Self-Worth Theory: The Key to Understanding & Overcoming Procrastination: Nic Voge (Transcript)

Full text of Nic Voge’s talk: Self-Worth Theory: The Key to Understanding & Overcoming Procrastination at TEDxPrincetonU conference. In this talk, Nic unravels the surprising and perplexing motivational dynamics underlying our procrastination that lead so often to disengagement and burnout.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Nic Voge – Senior Associate Director of Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning

About two decades ago, when I was a PhD student at UC Berkeley, I found myself in a seminar taught by a psychology professor who was renowned for his research on self-worth theory, on motivation, teaching and learning.

I’d no business being there; it had nothing to do with my research interests, but I found it had everything to do with my academic life.

What I learned in that seminar and in the myriad of discussions over the last two decades with Marty has been a real gift to me. It changed my understanding of the human condition. It made me think back to those 20 years before that in school where I’d mastered the craft and art of procrastination: the mind games, the rationalizations, the justifications – anybody know about these? Oh, some experts in the room.

And so that gift is something that I’d like to share with you today, at least some of that.

Every person “should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”James Thurber

This quote captures a certain perspective, a way of thinking about procrastination, lots of ways to approach it. We can think of it as a bad habit, for instance. But I want to ask you to consider more deeply, to introspect, look inside, and look for the deep motivational roots of procrastination so that we can overcome that and flourish and truly thrive in our lives and in our work as teachers and as learners.

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So my hope for you is that you’ll take away from this talk a very different understanding of what procrastination is. And this is important; it’s not just how we think about it in terms of conceptual frameworks and theories, which I’m going to teach you, but also to understand it in a different ethical or moral sense.

I want you to think that procrastination isn’t shameful. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not a flaw. It’s actually pretty predictable. It’s something we can really expect if we understand the dynamics of motivation and the circumstances under which it arises.

It’s not surprising that we see procrastination a lot at Princeton, because you can’t spell procrastination without P-R-I-N-C-T-O-N. Anybody noticed that before?

So what is it about a circumstance, a place like Princeton or colleges in similar circumstances, that leads to procrastination?

Well, one is that we’re highly selective. And schools, all schools, evaluate us. So it’s an evaluative environment where it’s competitive. We’re often competing with one another.

Often, there’s limited rewards and recognition. More people want A’s than can reasonably expect to get them. In those circumstances, we can fully expect that people will seek to protect themselves, the meaning of not getting that reward, the meaning of not getting that recognition for their self-concept and their self-worth.

It’s not just the grade that’s on the line. It’s more than that, and I think as we introspect, we realize that.

So today I want to explain that, and, again, I want that so you have an idea, but I want you to apply it to your own life as I’ve applied it to my own. Whether that you’re a teacher or a student or a parent – all of this can be helpful in understanding the dynamics that happen in schools and around schools.

So I want to tell a little story, and if you procrastinate, this will be a familiar scenario for you.

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So here’s the setting. It’s 11 o’clock, you’re in your dorm room, and you have a paper due in a day or so. And so, it’s been a kind of long, busy day, maybe not too productive. So you sit down at your desk, you open up your laptop to get started to tackle this paper, and then you think, “I’m going to check my email, just for a minute, get that out of the way.”

Anybody ever done that?

So 45 minutes later, you’ve checked a lot of email. You’ve done a really good job of that. But now you realize, “You know what? I’m pretty tired. I’m kind of exhausted, as a matter of fact. You know, tired, exhausted – not conducive to writing a good paper. What do I need? I need to go to sleep. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll go to sleep, get rested, wake up tomorrow refreshed, tackle that paper, ready to go.”

So what do I do? I set my alarm. I feel kind of bad, so I overcompensate: I set it especially early, right? to make up – You’re thinking right now, “How did he know? Does he have a camera in my dorm room?”

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