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.

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.

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?”

This story is about me. That’s how I know.

And so I wake up extra early – or I shouldn’t say I wake up extra early – the alarm goes off extra early, I hit the snooze, and while I’m laying there, I think, “You know, the whole point was to be refreshed, and I’m not. I’m tired.”

Not only do I hit the snooze again, I turn off the alarm because I need some sleep. Because if I’m going to be productive, I need my rest.

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And so time passes. I wake up… I wake up an hour before my first class, and I think, “You know what? That’s not quite enough time to get started on this paper. What can you get done in an hour?”

So what I start to do, I think to myself, “You know, I had that thing, I got to do; it’s really important. I need to do it now. And I really just need something to cross off on my to-do list so I can feel that satisfaction.” Sound familiar?

So I knock that off my list just in time to get to class. I have a full day, maybe a little longer lunch than I should have. That conversation in the hallway goes a bit longer, and I find myself back in the same spot, at the same time: it’s 11 o’clock, and I haven’t done anything toward my paper.

So now, not only have I not made progress, I’m behind, and I feel pretty bad about myself.

But nonetheless, I know what I have to do: make that sprint into the wee hours of the night to finish this paper. And at some point, I just say to myself, “You know what? I just have got to get this done because if I don’t, that’s bad. The humiliation of not completing it is worse than not writing the best paper my professor has ever read.”

So what leads to these dynamics?

We could look at the surface level, but I want to look more deeply, what’s going on underneath.

And self-worth theory of achievement motivation gives us a tool for doing that.

So self-worth theory asserts, or posits, first and foremost that the paramount psychological need that all of us have is to be seen by ourselves and others as capable and competent and able.

So in a school environment, that means we need to be thought of as smart: as good at math if that’s our identity, as the excellent writer, bound for science. If we’re a valedictorian, we come to expect that.

So self-worth theory says we need to be seen as capable and able and competent. That’s what we need to do.

And because it’s the primary paramount need, we will actually sacrifice or trade off other needs to realize or achieve or meet that need. And that’s where procrastination comes in.

So here’s a way of thinking about it that kind of captures some of the dynamics, it’s a kind of simple model.

Now, first I want to say that this is a model of people’s beliefs about performance and ability, self-worth, achievements. I’m not saying that this is how we should be; I’m saying that this is what we’ve discovered through research.

Basically, we have this kind of simple model in our head that my performance determines my ability for the most part. Effort has a role in it, but ability, my innate capability and skill and knowledge – excuse me, not knowledge – my innate skill at doing something, largely unchanging, that’s what determines my achievement level, my success… something.

And those achievements, those successes or not, determine my sense of self-worth, how I think about myself.

So in a sense, then, these things become equated with one another. So people who are particularly fearful of failure, people who procrastinate a lot – I put myself in that category, at least in the past – have a kind of simplistic equation in their mind. Their performance is equal, or equivalent, to their ability, which is equal, or equivalent, to their worth, their self-worth as a person, as a human being.

So we go from a grade on a test to ourselves in the world and to the people we love and care about, our teachers, our friends.

So with that understanding, we can see how procrastination isn’t just a matter of a habit, “I don’t like this activity or this assignment.” “I never did like physics even though I’m a physics major.” Actually that’s probably not the case.

Often, people procrastinate about things that they love. They’re fascinated by physics, but when it’s 11 o’clock at night, and the piece is due at midnight – you’re not loving that. You’re just trying to get it done.

So it’s important to understand a couple of things about procrastination in this simple model.

One of them is that we can’t simply forego the opportunity to achieve. We can’t just pick easy tasks and say, “Well, I’ve achieved. That’s great. I feel good.”

So what this model shows is a key insight from self-worth theory. We used to think, in psychology, that if you really wanted to achieve, say, for success, then you would not automatically really want to avoid failure. But in fact, that’s not the case. So not one dimension, one spectrum; there are actually two.

You can approach a task, really want to do a task, and at the same time really not want to do a task. You can want to succeed on it; you can also really fear failing on such a task. So these are actually two different dimensions.

