Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Procrastinating 101--Handicapping Ourselves

During the French Revolution, peasants expressed their resistance to the ruling order by wedging  shoes (in French, sabots) into the machinery.  Thus, sabotage, and saboteurs were born.  

In Chapter 4 of his book Still Procrastinating?  The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, Dr. Joseph Ferrari brings up this history as background to his discussion of self-sabotage, self-handicapping, and self-regulation.  

Self-sabotage, he says, is behavior that creates an obstacle to successful performance, other than the ineptness or lack of ability we suspect ourselves of, thereby giving us something else to blame our possible poor performance on.  Procrastination is a form of self-sabotage.  Drug and alcohol abuse are others.  According to Ferrari, we engage in such behavior, not to "rage against the machine," but because we fear success and the greater expectations and burdens to which it can expose us.  

Ferrari doesn't talk about it, but my own experience leads me to speculate that at least some of us are also motivated by guilt to self-sabotage.  Failure can be equalizing for those not comfortable with their gifts, privilege, and good fortune, in the face of others' apparently lesser circumstances.  Or we might fear social isolation or romantic rejection if we become too successful, as some women appear to do.

Procrastination and other non optimal approaches also provide the excuses some of us come to rely on.  And somewhat circularly, we sometimes blame outside circumstances, or "the situation," for our procrastinating.  In his discussion of the penchant for excuse-making, Dr. Ferrari mentions the work of C.R. Snyder who, with Raymond Higgins and Rita Stucky, authored a book on the subject with this charming title:  Excuses:  Masquerades in Search of Grace(How could we not want to read a book so named?)

Ferrari goes on to discuss self-handicapping--the ways in which some of us hedge our bets, when we aren't sure of a project's success.

How does procrastination work as a self-handicapping strategy?  If we procrastinate, we don't start on a task until we have barely enough (or not enough) time to complete it.  We can then 1) claim we would have done a better job if only we'd had more time; or 2) shore up our self-esteem and others' opinions of our skill and effort if we happen to succeed anyway, despite the lack of an optimal, or even adequate amount of  time.

In an interesting study conducted by Dr. Ferrari, women procrastinators given a difficult problem to solve chose to work under conditions of distracting noise--a self-selected handicap.  Three other conditions were also manipulated in the research: 1)half the group received strongly positive feedback on their performance on a preceding task;  2) participants were told either that performance on the subsequent task was a significant indicator of their cognitive ability, or that it revealed nothing about this trait; and 3) participants were told either that results would be treated confidentially, or that they would be scored and publicized.  For some reason, Ferrari does not discuss how these three variables played out in the research. But he does conclude that procrastinators are more prone to employing self-handicapping tactics in addition to procrastination itself.

Ferrari uses the results of a study he did with Dr. Diane Tice, showing that men and women both chose to play video games or to engage in some other pleasant task before beginning on a "major task," as evidence of the use of procrastination to self-handicap.  It seems to me, though, that there are other possible interpretations of their choice.  Were these individuals perhaps relaxing before tackling a difficult project; using the chosen activity as a warm-up, that permitted some preliminary gearing up and background strategizing before initiating effort; or compensating themselves for the unpleasant aspects they expected to be part of the endeavor?  Kind of like having a last cigarette before quitting, or a bachelor party before marrying, or a pleasure trip before entering a convent?

Ferrari winds up the chapter with an exploration of self-regulation, a more encompassing and less strict sounding term than the older "self-control."  He relates the results of some work he did with Dr. Robert Emmons that 
found that procrastination is directly related to low self-control and even low self-reinforcement. . . .Interestingly, procrastinators claim that they cannot control their desires, and they tend not to reward themselves for the good things that happen to them.

One of the things, apparently, that we should be regulating is our ability to do the difficult and unpleasant things first, which "research shows," and Dale Carnegie asserted, is the key to success.  But 
procrastinators are unable to engage in strong self-control or to delay their gratification.  In other words, they experience a failure to self-regulate.
procrastinators are unable to maintain fast speed and be accurate.  Instead, they perform poorly, making lots of errors and finishing few tasks.
Is Ferrari saying that we differ in this from those who don't procrastinate?  He doesn't make this clear.  And for this procrastinator, anyway, the description doesn't apply.  I have a great degree of self-control, and sometimes delay gratification to the point of self-deprivation.  I can work much faster than most people I know, and am especially accurate.  I finish way too many tasks.  But my congenitally lousy sense of time and limits, and the difficulty I have in sorting and prioritizing the things I give my energy and attention to are what give me trouble.  I get a lot done, but I experience a lot of stress in doing so.  The combination of tackling too many things, and of periodically going on strike, are what comprise my particular brand of procrastination.

I have to say, too, that I sympathize with the artist Ferrari criticizes for her impulsive absorption in painting, which sometimes makes her late for her paid job.  He disparages, too, her lack of satisfaction with her work.  I know it's a stereotype, but for some of us, these qualities are part of an artistic temperament.  I can only imagine what Ferrari would have said of Van Gogh!

Ferrari speaks of self-regulation, like decisiveness in an earlier chapter, as a muscle that can be developed.  As a newbie triathlete, I'm all about muscle development.  But he loses me when he recommends multi-tasking, especially in light of what he had to say earlier in the chapter about self-sabotage and self-handicapping. 

I also take issue with what seems to me to be a linear, and overly narrow notion of  self-regulation.  How does this concept accommodate our multiple/conflicting identities, values, and goals?  For example, time spent on one area of one's life may be important in itself, though it "distracts" us from another significant aspiration.  When I was a graduate student, for example, I remember feeling torn between "my work," and my young daughter, and at a later date, my two young sons.  But time spent with my children was on-task, and properly "self-regulated" with respect to my goal of being a good parent.  Even fun can be a priority, especially as stress relief and health maintenance.  And as we are learning, self-care is vital for continued functioning, as well as for enjoying one's life.

Despite these problems, and although I have some quarrel with its organization and with what seems at times to be disjunction, I do like what Ferrari has to say at the end of this chapter:
Sometimes you need to both reach for the stars with your big dreams and also take a step-by-step, one-day-at-a-time approach.  If you tell yourself your dreams are impossible, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, predicting your defeat.  So keep the dream alive, in your macrocosmic bird's-eye perspective, but put your daily focus on achievable goals that will bring you closer to the main objective.
Good advice.  

No comments:

Post a Comment