How perfectionism breeds procrastination
I recently heard a fresh perspective on procrastination that, I think, is just the insight needed to finally stop myself procrastinating. It has to do with success motivation and self-worth. But before I get into that…
I’m in the Interaction Design Foundation’s top 1%
Last year I started studying IxD, UCD and HCI online. I’d already been studying these topics for ~6 years — via books, articles, and conference workshops — but as a high school dropout, entirely self-taught in the skills that have shaped my career, I’d often wished I could sit an exam to prove myself.
That’s what attracted me to studying online with the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF). Most of their courses are mostly made up of written answer submissions, which are individually assessed and marked (usually within 1-2 weeks). After final grading is done you receive a very respectable looking certificate, which also includes mention of a distinction for those ranked top 10% in the class. So far I’ve earned three certificates and two distinctions.
I love looking at these certificates! They make me feel immensely proud, and it’s also a huge confidence booster. So, thank you IDF, I’m a big fan.
Here’s my IDF referral link for anyone who’d like to try studying with them (3 months free)
Anyway, a few months back I got an email from Mads at IDF, telling me I was in the top 1% of course takers. What the heck!?
I was blown away. So much so that I stopped studying almost immediately after receiving the news. It was sent in May, so… wow, yeah, it’s been nearly five months since I completed a lesson.
Although thoroughly annoyed with myself, no amount of self-shaming nor good intention-setting has gotten me back on track. I’ve set aside many evenings and weekends to study, but that alone time has only resulted in ‘perfecting the art of procrastination’.
During one of my favourite procrastination pastimes (watching TED Talks) I came across this fascinating talk by Dominic Voge: Senior Associate Director of Princeton’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
He talks about how procrastinators are not less motivated than the average person, that in fact, the root cause of procrastination is often that they’re over-motivated. By being driven toward success on the one hand, while strongly and powerfully motivated to avoid failure on the other, these poor people (me) end up getting stuck.
How to overcome procrastination
Voge, as though reading my freakin’ mind, notes that people commonly attempt to fight off procrastination with negative self-talk. Stuff like: If I don't get this done I'm going to <insert negative outcome here>.
Not surprisingly, harassing yourself just increases fear, which can increase procrastination. For a more effective approach, he touches on three technique categories:
Simply having knowledge of self-worth theory and motivational dynamics can help you overcome procrastination. Here are some of the ways, Voge says, that this works:
By understanding the roots of procrastination you equip yourself with the tools to weaken its hold.
By becoming more aware of when procrastination is happening, you have more opportunity to stop it.
By paying attention to how you’re feeling, and what you’re really thinking, you can actively choose to help yourself think and feel differently.
The point about noticing when you’re procrastinating is interesting. I used to think it was just the really obvious occasions, like deciding to learn how to darn your socks when a deadline is looming. Your inner voice says: “You do know you’re procrastinating, don’t you?” And you’re like, “Yasss inner voice, thank you. I only have six more holes to mend, just chill out!”
It’s the sneaky procrastination that’s troubling. The kind that disguises itself as a related task, or another similarly-oriented goal. For me, this has been reading Psychology Today articles instead of doing my Psychology of Interaction Design course. And also, though it pains me to say, I think I may have started learning to code again to ensure I’m “too busy” to complete my other studies.
Voge explains how these lower-importance tasks — while still being work/education-related — are easier to tackle because there’s less risk involved. He’s right. My self-worth, as it relates to me feeling competent and able, is at zero risk of damage because no one’s gonna quiz me on the 20+ articles I read!
Challenge your beliefs
Another way to tackle procrastination is to challenge the P = A = W equation. You’ll need to watch the talk for more detail, but essentially it is the mindset that:
My performance (P) is equivalent to my ability (A), which is equivalent to my worth (W).
This, he says, is simply not true. There are plenty of times when a person’s performance is less than their capacity to perform. This made me think of professional athletes who are capable of winning gold, or who have won gold, but then have an off-day and walk away with bronze. It also reminded me of myself, on the many occasions where I’ve given a less-than-stellar performance at work because it was Monday.
So that breaks the relationship between P and A. To break the equation between A and W you just have to remember that your ability is not equivalent to your worth, says Voge. Instead, think of your worth as being based on human qualities: kindness, thoughtfulness, vulnerability. 💖
Tip the balance
This one I like the most. It refers to tipping the balance away from avoidance motivations, towards approach motivations. Voge says it's rarely the case that people think: I'm not motivated to do this. It’s more so that your fears dominate or overwhelm your approach motives.
The positive motivations (or approach motives) can only drive us forward if we're actively thinking about them, and therefore feeling motivated by them. Hence, the key is to make sure the positive stuff is at the forefront of your mind. His advice is that you need to remind yourself:
“There's a reason you signed up for that class, there are ideas you want to nurture, skills you want to learn.”
He also shares his own motivational to-do list associated with writing and giving the talk, which he felt a little anxious about. Here’s an overview (in my own words) of the motivational reminders he suggests:
Think of the task as an opportunity — Instead of looking at it as something that could affect your reputation, or as something that has to be perfect, think of it as good practice, or maybe an experiment. This lowers expectations and lowers the stakes.
It’s not all about you — Reframe it. This thing you’re doing, or work you’re producing, is not a spotlight on you. It’s not a performance, or demonstration of your skills. Voge said he reframed his talk as a service, telling himself: “I'm doing this to help people, which ties in with my motivational profile.”
How does it fit with your mission? — Consider how the task fits your mission in life, or your purpose at work. In Voge’s case, the mission is to “reduce the suffering of students” (meaning, I think, by teaching them how to depressurise so they can learn better, and do better academically).
Make it more manageable — This is the good old ‘break it down into smaller chunks so the sheer size of the task doesn’t make you curl into the fetal position’.
The point of writing this stuff down is to help you get un-stuck.
Applied learning time!
It’s now time to cement what I’ve learned by putting it into action. I will continue and complete my current IDF course, starting today. Why? Here’s a reminder list:
Completing this course is an opportunity: I love learning about interaction design because it combines three things I’m obsessed with:
The design of aesthetically pleasing things.
Intuitive design of everyday things.
Unraveling the intricacies of human behavioural psychology.
It’s not all about me: It doesn’t matter what my final score is, what matters is the learning process. In fact, the answers I don’t score very highly on are more likely to be stored in long-term memory, which is good! The whole point of this is to carry the knowledge into my work…
How this fits with my mission: I want to design better things (solutions, products, processes) by understanding how things work, and how people think.
Ways to make it more manageable: I’m not sure actually…
I need to keep thinking about this last one. If you have any advice please leave a comment, I’d love to hear it.