Procrastination a Plague of the Pandemic
There is an inner procrastinator in all of us. We have all been in a situation where we watch the clock tick by as we face an approaching deadline. You would rather be doing ANYTHING else than working on the project for work, or studying for that test for school. I have fallen into this trap as well, trust me no one is immune to the draw of procrastinator. The ability to just blow off your work and go do something else, like watch TV, play video games, go out with your friends.
You can get it done later, right? When then the deadline is right around the corner and you need to kick it into high gear. You almost always manage to pump out all of the work at the last minute but it makes you stressed, you have to pull an all-nighter. So you may be asking yourself, how can I motivate myself to finish these projects ahead of time? I had a timeline and plenty of opportunities to do it, but never felt like I wanted to.
This post will be for you. In it we will dive into the psychology of Goal Attainment, SMART goals, and yerkes-dodson arousal curve. It will be a throwback to psych 101, that class I am sure most of you slept through. My hope is that by the end of this you will have the confidence to go out and set out definitive timelines and break up large seemingly unachievable tasks into more bite sized pieces so you can tackle your aspirations, one step at a time.
As always I encourage you to read the entire post but if you are strapped for time here is the crash course on what was covered today:
- Goal attainment is utilized widely in a variety of industries, and is rooted in psychology of arousal and performance.
- The Yerks-Dodson curve suggests that peake performance is achieved by the right amount of arousal, but emotions, environment, and stress are all factors that can improve performance levels. Albeit in the right doses.
- SMART goals research suggests that if you imagine a goal that is realistic, anticipate obstacles, set specific steps to achieve that goal, and couple it with existing behaviors in a supportive environment you are the most likely to achieve that goal.
- Goal attainment is different for everyone! The process has a framework but the steps and specifics are different for everyone, experiment to find the right formula for you.
Psych 101 of Goal Attainment
Goal attainment has been a topic of interest in psychology, and now neuroscience for a multitude of reasons. Most notably because we all struggle with it at one point or another. It is widely applicable and is a key part of how to optimize performance. Companies utilize techniques from the field of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology to improve worker productivity. Goal attainment and SMART goals are used heavily in classroom and education (Blaine, 2012). These are even used in rehabilitation programs in healthcare (Steenbeek, 2007). The applications are wide and varied. Even the individual can use these techniques to incrementally improve their own productivity.
The first concept that one needs to understand is the Yerkes-Dodson Performance Curve. We have all seen this at one point or another. It shows a nonlinear line in a parabolic shape with a peak. This peak is in between arousal, and performance. It makes the optimal point for an individual to be productive. There is an incredibly large amount of literature to support that humans perform at their best when they are properly aroused so they are neither bored, with low arousal, or stressed with high arousal (Teigen, 1994).
However one of the major critiques of this theory is that it is too vague, and doesn’t account for the numerous other factors that humans may experience in their everyday lives. How do emotions factor into this for example? Neuroscience has suggested that a stressful situation and highly valanced stimuli, such as an emotion like fear, can actually improve short term performance and even improve memory (Diamond, 2007). This concept has been explored widely in Synaptic plasticity and memory, which we will cover in another post, but feel free to read Diamond and colleagues’ article on their Temporal Dynamics Model for Emotional Processing.
So if arousal is important but not the only factor one may ask how one could augment their behavior and environment to improve performance then. This is where self regulation and goal attainment come in. Oettingen and his team created three experiments for school children to test how regulation impacted goal attainment. In the first experiment they had student create an idealistic future self and had them elaborate on what possible obstacles may be in their way of this goal; next, the second experiment had adolescents create steps on how to implement their intended goal and create tangible “where, when, and how” conditions; finally, in the third experiment, students were tasked with coupling or linking these goals and situations with already existing behaviors and circumstances so they could begin the process of goal attainment immediately (Oettingen, 2000).
So if arousal is important but not the only factor one may ask how one could augment their behavior and environment to improve performance then.
This is where self regulation and goal attainment come in. Oettingen and his team created three experiments for school children to test how regulation impacted goal attainment.
In the first experiment they had student create an idealistic future self and had them elaborate on what possible obstacles may be in their way of this goal; next, the second experiment had adolescents create steps on how to implement their intended goal and create tangible “where, when, and how” conditions; finally, in the third experiment, students were tasked with coupling or linking these goals and situations with already existing behaviors and circumstances so they could begin the process of goal attainment immediately (Oettingen, 2000).
Those that identified obstacles, were able to create specific situations to act on, and then coupled their goal with current behaviors and circumstances reported far greater goal attainment and adherence to their plans than those that were vague or did not process such details (Oettingen, 2000).
Makes logical sense right? Ever have a vague goal in mind, like I want to get rich? I doubt you have been able to achieve that goal yet. You achieve your goals best when you set out a timeline, break up tasks into smaller more achieved portions, and identify barriers so you can account for obstacles. You work even better when you are able to incorporate these behaviors into existing behaviors.
Exceptions to the Rule
An important caveat to mention is that despite having a clearly laid out ‘framework’ that explains how goals can be attained and what techniques can be implemented to increase chance of success none of this is a 100% surefire way to achieve your goals. We all fail from time to time. Sometimes it is a mistake we made, sometimes something out of our locus of control happens and derails our progress.
