Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Procrastination, moods, and emotion
What role do emotions and moods play in procrastination?
- Learning outcomes
These are the learning outcomes that the following chapter aims to address:
- An understanding of what procrastination is and why it can be a problem
- An overview of a number of emotions and moods related to the process of procrastination
- An understanding of various theoretical explanations of procrastination
- An outline of a number of things that you can personally do to help combat procrastination habits
What is procrastination and why is it a problem?
Procrastination is an all too familiar phenomenon for many students, as well as adults. According to Soloman and Ruthblum (1984), procrastination refers to 'the act of needlessly delaying tasks to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort'. This is believed to be a result of a self-regulatory failure (Steel, 2007). About 70% of university students procrastinate, furthermore 50% of students consider their procrastination habits to be problematic (Steel, 2007) and 32% display chronic procrastination (Day, Mensink, & O’Sullivan, 2000). For many people this problem persists into adulthood, with about 20% adults experiencing chronic procrastination (Harriott & Ferrari, 1996). This is an issue as procrastination is likely to lead poor outcomes in various areas of life. For example, it is likely to lead to poorer grades for students, poorer task performance and has also been linked to negative health outcomes (Tice & Baumeister, 1997). Furthermore, procrastinators pay $400 extra in taxes due to last minute rushing resulting in errors, based on a survey by H&R Block (Kasper, 2004). This chapter focuses on emotion-related problems with procrastination, information on motivational causes of procrastination can be found here and here.
What is emotion and mood?
Emotion and mood are two slightly different concepts, as such a definition for each will be given.
Emotion is a difficult construct to describe. According to Reeve (2014) emotions are 'feeling states that lead to feeling in a particular way', however they are much more than this. They also have a biological aspect that readies the body to behave in a certain way, depending on the situation. Furthermore they also have the ability to motivate action as well as a component of social expression. Emotions also generally have a known cause, or antecedent, such as a significant event (Goldsmith, 1994).
Moods are slightly different to emotions. Unlike emotions, their cause is often unknown; they just happen (Goldsmith, 1994). Furthermore, moods mostly affect thought process in contrast with emotions which direct behaviour (Davidson, 1994).
As a side note affect is a similar construct to mood, however presents a more simplistic view of either being positive or negative. The terms mood and affect are used interchangeably.
Emotions and mood during procrastination
Guilt plays a role in the procrastination process, however it is unlikely to be an underlying cause of the problem, but rather a byproduct. According to Fee and Tangney (2000), guilt "is an emotion that focuses on a specific act or behavior and is often accompanied by motivations toward reparation and atonement". Research by Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau and Blunt (2000) investigating moment to moment measures of affect and the emotion of guilt found that while students were procrastinating, from studying for exams, they reported high levels of guilt. This guilt was also believed to counteract the increases in affect, which should be expected from completing more pleasurable tasks than the task which one is procrastinating from. More information on this research can be found in the key research - 5 days of emotion box. Research by Fee and Tangney (2000) found that people who are prone to feel guilt are not significantly more likely to engage in chronic procrastination. This does not suggest that suggest that guilt isn't part of the procrastination process, but rather that it may not be the cause .
It is possible that shame is an underlying cause, or contributor to procrastination behaviour. According to Fee and Tangney (2000), shame involves a "global negative evaluation of the self, as the perpetrator of the act or behaviour, often motivating a desire to hide, escape, or deny responsibility". The escape and avoidance motivation of this emotion is directly contrasted by the motivations for reparation associated with the emotion of guilt. Fee and Tangney (2000) found that those who are vulnerable to feelings of shame are more likely to have chronic procrastination issues.
This relationship between shame and procrastination could also explain the relationship between the personality construct of perfectionism. Perfectionistcould perceive the task to be impossible to complete, at least to their high standards, and thus delay initiating the task due to avoid thoughts of their perceived impending failure (Fee & Tangney, 2000). But where does shame come into this? Well, failure on the task is likely to evoke emotions of shame, and as such so is thought of such a failure. Moderate support for these ideas where found in Fee and Tangney's (2000) research, with proneness to shame acting as a moderating factor of the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination. That is to say, perfectionists who are more likely to experience shame are more likely to procrastinate than perfectionists who are less likely to experience shame.
Anxiety has been shown to be a predictor of procrastination behaviour. Those with higher levels of underlying anxiety are significantly more likely to procrastinate than those with lower levels of underlying anxiety (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Research by Onwuegbuzie (2004) found that post-graduate students with high levels of statistic anxiety (a measure of anxiety relating specifically to statistics courses) were likely to procrastinate. As this research was not experimental, it is uncertain whether the relationship between anxiety and procrastination is causal.
