A Volitional Resource to Defeat Procrastination: Meaning

An overlooked volitional skill is increasing incentive through meaning.

Posted Jun 24, 2019

Over the past year, my students and I have been collaborating with a Russian colleague, Dr. Daniil D. Barabanov, who works at the Moscow Institute of Psychoanalysis in the Department of Personality Psychology and Differential Psychology). We share a focus on the notion of volition or volitional action.

Volition is defined most broadly as the act of choosing, willing or resolving. It’s the notion of the individual deciding or choosing what he or she will do. Volition is seen to be a higher-order skill often discussed in relation to concepts such as executive function, or in the case of Russian psychological theory, it’s discussed in relation to theories posited by Aleksei Leontiev, a student of Lev Vygotsky.

Volitional regulation is a key aspect of our day-to-day lives. Although we do many things habitually and non-consciously, without the ability to plan, choose, and execute actions voluntarily, we would lack aspects of mental functioning that many consider central to what it means to be human. More importantly and in practical terms, without volitional regulation, we would often fail to get things done.

Although we may get things done when there are strong external pressures or rewards for doing so (e.g., fulfilling basic biological needs or completing tasks on which our job may depend), we may often have times in our lives when the motivation to act just doesn’t seem sufficient. We might think that we “should” or that we “need” to act, but we can’t seem to choose that path.

In many ways, this Don’t Delay blog has been about research that helps us understand this failure of our volition as well as what we might do to move ahead despite not feeling like it. In fact, I and my colleagues have focused a great deal on emotion-regulation related to “not feeling like it” and the notion of short-term mood repair as a problem that undermines our volition.

Our work with Dr. Barabanov has a slightly different emphasis. Based on Leontiev’s conception of consciousness, we focused on how a key psychological mechanism of volitional regulation is changing or the creation of an additional personal sense (smysl) of an action. This personal sense or meaning exists as an emotional relation to something. It speaks to the deep question of “why” in our lives to connect action to meaning, or as Leontiev conceives of it, personal sense.

Our Research

We have conducted some exploratory research in both Russia and Canada to empirically test whether there is a relation between procrastination (the breakdown in volitional action) and this concept of personal sense or meaning. Given that we often measure procrastination as a trait or the way we typically act, we also measured meaning or purpose as a broad trait using the Purpose in Life Test.

The Purpose in Life Test or PIL has been noted as one of the most commonly used measures in positive psychology, and it is a key component of what psychologists think of when they measure well-being. Purpose in life, or our ability to find meaning in our experiences as well as set meaningful goals for our lives, is essential to our happiness.

Results

Across both samples, in Russia and Canada, our student samples revealed a moderate negative relation between scores on the Purpose in Life Test and measures of procrastination. The more purpose we have, the less we procrastinate.

Although these are only correlational data and cause cannot be determined, theoretically, these results are consistent with the notion that the ability to find purpose or meaning in our lives may be a resilience resource volitionally. When other motivations fail us, digging a little deeper into the personal sense of our actions may be a neglected aspect of self-regulation that will make a difference.

We’ve seen results similar to this in past research such as how youth who have achieved their identity (in the Eriksonian sense) self-report procrastinating less. Similarly, in research on ego-depletion, value affirmation can help bolster a willingness to keep trying when resolve (or ego strength) seems all but gone.

Research studies are a work in progress or penultimate in every case, so we continue to think through what this notion of personal sense means to our understanding of the breakdown in volitional action we know as procrastination. In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that a deep sense of purpose and meaning are key assets to successful goal pursuit.

Why are you choosing to do what you are today?