Temporal Motivation Theory: How to Hack Your Writing Habit

by Dr. Amanda Welch

You know that getting articles published and submitting grants are required to move forward in your career. Yet, between meetings, running experiments or cohorts, field work, and administrative tasks, the time to write just never happens. Or maybe you get stuck staring at blank screen. How do you get started?

This problem of getting started has troubled me most of my life. However, I'm a nerd—a big nerd. Therefore, when I procrastinate, I procrastinate in accordance with my nerdiness. This led me to research about why people procrastinate and the literature on motivation and goal setting. In that literature, I found König and Steele’s temporal motivation theory, which integrated other theories into a unified equation (given below).

The temporal motivation theory predicts that the likelihood of a person to perform a task decreases as the time to achieve their goal increases. Put another way, this theory predicts that the number of students attending office hours will increase as time to the final exam decreases.

The first two variables, Expectancy and Value, increase as motivation increases, and the latter two, Impulsivity and Delay, decrease as motivation increases. The good news is that you can manipulate variables in this formula to make writing more attractive--and increase your motivation. We'll take a look at each of the variables individually and state how you can make them work for you.

Expectancy is your confidence that you will achieve your goal, which will increase the more reasonable a goal you set. A goal of writing a perfect first draft of your entire paper, or even one section, does not accurately reflect the writing process for most people, and such a goal would likely not be met. Knowing this, your expectancy would be low. On the other hand, if you set a reasonable goal of writing 500 words in an hour, then you will likely feel more confident in your ability to achieve this goal and increase the Expectancy.

Value is the reward for achieving this goal. You can increase value by adjusting the reward to reflect the effort it will take to achieve the goal. For example, the reward of taking a walk outside after writing and submitting an entire paper may not be of sufficient value to motivate you. However, that same reward may motivate you to write one section of a paper.

Importantly, the Value of the reward changes based on other factors in the equation: Delay and Impulsiveness.

Delay is the amount of time until you experience the reward. (If you're suddenly getting a light bulb moment around why you procrastinate, you're not the only one. I had a similar moment when reading the literature on this.) The temporal motivation theory suggests that the value of the reward will approach zero as the time to receive the award approaches infinity. For example, you need to write a paper to get tenure (or graduate). However, if tenure (or graduation) is still years away, then your perception of the value of the reward will be too small to sufficiently motivate you. No matter how important achieving tenure (or graduating) is to you. The solution here is to give yourself smaller rewards for reaching smaller goals. This means rewarding yourself with a cookie, a walk outside, or something of similar value for meeting your goal of writing 500 words in an hour.

Impulsiveness is your sensitivity to delay. This varies from person to person, day to day, and from hour to hour. Tweaking this variable can take some experimenting to get the time to reward right for you. People with low sensitivity to delay may be fine with a reward after working hours or even later in the week. On the other hand, some people are very sensitive to delay (especially people with ADHD or issues with attention control, energy regulation, and/or automaticity). If you find yourself (like me) in that category, then you may have success by rewarding yourself while doing the task. For example, eat the cookie during the task (and not saving it as reward for afterwards).

If you are interested, I manipulated factors in the temporal motivation theory to motivate myself to write the first draft of this blog post. My goal was simply words on the page (Expectancy) to get a first draft. I sat outside on my back porch to enjoy the beautiful weather (Value) while writing (Impulsiveness and Delay). I also use this example to illustrate that rewards do not have to be extravagant or cost money. The only requirement for a reward is that it must be something that you enjoy.

Next time you wonder where your motivation has gone, see if you can tweak one or more of the variables in the temporal motivation theory (Expectancy, Value, Impulsiveness, or Delay) in your favor. Remember that any progress towards your goal is better than no progress.

Reference: Steel P, Svartdal F, Thundiyil T, Brothen T. Examining Procrastination Across Multiple Goal Stages: A Longitudinal Study of Temporal Motivation Theory. Front Psychol. 2018 Apr 3;9:327. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00327. PMID: 29666590; PMCID: PMC5891720.

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