Monday, July 13, 2009

Mindfulness and task persistence: Not all self-awareness is a good thing

Interesting article - suggests that mindfulness may have a positive impact on our ability to stay focused on a task.

Mindfulness and task persistence: Not all self-awareness is a good thing

Does self-awareness affect task persistence?

Persistence is the key to success

A new study provides further evidence for the important role of mindfulness in self-regulatory success. The tendency to respond non-judgmentally and to be non-reactive to our thoughts and feelings was related to increased persistence on a difficult task.

Daniel R. Evans, Ruth A. Baer and Suzanne C. Segerstrom (Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky) recently published an interesting study entitled, "The effects of mindfulness and self-consciousness on persistence" (full reference below). They explored the relations between mindfulness, self-awareness and task persistence.

In this quasi-experimental research, they had student volunteers (142, primarily Caucasian women with an average age of approximately 19 years) solve anagram tasks. Their instructions to the participants were that "Participants were asked to work as quickly and accurately as possible. The first anagram had no solution, and participants were asked to move on if they had not done so within 5 min. The following 10 anagrams were mild to moderate in difficulty and had time limits of 90s each. By creating an initial impression of difficulty but allowing for progress, this design is suited to detect persistence" (p. 380). Prior to the anagrams, the participants completed brief paper and pencil measures of self-consciousness and mindfulness.

Self-consciousness includes three general components: private and public self-consciousness and social anxiety. "Private self-consciousness is awareness of one's thoughts, feelings, and private motivations, while public self-consciousness is awareness of oneself as a social object. The private self-consciousness factor is itself composed of two facets . . . Self-reflectiveness represents rumination about oneself, whereas internal state awareness reflects awareness of one's emotional states. Self-reflectiveness positively correlates with rumination, depression, and anxiety whereas internal state awareness negatively correlates with these variables . . . suggesting that self reflectiveness may be a maladaptive form of self-awareness, while internal state awareness may be neutral or adaptive" (p. 379).

Mindfulness is a non-judgmental awareness of one's self, including awareness of perceptions, sensations, thoughts and emotions. As a non-judgmental process, mindful awareness also involves an acceptance of what is. I have written about mindfulness previously. If this is a new concept for you, please see my previous blog.

Given my focus on procrastination as self-regulatory failure, I was particularly interested in this study. From one perspective, self-awareness as defined by self-consciousness (and particularly self-reflectiveness) is seen as central to self-regulation, as this self-awareness provides personal insight on the discrepancy between one's current state and one's goal standard. This discrepancy motivates behavior to reduce the discrepancy. In other words, self-consciousness can be seen as an important self-regulatory resource. In contrast, mindfulness is a different kind of self-awareness; a non-judgmental self-awareness that allows the individual to act more consciously on his or her intentions, not simply following automatic discrepancy-reducing behaviors.

Their results
Overall, the authors did find that mindfulness was correlated with persistence (even when they controlled for the number of anagrams solved). More specifically, the two facets of mindfulness labeled nonreactivity and nonjudging were significantly related to persistence. As the authors conclude,

". . . these results suggest that mindful self-awareness, particularly nonjudging and nonreactivity, can have a salutary effect on persistence at a difficult task. Higher levels of self-consciousness should contribute to improved persistence on a difficult task due to awareness of a discrepancy between one's goal state and current state that leads to efforts to reduce the discrepancy. However, the theory of metacognitive awareness (Teasdale, Segal, & Williams, 1995) suggests that judgmental and reactive thoughts triggered by a difficult task lead to less persistence because they promote self-criticism, frustration, and impulsive decisions to stop, whereas mindfulness promotes acknowledging self-critical thoughts or frustration and allowing these experiences to dissipate. It may also be that negative self talk, which is related to task performance and is generally more frequent during difficult tasks (c.f. Ferneyhough & Fradley, 2005), is affected by mindfulness such that subsequent emotions, such as embarrassment or frustration, that might reduce persistence are less likely to occur or are less intense for more mindful participants" (p. 381; emphasis added).

Concluding comments
This study lends further support to the good and bad of self-awareness in self-regulation. On the one hand, non-judgmental awareness of self (mindfulness) can promote self-regulation. On the other hand, self-reflectiveness through judgmental and reactive thoughts may promote self-criticism, frustration and impulsive decisions to stop.

This focus on self-awareness and emotions is an important piece of research in understanding how we "give in to feel good" and procrastinate on the task at hand when it's difficult (for whatever reason). It's certainly food for thought as each of us explores the kind of self-talk and self-awareness we aspire towards or cultivate in our lives. Negative self-talk (part of the irrationality of procrastination) can undermine our task pursuit. Mindfulness can keep our attention focused on the task at hand rather than absorbed in a ruminative process that undermines us.

Evans, D. R., Baer, R.A., & Segerstrom, S.C. (2009). The effects of mindfulness and self-consciousness on persistence. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 379-382.

Cited work
Ferneyhough, C., & Fradley, E. (2005). Private speech on an executive task: Relations with task difficulty and task performance. Cognitive Development, 20, 103-120.

Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z. V., & Williams, M. G. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness training) help? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 25-39.

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