Sunday, April 05, 2009

Getting Unstuck in Life: More Thoughts on Procrastination

Consider the following scenarios:

* A trader knows that he would benefit from keeping a journal and tracking his performance, but his efforts fade out after a few days;

* A trader sees a unique opportunity in the market, but oversleeps and misses the setup;

* A trader realizes that her edge in the market is going away, but she never gets around to exploring new trading patterns and time frames.

In each of these cases, a kind of procrastination affects the trader and ultimately interferes with performance and success.

It is common to attribute procrastination to a lack of motivation, but as the recent post suggests, this may be off the mark. Efforts to motivate the procrastinator are typically fruitless. If procrastination is a kind of motivational gridlock in which individuals are paralyzed between competing values, stepping up the motivation is only likely to add to frustration and further inaction.

Take a simple example: When daughter Devon was young, I found that asking her to do her homework got nowhere. She would say that she was going to do it, but then would end up watching TV all night. Interestingly, I had the impression that she sincerely wanted to get the homework done. There was some block, however, toward acting.

When I changed my approach and asked her, "What would you like us to work on first, the math or the English?", she invariably picked one and we got the work done promptly. If the homework didn't feel imposed on her--she could choose what to work on--and especially if it felt like a shared activity, there was no procrastination. It wasn't homework that she was avoiding: it was the feeling of having to perform an imposed task by herself. Once homework became a social experience, there was no gridlock.

Now in college, Devon recently researched a topic that is particularly germane to issues of motivation and procrastination. All of us have motivational orientations directed to either the prevention of negative outcomes or the promotion of positive ones. What happens, however, when seeking a positive goal (such as finishing homework and earning a good grade) collides with a motivation to avoid an aversive state (feeling disconnected from others and unable to navigate on one's own)? At that point, pushing harder to do the homework only activates the prevention motivation to avoid isolation and threatened inadequacy. Refusing to do the homework only intensifies the promotion goal to take action toward a good grade.

What breaks the gridlock is creating a new context for one's goals that embraces both motivations. When homework became a "we" activity that she could choose for herself, Devon managed to complete assignments on time. Similarly, traders who have struggled for years in keeping a journal suddenly find it easy to use a blog or Twitter for journaling, turning the individual effort into a shared one.

Much of the help that counselors and therapists provide is helping their clients "get unstuck" by providing a new context for seeking goals. Perhaps people don't need more motivation; they just need more of the motivations that are right for them. When your car is stuck in snow, you don't simply gun the accelerator and spin your wheels. You gently rock back and forth, forward and backward, shifting the car to each side, until you get a bit of traction. Life isn't so different.