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“New Year, New Me”: Overcoming Procrastination on Resolutions

Betsy Kwok
18 Jan 2022

It is a worldwide tradition to make resolutions for the New Year. However, as the saying goes, it is easier said than done. So, how many of them do we actually keep? According to a study by Norcross, Mrykalo, and Blagys (2002), only 46% of participants making New Year’s resolutions were continuously successful in achieving their goals after six months. This indicates that up to one in two people may fail to keep their resolutions in the long run! Whilst the percentages clearly depend on factors like the criteria for success, the statistics may be much lower than what some might have expected. Many people often report experiencing procrastination, the voluntary delay of an important activity regardless of the potential negative consequences (Klingsieck, 2013), which consequently affects people’s ability to successfully pursue their goals.

Unfortunately, procrastination is a ubiquitous phenomenon in our everyday lives. Research shows that up to 95% of college students have procrastinated (Ellis & Knaus, 1979) and almost 50% reported frequent procrastination even on exam studying and general school activities, despite feeling that it was problematic and wanting to reduce it (Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Their worry is reasonable. Procrastinators often receive lower academic grades, and have poorer well-being and more stress later in a term (Tice & Baumeister, 1997). Worse, this issue extends beyond the student population, with adults stating that they have procrastinated during regular decision-making procedures (Harriott & Ferrari, 1996) and some sharing that procrastination has caused them financial losses (McCown, Johnson, & Petzel, 1989). The prevalence of such a troubling problem has thus[mi3]  received rising interest in the psychological field.

Some scholars have attempted to explain the phenomenon from a motivational perspective, believing that procrastination results from inadequate motivation or willpower. For instance, Brownlow and Reasinger (2000) found that difficulties in self-regulation, low motivation (e.g., due to the inability to find a task valuable), and the tendency to make external attributions for successes (e.g., luck; perhaps influenced by low self-perceived competence) increased the likelihood of procrastination. Additionally, perfectionism can raise procrastination tendency, probably as the extreme goals set can overwhelm the individual, leading to the delay of work instead. Certainly, these personal factors cannot fully explain procrastination, and some researchers suggested that situational factors also play a role in bringing about procrastination. Indeed, task difficulty (Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau, & Blunt, 2000), aversiveness (i.e., how unpleasant or unenjoyable a task is; Blunt & Pychyl, 2000), attractiveness and whether it has immediate rewards (Ackerman & Gross, 2005) appear to affect the tendency to procrastinate as well. To thoroughly understand the dynamics of procrastination, one should then consider the different perspectives altogether.

In view of that, what can be done to overcome procrastinations and stick to our resolutions? To begin with, stimulus control helps direct and motivate behaviour by guiding individuals to do what is appropriate, with cues that confirm their goals and keep out temptations to help with self-regulation. A simple way would be to remove distracting influences from your study or working area (e.g., Lopez & Wambach, 1982). That is related to the idea of operant conditioning, a type of associative learning which modifies behaviour using reinforcement or punishment, through presenting or removing a stimulus. (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). For example, if your goal is to lose weight, which is often one of the most common New Year’s resolutions (e.g., Norcross et al., 2002), but you always eat upon seeing the pack of chips near your desk, then such eating behaviour can be controlled (punished) by keeping the fattening junk food out of sight. As straightforward as it sounds, many people often procrastinate doing that, which lowers self-efficacy – the anticipation of success based on own competency (Zimmerman, 2008) – and thus motivation, further leading to more procrastination.

That then brings attention to the importance of exercising self-efficacy other than stimulus control. Similar to the self-fulfilling prophecy in which expectations about something gradually result in actions confirming the prediction (Merton, 1948), if you believe that you can control your behaviour to reach your goal, that leads to empowerment. Breaking down enormous goals into smaller, more achievable goals is also another way to increase the success rate of finishing a task and raise self-efficacy. Not only can that increase the motivation to follow a plan, but it can also make a task seem more appealing since it is achievable. Boice (1989) demonstrated that breaking unstructured, perhaps mind-boggling scholarly writing work into daily brief writing sessions helped previously unproductive writers maintain a healthy schedule of publication, perhaps since the smaller tasks are less overwhelming. To further reduce a task’s aversiveness, a long-range task may be paired with a short-range impulse or immediate reward, such as creating study groups for exam preparation (Steel, 2007). Whereas an exam may be seen as something distant, pleasant interactions with peers can be experienced shortly throughout the period, motivating a person to actively engage with the exam preparation. It is then helpful to create incentives to support your progress toward a goal.

Finally, perhaps the simplest way is to follow a "do it now" principle. Start working towards your goals the moment you finish writing them down, instead of letting them accumulate day after day to the point when your motivation is gone. Before January ends, just pull out a note, list your goals, make your follow-through, commit to your plan with aids like stimulus control and self-efficacy exercises, and ultimately, believe in yourself and go chase your dreams!


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