And many people at Princeton, and at Berkeley, where I used to work and where a lot of this research was done, actually are high on both dimensions. We really, really want to achieve. It’s very important to us; we’re driven. Maybe you’ve heard that word used to describe you.

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But we’re also fearful of failure and what it means. So we have two sources of motivation. So, in fact, procrastination, in many cases, and the cause of that is we’re overmotivated. We’re overly striving both away and towards something. And that’s what we’ve learned, that procrastinators are actually not less motivated than the average person, although that’s what they say or “I’m lazy” or “I don’t have time management.”

Those are really not typically the causes. What it is is a feeling of stuckness, two countervailing forces: we are driven towards success on the one hand, but we are strongly and powerfully motivated to avoid failure on the other.

And we feel this stuckness, these countervailing forces. And many people describe procrastination as being stuck or against a wall, an obstacle they can’t get over. Does that sound right to you? The phenomenon of it: what does it feel like?

We are often agitated. We can’t sleep, but we can’t work. Right? So we have these countervailing forces, and we’re unable to move forward.

Until some moment where we have this insight, and we say, “If I don’t start now, I won’t get this done.” And the fear of not getting it done – I see the nod – exceeds the fear of doing less than perfectly or to an exceptional standard or to as good as I did it last time.

Because those of us who are perfectionists and procrastinate, we’ve often excelled at high levels in the past, and we can begin to internalize those standards and feel that we must meet them each time.

It’s important, then, that we come to think about procrastination in different terms. So self-worth theory looks at procrastination with just a different lens.

So a common way that we hear procrastination discussed is as self-sabotage. We’re handicapping ourselves; we’re sabotaging ourselves.

You can see from a self-worth point of view, it’s not self-sabotage; it’s self-protection. We’re trying to protect ourselves, our sense of our self as able and capable and worthy human beings.

And we’re willing to sacrifice our performance to do it. Because self-worth is the paramount human need. Make sense?

I want you to think about procrastination, you saw the slide before, think about procrastination actually as a strategy, a really nearly perfect strategy for protecting ourselves.

If we procrastinate on a task that we value and care about and then we don’t achieve very well at a high level, if we fail, we have a built-in excuse. Right? “I couldn’t have achieved that, I only had two hours before the exam to get ready.” And you hear people doing that.

Think about when you’re standing outside of the lecture hall before an exam, what are people saying? “I only studied three hours.”

“I only studied two.”

“Yeah, my computer froze; I didn’t get a chance to do that.”

Everybody’s explaining how they’re not ready. Why?

Because if they don’t achieve, they have this built-in excuse, not only for themselves but for others. But it’s a brilliant strategy because if you succeed – you get that A on that physics test – then you can conclude, “I’m really smart. Smarter than I thought I was. I thought I needed three hours; I only needed two.”

So procrastination as an avoidance strategy is nearly perfect in its outcome in protecting our self-worth, even as we jeopardize our performance. We increase the chance that we’re going to need that excuse. Right? But we have it ready.

So what our preparations and these tests are testing is not so much our knowledge and our skill but really our brinksmanship, our ability to pull off stuff at the last minute.  If that’s not the definition of a Princeton student, I don’t know what is.

How do we overcome procrastination?

What a lot of us to do is we try to talk ourselves into getting started by saying, “If I don’t do this, I’m not going to get into med school.”

“Oh, this is going to harm my GPA, my transcript.”

We’re actually increasing fear. And there’s not a surprise that it doesn’t really work very well. There’s actually some counterintuitive other kinds of strategies that we’re going to recommend.

So there’s three broad categories. There’s many, many, many more, but these three come from, or really follow from, self-worth theory in particular. So I want to underscore these.

I want to do so first by talking about developing awareness.

We know, from the research on procrastination and overcoming it, that gaining knowledge, being aware of self-worth theory and these dynamics helps people overcome these things. To understand the roots of procrastination helps us weaken it.

We know where it comes from: “Ah, I can be aware of and see these dynamics happening in front of me.”

But another kind of awareness is to gain awareness of what we’re feeling. What do approach motives feel like versus avoidance?

