“Start with the item you like the least.”
Procrastination and Anxiety
Procrastination is the irrational tendency to delay tasks that require completion (Clarry H. Lay, 1986). A strong propensity towards procrastination often leads to a strong sense of negative self-evaluation, anxiety, and depression. This is especially the case when required tasks are associated high performance areas such as work and/or school.
Perfectionism appears to be the the root of procrastination. Setting 100% as the only possible outcome leads to anticipatory anxiety and a failure to start required work. The problem originates in the perfectionists’ focus on outcome over process.
For example, when preparing to run your first marathon, your training strategy (tempo runs, mixed with long slow distance run days), should be more important than singularly focusing on your finish line completion time. A perfectionist will always focus on their time gaol, forgetting that training has its ups and downs along the way. Bad training days lead to disappointment and anxiety, thus resulting in putting off a tough run. This can lead to pulling out of the race all together.
The Premack Principle Defined
The Premack Principle was developed by Dr. David Premack from the University of Pensilvania. Premack worked in the field of Cognitive Psychology and Applied Behavioural Analysis.
The principle states that, “High probability behaviour can serve as a reinforcer to low probability behaviour.” In other words, something you really like doing can make it easier to complete an activity you don’t like doing at all.
How does this work? Premack understood that unpleasant tasks often prevent us from getting started. In order to combat this, he suggested the following in order to prevent a potential emerging pattern of procrastination:
- Make a list of all the activities you have to complete in a particular project or busy work day.
- Order the list form least pleasurable to most. Remember that we are not measuring time to complete a task. Instead, we are measuring pleasure associated with that task.
- Starting from the top, do the least pleasurable activities first, followed by the most pleasurable.
- Take note of how you feel as your day progresses.
Using the Premack Principle leads to increased motivation. Usually we assume that scratching off easier items earlier will make us feel better about the harder tasks we need to get done. The converse is the truth – Start with the hardest (least pleasurable) items and end for day or project with a bang!
Two Applications of the Premack Principle
- Your assignment is to complete a research paper on endocrinology, a topic you know nothing about. Make a detailed list of all the things you need to do and make a note of what you like least. Does the idea of gathering articles at the library turn your stomach? Start there!
- You are a runner preparing to complete your first marathon. You know that a good training plan consists of long slow run days, hill work, tempo runs and gym time. You dislike the gym the most. At the beginning of each training week, start with the gym.