did get the degree.

The thesis example is easy to identify. It clearly seems irrational, and it's obvious that not submitting the thesis undermines a goal of thesis writing - getting the degree. What is more challenging for us to see in our own lives is how we may perseverate with our whole way of life; staying in the same job, the same location or even the same relationship, when we know that the path we're on won't lead to our goal . . . when we know that the path we're on doesn't affirm our sense of self. We procrastinate on making significant change in our lives.

On the one hand, there is a growing body of psychological research and literature that would explain this as the unconscious processes that really guide our lives. We don't make change, because we're not even conscious of the decisions we make. We're stuck in deep, unconscious habits and ways of being.

On the other hand, there is an older, humanistic perspective that explains this indecision as an "escape from freedom." We don't want to be responsible for our own lives, our own choices. We abdicate our sense of self, live in bad faith, and act as if we have no choice. We perseverate by doing what we know how to do, what feels familiar and safe, because we lack the courage to change.

Why would I support the second position, that it's about self affirmation and the courage to change? What scientific evidence might there be for such a position, particularly when there is an accumulating body of research that advocates the unconscious as a prime mode of functioning?

The research literature on self-regulation failure offers some insight here. You will recall from my previous posts about self-regulation, that willpower is like a muscle. In experimental work, researchers have demonstrated that they can deplete an individual's self-regulatory strength. However, if participants in these studies were prompted to self-affirm by thinking and writing about what is important to them, the self-regulatory impairment is eliminated. By focusing on higher-order symbolic representations of self and the consequences of actions, participants are able to make choices to self-regulate.

The key thing here is the intersection of the philosophical notion of self-affirmation and experimental work that operationalized it and demonstrated that we can act in accordance with our will. Although we may operate on "automatic pilot" a great deal of the time, this does not define the human condition. Our freedom to choose does.

This has a powerful message for each of us in terms of perseveration. Perseveration is a failure of our ability to self regulate, particularly in relation to monitoring our progress towards goals, needlessly continuing on a path of action long after we should have stopped. To more effectively self-regulate and make choices in our lives, we need to make deliberate efforts at self-affirmation - focusing on our goals, values and this notion of our "essential self," our essence to which we direct all of our strivings in life. This self-affirmation will provide us with self-regulatory strength, a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for us to act with the courage to be.