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

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Procrastinating 101: The Right Shade of Rose

Chapter 7 of Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done bears the rosy title "Optimizing Optimism."  In this chapter, Dr. Steel moves from his dark portrait of our pesky bad habit and its costly fallout, to providing us some bread crumbs to follow on our way out of the forest.

As I begin this post, I am hemmed in by modern-day folk references, clamoring to make their way onto the virtual page.  Yellow brick roads, hobbits in Middle-earth, portkeys in mazes of TriWizarding tournaments, and snatches of theme music vie for attention.  (Can you tell I'm excited to be on the threshold of release?)  Even the superbly credentialed Dr. Steel throws in a Tortoise and a Hare and their fabled run for the roses near the outset.

But I digress.  And isn't that why I'm reading this book?

Not just nifty wordplay (for which I'm always a sucker), "optimizing optimism" refers to a set of strategies for correcting the tint on those famously pinkish-hued spectacles.  Some need to turn it down a notch or two.  Dr. Steel, quoting psychologists Michael Scheier and Charles Carver, "who have spent their lives studying optimism" (should they be called "optimologists"?  Sorry, couldn't resist.), tells us that
It may be possible to be too optimistic, or to be optimistic in unproductive ways.  For example, unbridled optimism may cause people to sit and wait for good things to happen, thereby decreasing the chance of success.
At the other end of the spectrum are those of us who expect failure, whose lack of optimism, and of self-confidence, sap motivation.  Our lenses could stand a bit more pigmentation.

This is probably a good place to feature once more, for the sake of those who haven't seen it, as well as those who haven't retained it, Dr. Steel's Procrastination Equation, for which the book is named.

Motivation, here, is the dependent variable--and inversely related to Procrastination.  I.e., the lower our motivation for a task, the greater our propensity to put it off. 

Expectancy--perceived likelihood of success--is the optimism variable.  Dr. Steel's "formula" is really a theoretical model which takes into account the vast compendium of research he has considered and/or conducted over the course of his career as a scholar of procrastination.  Because it is not possible to assign actual numerical values to the component concepts, we are not meant to use it to calculate an "amount" of motivation, or to plug in different values for, say, expectancy (optimism).

But even as a theoretical model, it begins to break down a little, in the nondoctoral opinion of this reader, with the nuanced discussion of the somewhat paradoxical effects of too much, and too little optimism.  If we read the equation as linear, greater expectancy of success (optimism) should always result in a greater degree of motivation, all else remaining constant.  I'm not really sure what Dr. Steel has in mind mathematically in his treatment of optimism, as it affects his elegant expression.

But niggling about algebraic fine points is beside the point, really.  The chapter's contribution is in helping us to right our perceptions.

Steel takes as a jumping off place the work of psychologist Jeffrey Vancouver, whose work on motivation has "succeeded in locating optimism's sweet spot"--that point where a task is seen as easy enough to be doable, but not so easy as to invite postponement.  Steel graphs Vancouver's depiction of this relationship between optimism and motivation:

Of course, optimism is something akin to a mood state, and may or may not reflect reality.  One can be overly pessimistic (kind of like an Eeyore, in Gretchen Rubin's terms--see her Happiness Project post on the distinction she draws between Tiggers and Eeyores), or falsely optimistic.  And errors of perception, resulting in flawed Expectation, can pertain to the intrinsic difficulty of a task, as well as to our own ability to accomplish it.

We begin to get down to brass tacks (Is it just me, or am I up to my neck in metaphors about now?) as Dr. Steel provides two sets of research-supported strategies, aimed, respectively, at the majority of procrastinators--who struggle with self-confidence, and are likely to have low optimism/expectation of success; and at those who live in a location he deems "Fantasy Land."  I suspect I am not the only procrastinator who suffers from both distortions, depending on the circumstances.  I suggest we all pay careful attention to all of Steel's optimizing recommendations.

For those of us whose glasses are not sufficiently rose-colored, Steel prescribes three corrective approaches:  Success Spirals, Vicarious Victories, and Wish Fulfillment.  The description of each is followed, in the book, by a set of Action Points--"pointers about how to put what you have read directly into action, easily and without delay."

A thumbnail of each:
  • Success Spirals--basically, an approach that builds on successive successes.  A little like the child rearing method that would have us "catch them being good," and reward that good behavior as a foundation for increasingly virtuous actions.  Or "lowering the bar" initially, to build mounting achievement.  Or like Skinner's "shaping."  This is an approach I tried, with little success, to get my dyslexic son's teachers to adopt in dealing with his educational performance.  (Perhaps I should have tried dispensing M & M's.)
  • Vicarious Victories--a strategy that relies on motivational stories, whether true or literary, and the inspiration available from membership in a group who share our challenges, and a positive focus.  Hearing about others' efforts and successes makes things seem more doable, and thus increases optimism.
  • Wish Fulfillment--creative visualization, with the crucial added element of mental contrasting.  The latter 
doesn't create optimism but it maximizes optimism's motivational benefits, creating energy and effort as well as jump starting planning.  People who practice mental contrasting almost immediately start pursuing their dreams, putting a crimp in procrastination.
Space prohibits detailing Steel's useful Action Points here.  For these, I send you to the source, to THE BOOK itself.

For those in need of toning down their happy view of things, and thereby assessing more realistically their own abilities, a task's level of difficulty, and the amount of time it will take, Steel advises these two methods.  Both are intended to help us
activate the reality principle:  to confront the reality of the situation when we are seeking the best way to achieve our goals.  Invoking the reality principle is a sign that we have outgrown our childish and impulsive ways and can acknowledge the price we must realistically pay for our dreams.
  • Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best--The gist of this advice is that we acknowledge that most of us will fail along the way to achieving what we want.  This recognition can inoculate us against the disappointment and discouragement that can cause us to give up before we get where we are headed.  Expecting and planning for setbacks helps us focus on incremental achievements, using that positive energy to keep going.
  • Accept that You're Addicted to Delay--Like Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, this approach would have us take very seriously the daunting severity of our procrastination habit.  In doing so, we "improve self-control by embracing [our] pessimism."  In other words, if we up the ante on procrastination behaviors, like game-playing, for example, we force ourselves to see each small instance for the slippery slope that it truly is.  We are thus more motivated to avoid procrastinating.  Steel recommends we 
[f]ollow the Victorian era's greatest maxim:  "Never suffer an exception to occur.". . . You buttress your commitment to early starts by believing that any slip will be catastrophic, that the initial step toward procrastinating is merely the first link in an endless chain.  The specifics of tomorrow will be much the same as today:  you will be tempted to incur a small but cumulative cost to gain a moderate immediate pleasure.  If you decide to delay even once, your decision will be replicated daily and the consequences will grow.
    And now I confess that false optimism led me to underestimate the amount of time this post would require to write.  However, this resulted, not in delaying the task, but in giving more of the day to it than I had planned.  Some unsung variety of planning fallacy, all my own?  The kind where all my other plans for the day have gone awry?  Oh, well.  That's why we are advised to tackle first things first, yes?

    Next week, Chapter 8, "Love it or Leave It."  No, not our country, or my state, but WORK, in which we are admonished to find relevance.

    ## Looking for a way to make procrastination pay?  Check out this photo contest for procrastinators--Entry deadline is July 13. 

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