Getting into a Productive Work Zone

Project "spin" to balance task challenge and personal skill

Posted Aug 03, 2009

There may be certain dimensions of tasks that make procrastination more likely. In an achievement-oriented context like school or the workplace, a balance between challenge and skill may be particularly important. Get this balance right, and you may get into your own work zone. Get it wrong, and it could contribute to needless delay.

One of my Dutch colleagues, Wendelien Van Eerde, published a paper on self-regulation and procrastination nearly a decade ago that is of particular interest. In fact, I think all of her writing about procrastination is very good, including the first meta-analysis in the area that she conducted. She's one of the few researchers who addresses the workplace in her research, beginning with her dissertation in 1998.

My focus today is on just one idea from this paper, and that's the "task factors" that may influence our procrastination. As I noted above, Wendelien argues that a balance between challenge and skill is something we need to think about. She argues that both tasks that are too challenging or too easy in relation to our skill may lead to needless delay.

On the one hand, with ". . . tasks assessed as too challenging in comparison to one's perceived ability, the threat of evaluation and external pressure may lead to avoidance" (p. 380). On the other hand, tasks perceived as too easy relative to one's skill (or tasks that are boring or useless) may lead to a more strategic delay in order to build temporal pressure to motivate action.

Getting into that optimal zone for work takes work, or at least conscious effort. It's rare that we'll be assigned, or that we'll even choose, tasks that fit our skills perfectly. What we need to do is a little "project spin." That is, we need to learn how to re-appraise tasks that seem threatening as challenging but doable. For example, we need to remind ourselves of past success to more realistically assess our skill and self-efficacy, and we need to break the task down into more manageable sub-tasks so as not to be too overwhelmed. At the same time, we need to "spin" our easy or boring tasks in ways that generate more task interest, as interest is an emotion that stimulates approach motivation. We're more likely to engage in the task if we feel interest.

Reducing task threat and increasing task interest are important strategies for reducing procrastination. Both involve our emotions, and when we're feeling threatened or bored, we're more likely to "give in to feel good" and leave the task to tomorrow - I'll feel more like it tomorrow. Will you? Only if you can engage in some "project spin" to get a better match between the task characteristics and your perceptions of your skills.

Van Eerde, W. (2000). Procrastination: Self-regulation in initiating aversive goals. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 49, 372-389.