Mary Lamia, Ph.D.*
Melissa always gets things done ahead of time and enjoys the relief she feels as she crosses tasks off her list. This was the case, she recalls, as far back as grammar school where she didn’t feel good about going out to play until her homework was finished. In contrast, her older son, Tyler, seems to have a very different way of doing things. Similar to how his dad recalls how he got things done in school, Tyler plays first and does homework later, often finishing minutes before his strict bedtime. Much to Melissa’s displeasure, Tyler uses their short commute to school as time to study for various tests. She gave up lecturing him on time management since, as Tyler’s dad constantly reminds her, Tyler’s grades are excellent. Melissa can easily identify with the way her younger son, Anthony, gets things done—he has an urgency to do things right away, whether it is his homework or packing for a trip. But Anthony’s way of doing things leads to occasional conflict with his dad, such as the time he insisted on finishing a project before going on an outing.
Motivational styles generally develop at a young age, and many people can link their particular style to memories of completing school assignments or everyday tasks. Where some people put things off until a deadline looms, others seem compelled to complete tasks immediately. Does procrastination interfere with success? Definitely not. Those who wait are just as likely to be successful as people who complete tasks ahead of time. The ultimate goals to keep in mind have to do with consistently meeting deadlines and using one’s best efforts.
The different timing of procrastinators and non-procrastinators to complete tasks has to do with when their emotions are activated and what activates them. Procrastinators who consistently complete tasks on time—even if it’s at the last moment—are motivated by emotions that are activated when a deadline is imminent. They are deadline driven. In contrast to procrastinators, task-driven people faced with uncompleted tasks are compelled to take action right away. Motivated by their emotions to complete a task ahead of schedule and put it behind them, those who are successful attend to the quality of their work prior to scratching the task off their list.
Early childhood response patterns to emotion—such as when emotion was activated that motivated you to complete your homework or clean your room—continue to influence how you tend to get things done throughout your life. You might assume you did these things just because you were supposed to do them. Although you may not have been aware of feeling a particular emotion but instead only thoughts such as, “I should do my homework,” I can assure you that emotion was present that motivated you to do it or not. These early life experiences, at some point, solidify into characteristic emotional responses to tasks and lead to a particular style of getting things done.
Both children and the adults in their lives can benefit from understanding the source of what motivates them. Mistakenly, many parents and teachers believe only positive emotions motivate children in a healthy way. Yet how many children have a motivational system that will trigger the emotion of excitement, for example, in response to several pages of math problems or taking out the garbage? Although children can be motivated by anticipating they will feel positive emotions that result in pride, often what motivates a child to get something done also has to do with their response to negative emotions, such as the avoidance of shame or guilt, or relief from distress (often experienced as a fear of failure or a fear of forgetting).
Just because we experience a negative emotion about a task to complete does not mean we should avoid getting something done or be punished for what is felt. Moreover, many children are confused when they do not feel any positive emotion about a task that is before them, as though that’s always how they should always feel. Instead, caregivers who can be playful with their awareness of how the human motivational system works can activate interest or excitement about the relief that will be felt in completing a dreaded task, along with pride in the outcome.