We all want to project to ourselves and to others that we’re good at something. It’s one of the most powerful human desires, a need, and one Princeton University’s Nic Voge says is a profound motivation for all of us. So why do we procrastinate on tasks that could bathe us in a positive light? What’s going on with our motivation in these moments? And the mic drop answer isn’t laziness.
In this article, Voge helps us to better understand the ways our motivations and procrastinations constantly intertwine and can often coalesce around our skewed concepts of self-worth. And he tells us that we can gain greater control of the complex relationships at play and achieve the Holy Grail of ‘productive engagement’.
As well as teaching classes on how to optimise these relationships Voge, a senior associate director at the McGraw Center for Teaching & Learning at Princeton University, gave a Ted Talk about it that has been viewed over 2.5 million times on YouTube, and is titled: ‘Self Worth Theory: The Key to Understanding & Overcoming Procrastination’.
A familiar if uncomfortable plotline
We all know this “common pattern” of procrastination that Voge describes to me. He says “when we think about a task, we very often have an instantaneous, an emotional reaction,” that can be “uncomfortable” and trigger “a physiological reaction, something like dread, fear, or anxiety”. It makes us do something to avoid these feelings, so we might reach for our phone or take a sudden interest in kintsugi, anything really other than the task at hand. “What those things are doing is alleviating, or reducing, the physiological state, the emotional state that I had,” Voge says.
But why is there this emotional reaction in the first place?
Some of the possible reasons Voge learned about back in his student days taking a class by Professor Martin Covington, who created the self-worth theory of achievement motivation, which posits that when it comes to students: ‘a central part of all achievement is the need to protect a sense of worth’.
In conflating our performance on a task with our self-worth we can create problems though, which might result in “feeling very powerful avoidance” motives. One equation Voge teaches his students to illustrate the dynamics at play is: Performance = Ability = Worth (P=A=W) and he points out to them that it’s an “equation that has been reinforced hundreds of thousands of times” by our “society, families, our work, our schools.”
“This is a hard thing to change,” Voge acknowledges. “But that is not to say that we can’t.”
So, what can we do?
Something that might help us rethink or challenge the validity of the equation, he says, is reminding ourselves that our worth is linked to our human qualities of kindness, compassion, vulnerability; and that we should look to the people we love dearly and think what we value in them.
Voge isn’t suggesting this will transform your behaviour but it’s a thought that might help you start to pull at the deep roots of the P=A=W equation.
Clearly our sense of self – who we are, is something we all value deeply – but when we attach it to our ability to achieve a task we might run into difficulties. If we are saying “I am my work, my worth is equivalent to my work,” then this way of thinking becomes framing, Voge says, that will be “shaping my actions, my emotional responses, my decision-making”. Which for innovators and entrepreneurs could make them “less transformative” because being motived by self-protection “narrows our point of view, it narrows our thinking” he says, putting us in a space where it will be difficult to innovate.
“If you have framed the task in a way that your sense of self is being evaluated, then that’s a very high stake, my sense of self and my sense of worth is on the line,” Voge explains. And in these circumstances procrastination might seem like a smart move. “If I procrastinate, if I sabotage my performance, then I have a ready explanation. It’s like a pre-emptive inoculation from the consequences from possible failure.”
RLOs and social innovators
Voge says innovators and entrepreneurs typically have two things at stake: self-worth, and the innovation or product. But what about the work of social entrepreneurs; or Refugee-led organisations (RLOs) – an area of innovation we have been covering recently, where lives might be on the line?
“Here there is something else, which could be deeply connected to our sense of worth: a moral, an ethical imperative: a responsibility not only to myself but to others; and so my performance has on the line these consequences. If I make a mistake, it could have big consequences because we’re risking failure, not only to those who we are responsible for,” in the case of RLOs and social innovators but “we are also risking our sense of self”. So we “might circumscribe” and avoid risk, even though “to be transformative you will likely need to take risks.”
Being transformative is more likely, Voge says, if people can learn to develop a healthy relationship with risk and failure.
“If you can embrace failure, the Steve Jobs way: fail forward fast, great but the people I am speaking to are not embracing this idea they are reframing failure. Edison said: ‘I haven’t failed a thousand times I’ve figured out a thousand times how to get better’. That’s a classic example of reframing. We think differently about it, so we feel differently about it, and it evokes different motivations around our framing and beliefs about the role experimentation and exploration play in our work.”
Pricing in risk is also important.
“We can frame risk taking as something we seek out recognising that risk taking rationally is a component of innovation, that is what innovation is. In recognising I can’t avoid it, it helps me limit my desire to avoid it. If I can see it as an essential step, I can say it’s a necessary step, to experience these feelings of risk and fear.”
And if we can do that: successfully grapple and reframe our fears, it can fuel growth, Voge says. “If you’re afraid to do it and you still want to do it that’s the perfect scenario. You have an opportunity to get outside yourself and for me some important growth is motivated by a certain amount of fear.”
Another strategy he recommends is instead of addressing the fear, try addressing “the other side of the balance”.
“I can try and lift up the other motivations and magnify them, increase them, tap into them, feel them,” he says. “I can stack up these motivations – I call this motivational stacking. It means the fear shrinks in relation to the positive so what happens then is I just don’t notice it basically”.
