Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Last Word on Procrastination: An integration of ego-depletion theory, construal-level theory, and the irreversibility of writing

With the elements I’ve previously introduced—Baumeister and Muraven’s ego-depletion theory, Trope and Liberman’s construal-level theory, and my irreversibility-of-writing theory—we can discern the outline of a general explanation of why we often procrastinate. Both ego-depletion theory and construal-level theory have been separately applied to procrastination, but my explanation combines the theories, which I’ll summarize here only insofar as they directly apply.  

Ego-depletion theory says that we have a physically limited daily supply of willpower for implementing our decisions, but we perform habitual acts effortlessly. Researchers in ego-depletion theory advise that we should strategize to utilize our limited supply of willpower efficiently by devoting our efforts to forming productive habits.  

Construal-level theory says that we can conceptualize tasks at concrete or abstract granularities. Abstract construals induce future orientation, and they create and inform our goals and plans, disposing us to seek and implement them later

Irreversibility-of-writing theory says that writers’ block may arise from unconsciously apprehending that you’re unprepared to write.

Theories combined
Explaining procrastination requires understanding how construal level interacts with the allocation of finite willpower, but these are separate research programs, yet unintegrated. Despite the lack of direct experimental evidence, common observation and inference from other research suggest linkages:
  • Concrete construals allocate willpower. We expend willpower—whether to accomplish specific tasks or form habits—through concrete construals.
  • Abstract construals foreshadow habits. Formed through abstract construal, goals—varying in strength—cause our concrete construals, long-term.
The more controversial contention is that goal setting through abstract construals drives concrete construals and the resulting productive effort, a contention conflicting with the common recommendation  to self-impose the use of concrete construals: focus on the details and the next action. The recommendation is issue begging, since the whole problem in procrastination is that we resist entertaining concrete construals when we engage in pleasurable mental acts of abstract construal. 

Abstract construal gets a bad rap in this commentary; to its derogation, one prolific commentator explains abstract construal as having evolved for the hypocritical manipulation of social signals, but there’s evidence that our abstract construals direct our future concrete construals: childhood ambitions foreshadow adult achievements.

To minimize procrastination, you must form the right kind of strongly motivating goals. The right kind of goals for forming habits demand immediate action, as do goals constituted by habits, necessarily weakened by delay. If you want to write a book, a more effective goal than completion or publication is becoming a hard-working writer. Since the goal entails altering your personal traits, virtue ethics is a useful framework for forming productive habits, since it fosters the abstract construal of habits as goals. 

Goals coherently expressing your true purposes are strongly motivating, and for the most part, goals arise naturally from self-knowledge. Powerful goals rooted in deep self-knowledge engender strong habits, but they should do so only to the extent that regimentation is help more than hindrance. The point of my irreversibility-of-writing approach is that writers should limit their self-regimentation. But when habits are few, last-minute production is the well-practiced fallback habit. You must balance regimentation’s efficiency against lost opportunities for “deep thought.”

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