We know when we’re cleaning the fridge in our dorm room the night before the final exam that that’s procrastination. But there are other times it’s not so clear. Is checking your email procrastination? Is studying or doing the task on the low-important item on your list – is that procrastination?

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A lot of times it is. So the more we know, the greater awareness we have of our tendencies and our motivations, we’re more likely to overcome them.

So we want to cultivate a stance, an observer’s stance, and say, “What does this feel like? What am I experiencing? What am I thinking?”

So that we can then actively choose what we want to feel and think and what we’re motivated by. And these next few strategies tell us how to do that.

So the first one is to learn how to tip the balance away from avoidance motivations toward approach motivations. So a lot of people think, “I’m not motivated to do this.” Often, that’s not the case. It’s simply that their fears dominate or overwhelm their approach motives.

There’s a reason you signed up for that class. There’s ideas you want to take away from, skills you want to learn. There are benefits beyond school of doing well on this activity. But we’re not thinking of that.

They’re not in our minds, and so they don’t affect us. Motivation can only operate on us if we’re thinking of it or feeling it. Because that’s the nature of motivation.

So how can we bring them back into our consciousness? How can we shift or tip the balance toward approach motives?

We can stack them up; we can think of all the reasons why I want to do this task. That’s not to pretend there aren’t reasons not to; it’s simply so those come to predominate over these reasons I might avoid.

So what are some ways of doing that?

I’m going to show you an example of my own so that you can see that. That says, “TEDx.” This is my motivational to-do list because, believe it or not, I was scared when I was getting ready for this talk.

I was anxious. Am I going to blow it? Is it going to look bad?

So what did I do?

I started writing down the things I wanted to keep in my mind. First, I wanted to think about this as an opportunity and as a way to experiment.

So I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, this should be perfect. It’s an experiment – I’m going to try it out.” It’s a little different way of talking. It lowers the expectations and it lowers the stakes.

Another thought was, “You know what? Maybe I can see this as not about me but as a service to the Princeton community. I’m helping people.” For me, my motivational profile, that motivates me, takes the pressure off me: I want to be helpful.

A third idea that was really important for me was, to tap into a deep, abiding, enduring motivation was: How does this fit with my mission?

So I see my purpose in life, my mission in my work, is to reduce suffering, specifically of students so that they can be more engaged in their academic work, in their lives, and to thrive and flourish.

And, in fact, that’s a reminder that I have on my phone, and every day, I see it: “Reduce suffering.”

Another idea was to make it small so it feels manageable, right? My thought about the whole thing: it felt too big. Now this may be familiar, right. We say, “Slice it up into pieces.”

But make it small to make it feel manageable. And so I started to do that. One way I did that was instead of writing out the whole script, maybe I can make a very simple outline, and that gives me a sense of the whole.

So those are some techniques that helped me overcome, not entirely – I’m still pretty nervous right now – but to get moving, to get started, to make progress. And to enjoy it so much more.

The last way we can tackle procrastination is by really challenging this equation that we carry around in our head: it’s flawed. Right? Our performance is not equal to our ability. There are lots of times when our performance was less than our capacity to perform. It’s simply not representative.

Sometimes it’s another way round. Some of you had good reputations in high school; you got an A when you didn’t deserve it.

So either way, that breaks the A and the P association. But more importantly, your ability is not equivalent to your worth. Think about the people you love and who love you, people you value and care about. It’s not because of their GPA or their transcript. That is not the case.

Our worth derives from our human qualities of kindness, thoughtfulness and our vulnerabilities, which might be thought of as a weakness.

So I want to leave you with one thought from Nelson Mandela. And he said, “May your choices reflect your hopes and not your fears.”

This is absolutely approach-avoidance motivation theory, right there. Can we be motivated by those things we aspire to, not by pretending we don’t have the fears but despite them?

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

Shift Into a Powerful Mindset at Any Time: David Bayer (Transcript)

5 Hindrances to Self-Mastery: Shi Heng YI (Transcript)

How Not To Take Things Personally: Frederik Imbo (Transcript)

Caroline Myss: Choices That Can Change Your Life at TEDxFindhornSalon (Transcript)