Procrastination — Premack’s principle

M&Ms cannot be relied on to be rewarding. Premack’s principle provides a better guide. Photo:

M&Ms cannot be relied on to be rewarding. Premack’s principle provides a better guide. Photo:

Today I am going to focus on how to make use of the list you compiled after my previous posting — how to make it a stepping stone to overcoming procrastination. Basically, I am going to suggest that you use “reward” as a means of increasing the amount of work you do on your thesis. But before you get to saying “Ho, hum! I’ve already tried that and it didn’t work,” read a bit further. You might find a different take on “reward” from what you’ve attempted in the past. I’m also going to suggest, and describe what I mean by, becoming task focussed rather than time focussed.

When most people talk about “reward”, in the context of rewarding various behaviours, they think of things like chocolate, beer, clothes and so on. So they might work a while on their thesis, for example, have some chocolate, work a bit more, get themselves a coffee (usually the disgusting kind that you can find on campus), finish the chocolate bar, and try to write a for another couple of hours. Then at the end of a week or two they try and figure out if the amount they have written is worthy of a really big reward, and maybe go to a movie or buy some new clothes. They also wonder why they are not making much progress.

In the late 1950s, David Premack was struggling with what was then the standard conceptualisation of “reward” and “punishment”. Something was, by definition, rewarding of a particular behaviour, if its delivery following the behaviour led to an increase in that behaviour. So, for example, if I gave you an M&M every time you wrote a word in your thesis draft, and your rate of writing increased as a result, then we’d say that the M&Ms were rewarding. But what if you didn’t write any faster. Unfortunately, the definition of “reward” and “rewarding” was circular so that we’d be able to say that chocolate wasn’t a reward after all, because it didn’t increase your writing rate, but it would give us no clue as to what was rewarding. As a way out of this circular definition, Premack noted that if you made high frequency behaviours contingent (dependent) upon low frequency behaviours, then the low frequency behaviours would tend to increase. Lost?? I hope not, but here is an example. Let’s say Sally, spends a lot of time with her friends (high frequency behaviour) and not much time doing her homework (low frequency behaviour). Then if you tell Sally that she can visit her friends only when she’s done her homework is done, the homework (low frequency behaviour) is likely to increase. Every parent knows this, but we tend to forget the principle when we want to change our own behaviour.

So here are the suggestions.

First, look at your list you made last week, and rank order the activities on the list according to the amount of time that you spent on them on the day of your recording. At the top of the list, put the activities on which you spent the most time, and work down from there. Now you can use the list, together with Premack’s principle, to devise a strategy for yourself which should result in an increase in the amount you get done on your thesis.

First, locate a couple of activities on which you did not spend much time and over which you’ve been procrastinating. We’ll call these activities “PA”, for “procrastination activities”. Next, locate some other activities on which you spent a lot of time. We’ll call these “RA”, for “reward activities”. Take particular note of the following — it does not matter at all whether you think the RAs were pleasurable or not. Pleasure doesn’t figure in our definition of reward! The fact is, that when faced with a choice of things to do, you chose to do the RAs rather than the PAs, and that is enough to be able to use Premack’s principle.

The second part of what you need to do is to lean to become task oriented, or goal oriented, rather than time oriented. By this I mean that you need to learn to set yourself goals phrased in terms of product, rather than time. For example, you might set yourself the goal of writing 50 words of your thesis Introduction, rather than demanding that you work on it for a specific time.

Now we can put the two parts together, and come up with the following approach to working on your thesis during the Olympics. Say that your list indicates that you are watching 10 hours of televised Olympics per day (so the Olympics is the RA), whereas you have hardly done anything on your thesis (the PA). Then you could approach writing by saying to yourself, “I am going to write 50 words on my introduction. When I have written 50 words, then I get to watch the Olympics for 15 minutes.” Now you might say to yourself that 50 words is not going to get your PhD finished, but if you were to follow this schedule, and you’re watching 10 hours of the Olympics each day, then you will have written 2000 by the end of one day. You can adjust the ratio of words to TV-time (this is technically know as the “reinforcement schedule”) depending on how you are going. It is better that you are able to get something done on the PA, followed immediately by some RA than it is to spend the whole day getting frustrated. So if you are like me, where 200 words per day was a tremendous success, then you might begin with what seems like too small a task (!) and set yourself a schedule which requires two sentences followed by 10 minutes of the Olympics. You will be surprised at how much better this works than setting yourself Herculean tasks.

It might seem counterintuitive to work the PA in task-oriented units rather than time units, but there is a lot of evidence to show that this approach works well. On the other hand, the reinforcement schedule will work best when the RAs are time limited. That means that instead of saying “When I’ve written 50 words, I’ll call up my girlfriend,” which has the potential result of you talking for hours, it is better to say “When I’ve written 50 words, I’ll get to talk to my girlfriend for 15 minutes” … even if you have to call her back later, after the next 50 words! Of course, you might find, if you set your reinforcement schedule this way, that you quickly start writing more. You’ll then be able to change your reinforcement schedule to 100 words of PA followed by 30 minutes of RA.

Good luck.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond