What is a Procrastination Hierarchy?
Let me take you back to my college experience. Let’s say I got a reading assignment that I didn’t find particularly interesting. I still remember with a shudder needing to read many pages of Emmanuel Kant. I’d find numerous ways to avoid reading. It took a lot of effort to keep myself sitting in a chair with the book open in front of me.
That continued until I had a paper assigned. Then it became much easier to focus on Kant, because I knew the alternative was to write a paper on a topic that I wasn’t interested in for a professor who wasn’t interested in reading it. That description of the experience of writing undergraduate papers is not my own. It’s the way Howard Becker describes the experience in his wonderful book about learning to write papers in the social sciences. I could keep myself sitting with Kant because I knew that the alternative was to sit with a blank piece of paper fearing that inspiration would never strike.
Papers became easier to write when exams were scheduled. Reviewing an entire course was even less appealing than writing a short paper. Perhaps I was under the shadow of worrying about whether I’d review the right things and dreading the time crunch of the final exam.In fact, when exams were scheduled, I even found it easier to clean house to be ready to move out at the end of the quarter. I preferred cleaning the oven and scrubbing the toilet to rereading all my notes trying to lock them in my head.
I’ve come to think of this as my procrastination hierarchy. The tasks have changed now that I’m out of college, but the hierarchy still governs how easy I find it to apply myself to a particular task.
Perhaps I have something to write, and inspiration hasn’t struck yet. If I have a speech to prepare, it becomes easier for me to face the blank piece of paper. I’d rather write than create Powerpoint slides.
Why Do I Have a Procrastination Hierarchy?
Thinking about my experiences in college makes me realize how dynamic motivation can be. My eagerness to perform any particular task varies over time. The most powerful motivation comes from wanting to do a task for its own sake, not for any external consequences. I can remember working on a task that was so fascinating that it was hard to keep myself in bed at night. A lightbulb went on when Genna Douglass wrote a piece connecting motivation to self-regulation. Doing a task for its own sake requires so much less self-regulation energy than doing it because it should be done or because someone else expects you to do it. Intrinsic motivation is like boating downstream instead of upstream. If you enjoy a task for its own sake, then the flow of water keeps you moving. It isn’t hard to stay with the task until it is done.
But nobody is lucky enough to have intrinsic motivation for every task.So I wonder if the procrastination hierarchy works by making me more aware of what I do like about the tasks I have to perform, at least in comparison to other tasks. I may not be crazy about sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, but it is more enjoyable than getting nervous trying to imagine what a particular audience wants to hear.
How Can Awareness of a Procrastination Hierarchy Help?
So how can I use this realization to manage my own motivation?
My first thought is that people, including experts, seem to think about manipulating motivation in the context of an isolated task. Considering a task for which I need more motivation, I ask myself, “Can I make it more redolent of meaning? Can I make it into a mastery game where I have both enough competence to get it done and also an urge to get better? Can I associate it with benefiting other people or do it together with someone else? Can I get more control over the way I carry it out?” All of these involve manipulating the basic needs that fuel motivation: competence, relatedness, autonomy, and meaning, as we have learned both from self-determination theory and Daniel Pink’s popular book, Drive.
But perhaps we can expand our ability to manage motivation by thinking of our tasks in combination, considering how they rank in our minds. Perhaps we can then manipulate the procrastination hierarchy. The wife of one of my writers has observed that she can tell when he has a piece to write because he makes progress on the family “Honey, do” list. The procrastination hierarchy is clearly at work for him. But perhaps he needs to add something to the list that makes writing more rewarding in contrast.So imagine it’s income tax season, and you just hate to get all your papers together and worry about how much you owe the government. Yes, you have to get it done by April 15 in the USA or file for an extension. But over the course of January, February, and March, can you use your aversion to income taxes to make it easier to get other important tasks done? Some people use income tax dread to drive spring cleaning. Or perhaps you have a recommendation to write, or a resume to update, or yard waste to clear away.
Perhaps what’s happening is that you get to exercise the autonomy to choose one task over another. Autonomy is, after all, an important ingredient of motivation.
Perhaps you can also help others manage their procrastination hierarchies. Imagine your child needs to work on a school project and seems to be avoiding it. Perhaps you could suggest, “I need you to pull weeds along the driveway.” Maybe then you’ll learn where school projects and weeds fit in your child’s procrastination hierarchy – and one or the other will get done.
Next time you find yourself procrastinating, look at all the items on your to-do list, not just the one that worries you. See if you can use some of your least favorite tasks to make others seem more appealing in their own right.
It works for me.
Becker, H. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Edition (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing). University of Chicago Press.
Deci, E.L. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
Pink, Daniel (2010). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Trade.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Photo Credit via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Hierarchy courtesy of Dan Zen
Bathroom Cleaner courtesy of The Infatuated
A Pyramid courtesy of Vainsang
Sit, Write, Share courtesy of alubavin