We are all probably guilty of it – not doing that thing that you were supposed to do and allowing it to gather dust whilst you find a myriad of other things to do instead. In fact, this blog article is a great example of just such a thing. I’ve been meaning to write it for over a month, but there has always been something else more seemingly exciting or pressing to do resulting in this being put to the bottom of the pile for another day.
Procrastination. I’ll freely hold my hand up and say I’m guilty of it – but as well as affecting things we need to do for work and in our day to day lives, does it also have an effect when it comes to purchasing decisions?
The answer is probably yes. And there is a good reason for it too which is not due to a slovenly nature but actually to do with certain parts of the brain, their size and how well they are connected. And with about 20% of US adults being chronic procrastinators (Joseph Ferrari, American Psychological Association) and calls for procrastination to be clinically recognised as a serious and ever-growing condition affecting the population, is it something we should address as optimisers?
Absolutely. A recent study by Basex puts the cost of unnecessary interruptions at about $650 billion1, and that other distractions tot up to an impressive loss of $70 billion a year2 to the US economy – and both are triggers for procrastinators to procrastinate in most aspects of their lives or jobs.
A lovely example of this was produced by The Economist3.
“Gangnam Style” had over two billion views on YouTube in 2014, making it the most watched clip of all time. At 4:12 minutes, that equates to more than 140 million hours, or more than 16,000 years of people watching this instead of doing something else.
Now think about how many of those procrastinators are sitting on a website battling with their inability to complete a task without self-sabotaging – food for thought, isn’t it?
A recent study4 (The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control, Caroline Schlüter, Christoph Fraenz, Christoph Fraenz, , Marlies Pinnow, Patrick Friedrich, Onur Güntürkün, Erhan Genç, August 2018) of 264 healthy adults concluded that:
That’s great, but what does it mean for those procrastinators amongst us who have got this far into this article and may be considering doing something else instead.
Let’s break it down into something more digestible.
The ability to initiate self and emotional control mechanisms varies from person to person. The differences are described in detail by Kuhl’s action-control theory (see below), which identifies AOD as a particular type of action control.
AOD measures an individual’s ability to initiate an action. The lower a person scores on to AOD scale, the less able they are to initiate that action.
This classifies individuals as either action or state orientated depending on their ability to use self- and emotional-control mechanisms, such as executing an intention, defending it from competing alternatives, and inhibiting negative thoughts or unwanted negative feelings.
Action orientation is associated with efficient use of self- and emotional-control processes and goal-directed behaviour. State orientation relates to the difficulty of recruiting sufficient self and emotional control processes that hinders goal-directed behaviour.
That pink dot you see in the picture – it’s your Amygdala. That’s the fancy name for an almond-sized nugget in your temporal lobe. Its job is to process emotions and control our motivation.
It is also a hub for fear motivated behaviour. During fear conditioning, synaptic plasticity of it transforms sensory and somatosensory information of thalamic and cortical regions into distinct fear memory. This memory is important in decision-making situations, when the affective significance of a given behaviour, stimulus of threat or reward needs to be evaluated.
Amygdala guides the selection of actions by selecting desirable behaviours and inhibiting actions that lead to potentially unfavourable outcomes on the basis of previous experiences.
Individuals with larger amygdala have learned from past mistakes and evaluate future actions and consequences more extensively which leads to greater concern and hesitation (a low AOD score). Potentially, state orientated low AOD emphasise possible adverse consequences so excessively that action initiation is inhibited.
This is another part of the brain linked to the Amygdala. It has an evaluative function that is emotional and highlights the amount of distress associated with a certain error. It uses the information it gets from the Amygdala and decides what action the body will take. It blocks out competing emotions and distractions and allows a decisive action to be taken.
What does this mean it less wordy terms?
Basically, those of us that have a bigger amygdala and less connectivity between it and our dACC’s are more likely to be labelled as procrastinators or more scientifically put, we are “state orientated”.
These 2 situations lead to a perfect storm whereby decision making is overridden by emotions; primarily fear.
There are several different types of procrastinators as we know them, but some types display more typical behaviour towards what we see happening with a larger Amygdala and lower connectivity between the dACC. Let’s take a look – maybe you can identify yourself in the list (I know which one I am!)
1. Thrill Seeker
This type of procrastinator gets a rush from completing things last minute. They think they thrive under pressure and love the adrenaline rush from doing things last minute.
These procrastinators avoid the discomfort of doing tasks that are unpleasant or high stakes. They focus too much on what others might think and run from fear of failure and on occasion the fear of success.
An indecisive procrastinator just can’t make a decision, and it’s usually based on the fear that if a decision they make has a negative outcome, they will be blamed for it. They don’t like responsibility.
Perfectionists set such high standards for a task they get overwhelmed by it and fail to finish it because they can not meet the unrealistic expectation they set for themselves in the first instance.
These procrastinators have a lot to do, but everything seems equally important and they can’t decide what to do first because choosing one task means none of the others will get done. If a busy procrastinator does start a task they’re unlikely to finish it because they’ll interrupt its completion with something else that seems more important.
Avoiders and Indecisives certainly stand out due to their behavioural patterns and associated psychology, in that if they have increased volume in their Amygdala they display a much higher propensity to over evaluate decisions based on possible outcome leading to greater concern and hesitation.
Now that we’ve established what procrastination is, why it happens and in what ways it can manifest itself, the question remains, as optimisation experts; what can we do about it? What changes can we make to encourage those extreme fence sitters to do that “thing” that we want them to do and convert on a website? Researching cognitive behaviour techniques to overcome procrastination produces a number of interesting solutions that can be implemented in our everyday A/B testing. Here are a few suggestions:
Looking at the above table you’ll see that some of what is included should be part and parcel of common optimisation techniques – but when you want to target procrastinators you need to think beyond subtleties and get stuck in with more obvious and bolder solutions.
You need to actively manage emotional state and consequence and refute negativity. You need to cut the feedback loop (or fear conditioning) between perceived potential negative consequences and outcomes by providing positive enforcement even when something has gone awry – in essence you need prevent that Amygdala from getting any bigger!
By doing this, you may well be on track to convert those procrastinators. But you can amplify your chances by combining these techniques with others, such as those described in The Fogg Behaviour Model – you can read all about this in another great article on our blog!