Worry has been shown to have a relationship with procrastination. Research by Stöber (2001) found those that are likely to worry are also likely to participate in procrastinating behaviour, as measured by the Tuckman Procrastination Scale (TPS). Furthermore high worriers were found to lower their standards when under stress or anxiety. This could suggest that procrastination is a result of these high worriers lowering their standards and delaying the task as a result high levels of stress and anxiety.
Task aversiveness and fear of failure
It has been identified that procrastination can be a result of either task aversiveness or fear of failure (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Research by Solomon and Rothblum (1984) found two groups of procrastinators, those that procrastinate due to task aversiveness (process oriented) and those that procrastinate due to fear of failure (outcome oriented). The research indicated that a larger group of students procrastinate as a result of fear of failure, compared to the group that procrastinate due to task aversiveness. Those that procrastinate due to task aversiveness become anxious due factors relating to the process of completing the task where as those who procrastinate due to fear of failure become anxious due to factors relating to outcome of the task.
Theoretical explanations of procrastination
This section will provide a number of theoretical models, with a basis in emotion and or mood, which attempt to explain procrastination.
Theory of specious rewards
One theoretical construct that can help understand procrastination, and emotions role in it, is the theory of specious rewards. This was first proposed by Ainslie in 1975 (as cited in Pychyl et al., 2000). The theory is behavioural in nature and states that people are more likely to choose long term rewards over short term rewards, even when long term rewards are more valuable, or provide more utility, than short term rewards. But how does this relate to procrastination or emotion? Working on an assignment, or any other important task, often causes anxiety; however, moving attention away from the important task temporarily reduces this anxiety (Pychyl et al., 2000). This temporary reduction of anxiety acts as a short term reward. However this short term solution, that is procrastination, is likely to lead to worse performance on the task and eventually much lower overall levels of affect. Therefore if the short term reward, temporary relief of negative affect and anxiety, had not been taken a greater longer term reward could have been achieved. This long term reward is lower overall levels of negative affect and better performance on the task.
Self-control and emotional regulation
Self-control and emotional regulation may also have a role to play in why people choose to procrastinate, despite its ill effects. Procrastination can be viewed as a failure of self-control, which results in allowing impulses to take over and postponing important work (Tice, 2000). It has been argued by Tice (2000) that this failure is a result of the prioritisation of mood regulation over the important task, which then results in lapses of self-control. Research has by Baumeister, Bratlavsky and Tice (1998; as cited in Tice, 2000) found that when people were experimentally induced into emotional states and then asked to prepare for an important task those who had positive emotions were more likely to prepare for the task, and avoid procrastination, compared to those who had negative emotions. These findings make sense considering those with depression as well as those with neurotic personalities are more likely to procrastinate (Steel, 2007). This could be a result of participants with already positive emotions not needing to prioritise regulation of emotion or mood so much, as they already have a heightened affect, however those in more negative emotional states need to prioritise this regulation in an attempt to increase affect. However, based on research by Pychyl et al. (2000) it would seem that this attempt to increase affect is unsuccessful.
The Appraisal-Anxiety-Avoidance (AAA) theory suggests that cognitive appraisals, anxiety and avoidance all have a role to play in the procrastination of important tasks. This theory was developed by Lazarus and Folkman in 1984 (as cited in Milgram & Toubiana, 1999) and suggests that in a situation of threat if an individual perceives they do not have adequate resources to deal with the threat (cognitive appraisal) stress reactions (including anxiety) will occur and the individual will try to escape the threat (avoidance). People with a characteristic fear of failure or those who find certain tasks difficult will become anxious when called upon to perform certain tasks. As a result these people are likely to postpone these tasks as an attempt to relieve this anxiety (Milgram & Toubiana, 1999). This avoidance acts as a negative reinforcement, as it reduces in anxiety, and thus in the future this postponing behaviour is likely to reoccur.
Other (non-emotion based) theories and explanations of procrastination
This chapter aims to provide an overview of the emotion and mood related aspects of emotion. As a result a number of key motivation focused theories have been left out. These theories include temporal motivation theory and action control theory.
Instead of procrastinating click here to watch this TedX talk about procrastination.
How to stop procrastinating?
