What Is Action-State Orientation?

Overcoming state-orientation tendencies is like using a magnifying glass to gain greater focus

As a professor, I have seen students who performed well academically and others not so much. Faculty often view low performers as lacking in ability or motivation assuming they are lazy. But there is a third factor that can be even more important. Some highly capable and motivated students struggle to keep focused and get their academic work done because of their action-state orientation. But what is action-state orientation and why is it a factor in academic performance?

What Is Action-State Orientation?

In order for students to turn their academic goals into academic success, they need to be able to self-regulate their behavior. That is, they have to figure out a strategy to achieve their goals (e.g., study to pass an exam), and they need to be able to execute that strategy. Individuals who are able to self-regulate by setting up a study plan and following it are considered action-oriented. Others who have difficulty following the plan are considered state-oriented, as there is a break-down in their internal self-regulation that prevents them from sticking to the plan.

There are three ways in which state-oriented students have a failure to reach their potential.

  • Hesitation: The student has trouble getting down to work—they procrastinate.
  • Preoccupation: The student has difficulty in getting back to work after an interruption.
  • Volatility: The student becomes bored and loses interest in an activity. Continuing becomes frustrating and stressful.

State-oriented students are not lazy or unmotivated. Many students have goals they are highly motivated to achieve. They often work extremely hard. Where they have difficulty is in staying focused on academic work. They procrastinate because they are involved in other things, like extra-curricular activities. They are easily distracted from work, for example, a friend calls and asks a favor and they get side tracked. They have a hard time continuing to work on something that is boring and is causing distress. This might mean switching to an activity that is more interesting. Taken together these characteristics describe an individual who wants to succeed but is struggling to do so.

How To Overcome State-Orientation

There are several strategies that can help overcome state-orientation tendencies including these three.

Avoid Distractions: A state-oriented person has a tough time recovering from a distraction while they are working, so the best strategy for dealing with distractions is to avoid them. For students their cell phone is perhaps the most distracting thing in their lives. If notices are left on, it will ding each time a call, email, or text arrives. Turning off notices, especially for email that does not require urgent response can be helpful. The best strategy is to turn off the phone while studying to entirely avoid cell phone distraction.

Set Mini-Goals: Goal setting is an effective tool for raising performance, but typically goals are fairly long-term, requiring days and weeks or longer to achieve. A mini-goal is something that can be accomplished within a day or sooner, and can be accomplished in a short period of time–less than an hour. For someone who is state-oriented, a very short-term goal can refocus. For a procrastinator who puts things off until the last minute, a one-hour mini-goal can still be accomplished within the day, even if it is late into the evening. For those who are easily bored, a short task can be accomplished before the boredom takes hold.

Structuring Your Time: For people who struggle with staying focused, a tool that can help is to add structure to activities. This begins with making a list of things to be done and then organizing them into a schedule of when they should be completed. As a student, at the beginning of each semester I went over the syllabi for all my classes and made a list of all the deliverables for each class–exams, papers, and other assignments. I then put them into a calendar that specified when I should accomplish each one, including sub-tasks along the way. This can be broken down into very small tasks that are the focus of mini-goals. Thus if there is an exam that covers 80 pages of material in a textbook, a series of mini-goals could break it down into goals of reading 8 pages on 10 different days.

The best way of dealing with state-orientation tendencies is not to try to become action-oriented, but rather to adopt strategies like these for overcoming the three main obstacles.

Beyond the Classroom

Action-state orientation is not something that only affects school work. It is a general tendency that affects everything we do in life. The same self-regulation that affects school work affects the job and other aspects of life. The strategies that a student might use in school can be applied to getting things done at work or at home. Avoiding distractions by structuring when email is checked, setting mini-goals, and structuring tasks over time can be useful in all domains of life when things need to get done.

Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

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