For example I am sure no one had planned for COVID-19 to shut down the entire world back in 2019. If the pandemic changed your goals that is fine! Do not beat yourself up over things out of your control. Adapt and be flexible. Realize that even using the concepts of arousal, stress, and emotions to further improve your performance and motivation toward a goal does not guarantee its success. There is variability, for example a study looking at Stress’s impact on people taking the Brazilian Bar Exam found that those with ADHD disorders actually performed better under stress, and a larger proportion of them passed than those without ADHD diagnosis (José, 2020).
Is this study generalizable to everyone, NO, absolutely not! So what does this mean, all it means is that there are a variety of variables at play here and the more time you have to figure out what works for you the better performance you will likely have.
The term smart goal was coined in 1981 by George Doran in his article “There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives” where he detailed the way that we can create more effective goals that we are more likely to achieve (Doran, 1981). This is an old article but it laid the groundwork for much of the goal attainment research. It details that a goal needs to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based, the acronyms may vary slightly depending on who you ask but the general concept remains the same.
|Specific||The What, why, who, where, how of a goal or task.||I want to obtain a net worth of $250,000 consisting of a diverse portfolio of assets by the time I am 25 years old, and have no debt!|
|Measureable||Quantifiable numbers, how many, how much, how it will be assessed.||$250,000 USD is quantifiable, and you are measuring this using assets, not just cash.|
|Attainable||Steps to be taken by YOU to achieve this goal, are they within your locus of control, are they reasonable given your own timeline?||I plan to start investing my money in real estate, stocks, and my online consulting business in addition to my full time job. They will require up front time and resources but can be automated and become passive with some effort.|
|Relevant||Check yourself, does this goal actually make you happy and feel satisfied? If it is a recession is this goal sensible at this time, a recession is not within your control so how can you modify your goal? Do you want to be a humanitarian worker in the peace corp, well that does not even align with your own values, so why do it?||Is the environment right for this goal, could you make moves to produce this change. Does it align with your values and beliefs or is it misguided? Will the goal’s output be worth the effort you put in?|
|Time-based||Timeline and deadlines, set a schedule for yourself to achieve the goals and its subtasks.||I want to complete this by age 25, that is a timeline, if you are 18 years old and you are working at a tech company I think that this is a reasonable goal.|
SMART goals are a useful skill for anyone trying to improve their productivity and motivation. Keeping in mind what was touched upon earlier in the post about peak arousal states, emotions, and stress, to augment performance, someone can drastically increase their productivity and goal attainment by using all of these relatively simple techniques. Starting a new goal with no reinforcement or framework is hard, so it also helps to couple it with current behaviors, a setting that is supportive for its development, and the right mindset.
I suggest if you have not already, reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he touches upon some of these topics and others to improve your productivity. If you set small goals, like getting better by only 1% every day, then you will be surprised where you are within 14 days, 30 days, or even 365 days. I also suggest reading his book as he backs almost all of his claims by scientific inquiry and does a great job fact checking. He has a blog with a newsletter as well. If you are looking to improve your habits, and increase goal attainment definitely check him out!
I hope that today’s post aws beneficial in some way. As always there is a near endless supply of other articles, topics, and things to discuss on the material today. I can not possibly get to all of it, so if there are concepts you want me to go further in depth with leave a comment, send me an email, or attach articles and materials of your own that you feel would be helpful! If you have any suggestions for feedback on things I could do to improve this blog or any ideas for future posts feel free to reach out to me! I love engaging my readers. That is why I decided to do this. Remember to be respected in the comments section, we are all here to learn together.
Quote to Live by
“All successful people have a goal. No one can get anywhere unless he knows where he wants to go and what he wants to be or do.”
– Norman Vincent Peale
Diamond, D. M., Campbell, A. M., Park, C. R., Halonen, J., & Zoladz, P. R. (2007). The temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing: a synthesis on the neurobiological basis of stress-induced amnesia, flashbulb and traumatic memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson law. Neural plasticity, 2007.
Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management review, 70(11), 35-36.
José, F. E., Golbert, C. W., José, L. H., Dallegrave, E. T., & Kristensen, C. H. (2020). Assessment of the relationship between stress and performance in candidates for the Brazilian Bar Association examination. Trends in psychiatry and psychotherapy, 42, 368-374.
Lawlor, K. B. (2012). Smart Goals: How the Application of Smart Goals can Contribute to Achievement of Student Learning Outcomes. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning: Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL Conference, 39. https://absel-ojs-ttu.tdl.org/absel/index.php/absel/article/view/90
Oettingen, G., Hönig, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2000). Effective self-regulation of goal attainment. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(7), 705–732. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0883-0355(00)00046-X
Steenbeek, D., Ketelaar, M., Galama, K., & Gorter, J. W. (2007). Goal attainment scaling in paediatric rehabilitation: A critical review of the literature. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49(7), 550–556. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8749.2007.00550.x
Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A Law for all Seasons. Theory & Psychology, 4(4), 525–547. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354394044004