The process of fusing, first discussed by Murray (1938, as cited in Steel, 2007) is a possible way to reduce procrastination. This involves satisfying multiple needs through a single action. Sleel (2007) provides the example of a study group. People with a preference and enjoyment of social interaction are likely to benefit from the social aspect of the group, however also satiate the need to study. This offers a solution to the problems related to Ainslie's (1975, as cited in Pychyl et al., 2000) theory of specious rewards, where immediate rewards are chosen over larger long term rewards, as behaviour is rewarded in the short term, through social interaction in the case of a study group, and progress is still being made to long term goals. Another example could be if you are procrastinating from starting an exercise program and enjoy listening to music, you could listen to music while you exercise. This could work for studying as well, if you are not too distracted by the music.
Use positive moods and emotions to your advantage
Based on self-control and emotional regulation understandings of procrastination, an effective way to combat procrastination could be to utilise the times when you are in positive affective, emotional and mood states to work on a task. This is based off the research finding by Baumeister, Bratlavsky and Tice (1998; as cited in Tice, 2000) that people are less likely to procrastinate when in positive emotional and mood states compared to when they are in a negative emotional and mood state. However, what can you do if positive emotional and effective states are a rare occurrence for you, or perhaps you're having a bad day but still need to get work done? Well luckily there are a number of techniques you can employ to help improve your affective and emotional state. Although, it should be noted that if you are experiencing persistent negative mood it would be advisable to contact a psychologist or another health professional.
These techniques include:
- Listening to music that is related to positive emotions. This has the effect of increasing affect as music relating to positive emotions is likely to increase valence (high valence equals positive affect)(Yang, Lin, Su & Chen, 2008). As listening to music is a subjective experience it is up to you to choose which music you consider 'happy' music, as what is considered 'happy' music for one person may not be for another and is subjected to individual differences.
- Physical exercise is also known to induce positive mood states (Anderson & Brice, 2011). This effect can be so strong that some have recommended physical activity as a treatment for depression (Nyström, Neely, Hassmén & Carlbring, 2015).
Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past
For many aspects of life dwelling on past missteps and failures does not help, and procrastinating is no different. Research by Wohl, Pychyl and Bennett (2010) found that when students were encouraged to forgive themselves for previous instances of procrastination they were less likely to procrastinate in the future. This is likely to be due to an increase in affect, which was found in individuals who forgave themselves. This makes sense based on self-control and emotional regulation explanations of procrastination, as procrastination is less likely to occur when in positive emotional and mood states due to emotional regulation no longer being a priority (Tice, 2000).
Process focus and goal focus
It was mentioned earlier in this chapter that some procrastinators procrastinate as a result of a fear of failure and others procrastinate as a result of task aversiveness. As such methodologies tailored to the type of procrastinator would be beneficial. According to Krause and Freund (2014) moving the focus from the goal of the task to the process of the task is likely to reduce procrastination in those with high fear of failure. The opposite is true of those with high task aversiveness. Moving focus away from the process of completing a task to the benefits of completing the goal is likely to help those with high task aversiveness. As their model has not been extensively test there is little information on specific techniques to move this focus.
Procrastination is a problem affecting both students (Day, Mensink & O'Sullivanl, 2000; Steel, 2007) and adults (Harriott & Ferrari, 1996) alike. It results in poor performance on academic assessments and other tasks, poor health outcomes (Tice & Baumeister, 1997) and even overpaying of taxes (Kasper, 2004). Various emotions and moods can be observed during the process of procrastination, including guilt (Fee & Tagney, 2000: Pychyl et al., 2000), shame (Fee & Tagney, 2000), anxiety (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984) and worry (Stöber, 2001). Furthermore, there appears to be two types of procrastinators, those who are task aversive and those who exhibit a fear of failure (Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). The theory of specious rewards (Pychyl et al., 2000), self-control and emotional regulation perspectives (Steel, 2007: Tice, 2000) and AAA theory (Milgram & Toubiana, 1999) are all emotion related theories and explanatory models that attempt to explain why procrastination occurs. But how can you stop procrastinating? The phenomenon known as fusing is one way you can avoid procrastination, by bypassing the effects outlined in the theory of specious rewards (Steel, 2007). You can also take advantage of positive mood states, or use a number of techniques to induce positive mood states, to make getting to work easier (Baumeister, Bratlavsky and Tice 1998; as cited in Tice, 2000). Forgiving yourself for procrastination that has occurred in the past is also likely to lead to less procrastination in the future (Wohl, Pychyl and Bennett, 2010).
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