By Teodor Teofilov
Even while I sit here and write these words, I feel a procrastination monster in the back of my mind trying to jump out and take me away from this. It wants to go on an adventure to the infinite distraction possibilities on the internet, or the wondrous world of a good book or simply outside for a drink with my friends. This monster simply wants me to be doing anything but actually work, because it seeks instant gratification.
I’m sure that everyone has experienced this at some point or another, but as a professional procrastinator I struggle with this daily. Be it picking up freelance gigs, sending resumes or simply doing the thing I love doing most, writing, I have to constantly motivate myself into silencing that nagging monster in my mind that makes my life so damn difficult.
I remember once I was doing some quick research about the state of the Albanian economy, because my employer wanted it, and I ended up reading about how people on Wikipedia spent weeks arguing about a picture of a cow. I also found an extremely entertaining video on the topic by Fact Fiend, which you can see below. At the end of that multi-hour distraction filled day, I had only done maybe a tenth of what I had endeavored to do and was filled with the guilt of wasting my time, although I did enjoy getting lost in the depths of the internet.
Being productive gives a different kind of gratification than falling in the depths of Wikipedia or Youtube. There is no guilt or shame once you have completed what you set out to do and at the end of the day. When you have finished you still have time to enjoy the sillier things in life.
Every time I struggle with this monster inside me and feel like things in my life are slipping out of my control, I always ask myself the question “why is this happening?” I’m talking about when tasks pile up and everything I do seems like it isn’t enough. At times like this it is possible to fall into the never ending loop of having work pile up, losing your motivation because nothing you do works and listening to the procrastination beasts inside.
At times like these you should take a breather to reevaluate your locus of control, which can change your mindset and help you get back on course.
But what is the locus of control?
The principle of the locus of control originated by Julian Rotter in 1954, when he suggested that our behavior was controlled by rewards and punishments and that these consequences for our actions determine our beliefs about the underlying causes of these actions. Our beliefs on what causes our actions then influences our behaviours and attitudes.
In 1966, Rotter published a 13 item questionnaire (which you can take here) to measure and assess external and internal locus of control, which uses a forced-choice between two alternatives and requires you to choose just one of two possibilities for each question. Although it has been widely used, it has also been criticized from those who believe that locus of control can’t be understood or measured by such a simple questionnaire as it generalizes gender, age and cultural differences.
The locus of control of an individual is “the extent to which [the individual] believes they have power over events in their lives,” according to PsychCentral. So people fall somewhere between an external or internal locus of control and this predicts the way they interact with their environment.
A study conducted at Columbia University by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck in 1998 looked at how praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. They took a large group of fifth graders and had them take an exam with several different questions. All of the children were told that they did very well on the test — no matter how well they actually did.
Afterward, half of the students were told that they did so well because they worked hard, while the other half were told that it was all because they were smart and gifted. Then they were given a different set of problems and told that they didn’t do so well.
The children that were praised for their effort attributed more of their low scores to effort than those praised for intelligence. The children praised for their smarts said that a lack of ability was at fault, and they also enjoyed taking the test less than the others. The findings were similar for boys and girls and for children from several ethnic groups.
When the children were allowed to choose what questions to answer, those who were told that they did well because they were smart, spent their time on the assignments they knew they would do well on, while the effort group chose tasks that they thought they could learn something from.
This study goes quite well with the locus of control, which is essentially the degree to which you believe you have control over your life. The kids that were told they did well because they were smart have an external locus of control, while those told it was due to their hard work have an internal.
The external locus of control means that you believe that factors outside of your control are the reasons for whether you do well or not — as was the case with the children told they were intelligent, as you can’t actually control it.
The internal locus of control is when you believe that factors you control lead to everything that happens, such as the second group of children. It was their hard work and extra effort that allowed them to do well on the exams, because how much work you put into something is something that you have complete control over.
