Procrastination is the ultimate party-pooper. You have this thing you know you have to do, you put off doing it, and instead do something else you enjoy or don’t mind as much. Except, you can’t enjoy it. In the back of your head, you’re beating yourself up for procrastinating. No good feelings ever came out of procrastination.
So why do we do it?
Nic Voge, senior associate director of Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, knows. So let’s not put this off a moment further. If you answer yes to the following question, it begins to unravel the mystery:
Do you believe your ability equals your worth?
If so, you’re more likely to procrastinate.
Voge explained in his TEDx talk:
“People who procrastinate a lot have a simplistic equation in their mind: their performance is equal to their ability, which is equivalent to their self-worth as a person. Performance = ability = self-worth.”
Thus, we procrastinate because we’re afraid of performing poorly on that thing we’re putting off, which reflects directly on our sense of worth/value as a person. The core psychological need to be seen as capable/competent works against us.
Here’s the talk:
Voge also says that procrastinating and putting in less effort serves as a protection mechanism. You tell yourself if you ultimately fail that test, you know it’s because you put off studying, not because you’re not smart enough to do well (remember pre-test talk in high school where you heard choruses of, “I’ll never pass this, I only studied 2 hours!”).
I vividly recall putting off studying for my hardest classes in college (like statistics) because I feared the outcome and in the back of my mind knew studying less would give me an excuse for poor performance.
Voge’s theory casts aside the usual suspect explanations for procrastination; being unable to cope with difficult emotions, poor time management, or perfectionism. The reality is a more vicious cycle: procrastinating, doing poorly on that task thus further feeding your fears and lowering your sense of self-worth, repeat.
So how do you break this cycle? In three ways.
1. Raise self-awareness of when you’re procrastinating and what you’re doing instead.
When I procrastinate, I usually realize it about an hour after I’m into that thing that doesn’t need to be done right now but seemed a better alternative to the thing I should be doing. Keep asking yourself, “Am I about to procrastinate?”
Knowledge of the self-worth theory, which you now have, helps as well. Knowing/reminding yourself that you’re more than how well you do on the next task lowers fear of getting started.
You should also raise your awareness of what you tend to get sucked into instead, what Voge calls “your greatest hits of wasting time.” Maybe it’s email (that’s mine), scanning articles on the web (my other one), Netflix, or that game app. Knowing them and naming them helps make them less of a time suck.
2. Dial up approach motives to drown out the avoid motives.
There are lots of reasons to do a task that lies ahead (approach motives) and lots of reasons not to (avoid motives). Writing that report for your boss will show how smart you are, give you a chance to show your value, and help you get promoted. But it’s enticing to avoid writing it because it’s not easy and if you don’t get it just right it will reflect poorly on you. Before you know it, your fear based avoid motives are drowning out the approach motives and boom–procrastination.
Flip the balance. Stop assuming that you’re putting off a task because there’s some underlying reason you don’t want to do it (a common misnomer). Realize the power your fear-based avoid motives have and keep them at bay. Bring the approach motives, why you want to get this thing done, to the forefront.
You can also break the task down into smaller pieces to help you get going. Then you can take advantage of something I wrote about in Find the Fire called the Zeigarnik effect, which says that people are far more likely to successfully see a task through to completion (versus bailing on it midway) simply by taking the first step of getting started.
3. Know that your worth isn’t solely based on your ability.
Voge said it well here: “The equation that we carry around in our head is flawed. Our ability is not equivalent to our worth. Our worth derives from the human qualities of kindness, thoughtfulness and our vulnerabilities.”
Don’t put off beating procrastination another moment. Take what you’ve learned here through to completion.