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It’s in the means: Process focus helps against procrastination in the academic context

Abstract

Two studies tested the hypotheses (1) that focusing on the process of goal pursuit is associated with lower levels of procrastination and (2) that this relationship is moderated by fear of failure and task aversiveness. Study 1 used a between-subjects design with hypothetical scenarios (N = 92). Study 2 used a 5-week longitudinal within-subject design in a real-life context (N = 50). Both studies found converging evidence for the main-effect hypothesis, that is, process focus is negatively associated with procrastination in the academic context (e.g., studying for an exam). Process focus was also negatively related to task aversiveness and fear of failure. However, findings regarding moderation effects of fear of failure and task aversiveness were mixed. Taken together, findings support the hypothesis that the cognitive representation of a goal primarily in terms of its means (i.e., process focus) versus its outcome is related to less procrastination: Focusing on the process of a task can help to reduce procrastination.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (Project “Process and outcome focus—The role of age,” ID: 100014-116528; PI: Alexandra M. Freund) and by a grant from the “Stiftung Hans und Suzanne Biäsch für Angewandte Psychologie” (Project “The role of goal focus for changes in procrastination across the life-span” PI: Kathrin Krause). The authors would like to thank the members of the "Developmental Psychology: Adulthood" team at the University of Zurich for helpful discussions of the work reported in this paper, Matthew J. Kerry for his feedback and for carefully editing this manuscript, and Ruth Kanfer, Frithjof Nussbeck, and Ralf Schwarzer for their valuable input. Kathrin Krause is an alumna of the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE).

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Appendix: Scenarios used in Study 1

Appendix: Scenarios used in Study 1

Scenario 1 “Preparing a presentation”

“Please imagine the following situation as vividly and realistically as you can:

You are enrolled in a seminar. During the first class, the course topics are introduced. The instructor asks the students to sign up to give a presentation on a certain topic. This assignment will be graded. You sign up for a topic and write the date of your presentation in your appointment book. You already have the readings that you are to use to prepare your presentation.

If you have never had to prepare a presentation for class, try to imagine being in this situation as best you can. If you have already been in this situation, remember what it was like to be in this situation.”

Scenario 2 “Preparing for an exam”

“Please imagine the following situation as vividly and realistically as you can:

It’s the middle of the semester and you are enrolled in several classes. In some of them, there will be a final exam at the end of the semester. You know what readings will be on the finals and have bought the lecture notes. They are on your desk, waiting to be read. In order to pass your finals, you will have to study for them concurrently because you have to take several exams. Finals won’t begin for a few weeks.

If you have never needed to study for a final, try to imagine being in this situation as best you can. If you have already been in this situation, remember how it was and what it was like to be in this situation.”

Scenario 4 “Working on a statistical assignment” (not included in analyses)

“Here is another situation. Please imagine it as vividly and realistically as you can:

You are taking a mandatory statistics class that you need to pass to get your degree. So, it is important that you don’t fall behind and that you pass the final exam. This week, there is another homework assignment. Its purpose is to help you apply a complex formula to a dataset. You have already installed the statistics program you’ll need to complete the assignment on your computer and you have all the materials you need.

If you have never worked on a statistics assignment, try to imagine being in this situation as best you can. If you have already been in this situation, remember what it was like to be in this situation.”

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Krause, K., Freund, A.M. It’s in the means: Process focus helps against procrastination in the academic context. Motiv Emot 40, 422–437 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9541-2

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Keywords

  • Procrastination
  • Goal focus
  • Motivation
  • Self-regulation
  • Fear of failure
  • Task aversiveness