Avoidance Goals Lack Meaning and Manageability

Why we procrastinate more on avoidance goals

Posted Jan 03, 2010

Goal listWhat would you write here? Would your goals be an expression of your desire to approach success or avoid failure? It turns out that our avoidance goals are typically less enjoyable and goals for which we feel less capable. We also rate these goals higher on procrastination.

One of the nicest and most capable students I have had the pleasure of working with over the years is defending his Master's thesis tomorrow (send good thoughts his way!). In his thesis research, Matt Dann explored the relation of approach and avoidance goals with procrastination.

Approach and avoidance goals can be distinguished both by the way we phrase them linguisticly as well as by the motivation for engaging in them. Typically, we define the more positively-regarded approach goals as those things we intend to do to keep or acquire a positive state of affairs. For example, your approach goal may be to "exercise a little more in 2010 to enjoy the benefits of continued good health." Alternatively, an avoidance goal around this exercise may be to "exercise a little more in 2010 to prevent heart disease." Although both goals are related to a little more exercise, I think you would agree that these are psychologically different. In the broadest sense, Matt explored these differences (although he did a lot more than I'm writing about in this blog entry).

I've written about approach and avoidance goals before. In this previous blog entry, you will see that the pursuit of a greater number of avoidance goals is related to:

  • less satisfaction with progress and more negative feelings about progress with personal goals,
  • decreased self-esteem, personal control and vitality,
  • less satisfaction with life, and
  • feeling less competent in relation to goal pursuits.

Matt's thesis research contributed to this research literature by providing a psychological profile of avoidance goals in comparison to approach goals. The reason we thought this was an important thing to explore is simply that procrastination is often construed as "task avoidance," so it seemed to us that having more avoidance goals would be related to increased procrastination. Matt was also interested in the nature of avoidance goals that might explain why we would hypothesize that we would procrastinate more on this type of goal.

Matt's research
Matt conducted a fairly large online survey with a number of standard psychological measures. The most important for the purpose of this blog was his adaptation of the Personal Project Appraisal Matrix. This technique provides a list of participants' goals as well as their appraisal of these goals on a whole list of psychological dimensions such as enjoyment, importance, control, difficulty, stress, value congruency, procrastination, etc. Basically, the participants listed 8 of their current goals and then appraised each on the dimensions above on a scale from 0 to 10.

Using these data, Matt was able to classify the participants' goals as either approach or avoidance (he did this in a number of ways in fact, including the participants' expressed motivation for the goal pursuit), and he was then able to compare approach and avoidance goals across all of the goal dimensions noted above.

His main results
Matt tested 6 hypotheses in his thesis, including a couple involving personality traits. I will focus only on the comparison of goal type with the nature of the goal appraisal. For example, Matt was interested in seeing if avoidance goals were appraised as more stressful and difficult than approach goals. This involved a great number of comparisons to construct a "profile" of these goals (the details of the statistical analysis are beyond the focus of this blog, but suffice it to say that it involved a conservative approach correcting for the errors inherent in multiple comparisons).

As expected, Matt did find that avoidance goals were rated higher on procrastination than approach goals. Most importantly, what Matt's analysis revealed was that avoidance goals as compared to approach goals were appraised as significantly less enjoyable and for which the participants felt significantly less capability in their goal pursuit. Another way of saying this is that participants saw their avoidance goals as lacking meaning and manageability.

Given previous research on procrastination, this is not that surprising. A task that we're likely to procrastinate on is typically one we don't find enjoyable or one which we don't feel capable of completing. If we have a task that is low on enjoyment and capability, we can identify it both as an avoidance task and one which we would appraise more highly on procrastination.

What we can learn from Matt's study
There are many things to learn from Matt's study, and we've already agreed to present this research in April as part of a symposium at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. I think one of the key practical issues from Matt's research is the relation between our goal appraisal and avoidance.

As we construe our goals, our perceptions of a task's potential enjoyment for us as well as our capability to complete the task influence the way we express that goal. If we anticipate that the task won't be enjoyable and/or we aren't capable of carrying it out, we're likely to phrase it as an avoidance goal. Avoidance goals in turn are related to a number of negative outcomes, including procrastination.

Practical implications
The place to start, it would seem, to reduce our procrastination is to reframe our goals from avoidance to approach. Matt's research provides some insight about where to start this reframing process, and that is with our perceptions of task enjoyment as well as our perceived capability. Certainly both of these are prone to some irrational thinking. We can quite irrationally believe that a task holds no meaning for us or that we're not capable of carrying it out. In this sense, Matt's research from a goal perspective may bring us back to some of the basic tenets of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) where we do the hard work of challenging our irrational beliefs that might initiate and sustain procrastination.

Concluding thought
If I step back from the careful constraints of the scientific approach and leap a bit from the data by drawing on a wider base of research for a moment, I would conclude that reducing our procrastination entails enhancing both the meaning and manageability of the tasks in our lives. To the extent that we can do this, we will probably see the ratio of approach to avoidance goals in our lives increase and our procrastination decrease.

The key thing is to learn to think differently about the task and ourselves. Challenge your initial thought that a task at hand is not enjoyable or, more importantly, that you're not capable. Instead of stopping with the feeling that you're not capable or the task lacks meaning, take the time to think about how you will do the task or how you can make it more enjoyable. This time will be well invested, I think.