With this said, Rotter has said that his concepts is commonly misunderstood and that he believes that someone who might be more internal can act external in given situations and vice versa. No one person is just one or the other — it is rather that they exist on a spectrum and act according to their environments.
Which is better, internal or external?
Such people tend to take responsibility for things that happen to them, both good and bad, and work hard to get what they want. They are also less influenced by the opinions of others, learn from their mistakes and take action to improve their situation. However, the have a tendency to be direct and to the point, leaving people with the feeling of being trampled. They also can’t delegate well and want to control everything.
People with an external locus of control tend to be very good team players and are good at letting go of stressful situations, and can be happier. However, these individuals tend to blame factors outside of their control for what happens to them and often feel powerless because of that. They play down their success, attributing it to luck and give up faster when there are obstacles present.
But don’t despair you externals — it’s good to understand that sometimes there are truly things that are outside of your control. If your internal locus of control is too strong it can make you take on too much personal responsibility and deal with anxiety, among other things.
James Neill of the University of Canberra Centre for Applied Psychology notes in “What is Locus of Control” that although an internal locus of control is usually the more desirable state because it implies a sense of self-control and self-governance, an extreme one can be just as detrimental as an extreme external orientation.
“Internals can be psychologically unhealthy and unstable. An internal orientation usually needs to be matched by competence, self-efficacy and opportunity so that the person is able to successfully experience the sense of personal control and responsibility,” wrote Neill.
Although an extreme internal locus of control isn’t healthy, it is definitely going to be better for you motivation if you take from it. As such, here are the things that I do to get myself motivated and to ignore the procrastination monster. I don’t know if they will be helpful to you, because people are different, but hey, it’s at least a place to start.
Set yourself goals. It would be best if you start small and don’t make grand goals for in the future, like the New Years resolution of losing weight, but if you have set yourself a goal that is a good beginning. Creating goals to achieve in the future is a good motivator, and if you start with setting yourself small goals over the next few weeks, with time, it will become a habit that will motivate you, as achieving a goal gives you a great sense of accomplishment.
I do this everyday. For example, for this article I sat down at eight in the morning and set myself the goal to finish it by 3 p.m. the same day. Although this is a very specific goal, I like doing it the previous day, writing on my calendar everything I want to complete the next day. I have also set myself a grander goal of writing at least four times a week and so far it has worked great, when I take into account my freelance work. Maybe later I will set myself the goal of producing content everyday, but that is in the future.
Another thing you should do is to try and understand why you want to achieve each goal you have set yourself. Grab a piece of paper and write down the whys. Make sure you handwrite them as studies have shown that we engage our brain more actively. With how distracting the world is with the internet and other things it is great to ground yourself in your goals. The reasons can be extremely selfish, they don’t need to be some grand world changing ones. It is fine to just pursue your goals because you want to, as is the case with this article. I simply wanted to share my thoughts… and a bit of background information because I love knowing how principles and things came about and the best way that I learn is to write an article.
It can also be helpful to review the consequences and rewards of decisions you made in the past. Your life so far is a conglomeration of the decisions you have made in your past and going back to them can give you a small way to take control.
For example, what happened when I decided to watch one more episode of Breaking Bad the night before an exam when I was in college? I woke up the next day tired and was almost late for the exam, causing me to be extra stressed when I arrived in the room. What would have happened if I didn’t watch it and went to bed at a reasonable time? I would most likely have gotten a full night’s rest. So learn from past experiences.
Lastly, although there are definitely more ways and steps to stay motivated, but this is what works for me, break down your goals into smaller more achievable parts. These smaller pieces should be possible to achieve in the near future, as according to neuroscience, our brain loves accomplishing short term tasks and gives us a dose of the godsend dopamine — the feel-good chemical.
For example, in writing this article I have completed one of the four ones that I have to do this week. And even in writing this article I separate it into chunks, with the first two hours being spent in outlining what I wanted to say, then time for research followed by compiling all I learned into this text. The last thing that is left is to edit it, but let’s see if I will be able to defeat my archnemesis — the procrastination monster.