To engage in motivational stacking try to identify your “intrinsic motivations” because Voge says these are “deeply internalised, very powerful motivations” that have “almost no downsides”.
“So, if I’m powerfully motivated by the value of altruism, for example, maybe helping a community I feel has experienced injustice – these are strong motivations. If I feel I have a unique knowledge or skillset I can contribute to the world that has benefit, again very powerful motivations: deeply internalised. If I’m fascinated by the process of change and creating organisations and interested in how to do it, these are all positive motivations: approach motivations.”
And for an extra nudge, at times when he’s not feeling very motivated, Voge asks himself: “what’s interesting to me about this? What can I learn by doing this task? And that’s intrinsic in the task”.
He adds: “At certain moments approach motives are in ascendency at others not and some of the strategies are simply to know there’s this balance, it’s not to misinterpret it. But when we need to, we can take steps to tip the balance towards action, towards productive engagement”.
It’s also important for us to recognise, Voge says, that “we have mixed motivations nearly all of the time,” and that just “because we are not motivated right now it doesn’t mean we’re not – it means it’s how we feel and that’s different”. He says we can make the mistake of saying to ourselves: “I’m not acting, I must not be motivated – so I question my motivations”, which he points out “follows from people having very simplistic ideas of what motivation is and that it’s uniform and unilinear.”
Another thing to consider is that when we focus on aspects of a task that are out of our immediate control, aspects which might evoke fear, we can trap ourselves in a Gordian Knot of inaction: the very antithesis of “productive engagement”.
“When we work on a task, a complex task, and we’re thinking not about the work itself, say thinking through a plan, or writing code, or drafting text. if we’re not thinking on that task but we’re thinking about its completion; when it’s due; how it will be evaluated; the consequences of that; what it means to other’s wellbeing, these are outside our immediate control, they are uncertain, and are likely to evoke fear – so we have a divided attention.”
And for RLOs and social innovators the divisions might multiply.
“If I’m also thinking about harming people and not the procedures to get the crops put in the ground, then I’m not thinking as well about putting the crops in the ground because I’m divided, my mental resources are not on creating the economic model or designing a health intervention,” he says, adding: “so there’s an element where it is helpful to have ‘eyes on the moment’ more than eyes on the prize.”
Different strategies at different times
This won’t always be true though, because “different strategies are needed at different times in the innovation process”.
“There are times in the process when you might want to narrow your thinking but not in the ideation, or the development, or assessment. It is best to learn to modulate our motivations; to use different types of motivations at different junctures in the process,” Voge adds.
And to keep these motivations handy he recommends creating in-the-moment motivational lists, as well as one on your mission, the latter providing a useful ‘booster shot of motivation’.
“Take time to articulate your mission and I’d encourage people to do so in relation to particular values they have,” says Voge, who is motivated by values like altruism, which you can see in the care and dedication he has for his students. “I have my own personal mission – I wrote it out and I read it frequently. And these motivational to-do lists, or this motivational stacking, is something we can really tap into.”
Cognitive and physiological interventions
While we’re working on our motivational stacking we should also consider the cognitive and physiological interventions that will help us “tip the motivational balance towards action” Voge says.
“One level is I can think, rethink, cognitively reframe, use some self-talk. I can intervene at this cognitive level. I can talk to myself in different ways.” He gives the example that we can say to ourselves “that’s only going to take 15 minutes I’ll do it on Sunday, or I can say that’s only going to take 15 minutes so let me do it now so I don’t have to do it on Sunday. Both are true and if I’m working on taking action, on getting started, the second is clearly better”.
And we can also intervene at a physiological level. “I can breathe in particular ways. I can put my attention, for instance in my breath – which is not the same thing, the attention on the breath does another thing, but they can both function to essentially dial down, to reduce my physiological activation.”
He adds: “Because it is very difficult for me to say I want to feel something different then do it. I can think something different, intervene at the cognitive level and that can affect my emotional state and therefore my motivational state; or I can intervene at my physiological state and that will affect my emotional state which then allows me to use my cognitive faculties.”
A good understanding of human biology also helps.
“One thing I really emphasise is how knowledge of human beings, human organisms, human thoughts, human beliefs, human motivations is really useful. One thing to know, for example, is that human emotions don’t last long – relatively speaking, so learning to accept and tolerate them can be easier when we know this. And so maybe we can have some techniques for tolerating them: mindfulness, or meditation perhaps. It is not about pushing down the emotions it’s about finding a way to get past them.”
Never lose sight of your North Star
And one abiding motivation we shouldn’t lose sight of is our North Star, our inspiration. “It guides us,” adds Voge. “We don’t say I’m going to grab it, we’re not going to it, but it provides direction. It’s not it’s attainability but its relation to our values.”
“If we can understand how all these different aspects of motivation and tools operate we can combine them in different ways to keep ourselves moving towards our North Star.”
New Voge Academy launches
To build on the Ted Talk he gave introducing self-worth theory and teach people how to combine these tools, Voge has launched the new online Voge Academy.
“I am starting a platform, a course on procrastination. The Ted Talk was 20 minutes so I used that to introduce self-worth theory but this focuses on procrastination and gives an analysis of each dimension, or layer, and says here are some strategies to work at that layer.”