“I don’t get it. I can get more done in half an hour than my daughter can in three hours! Is she lazy or just unfocused?”
“John was doing fine this year…until he started turning in low-level work. He’s bright, capable, and enjoys school. What’s going on?”
“Every time she has a test coming up, Emily doesn’t study until the very last minute. She stays up all night and can barely get out of bed the next day. I’mm worried this is becoming a habit that she won’t be able to break out of…”
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Procrastination is something many of us would rather not talk about, let alone admit to doing (especially to our kids!). However, it’s something we all experience. Learning more about why it happens and how we can encourage our kids to develop strategies to counteract it are lifelong skills that can impact academic work and beyond.
What Is Procrastination? And What Is Procrastination Not?
Procrastination can be defined as the avoidance of attempting a task. It can encompass everything from not starting to not finishing – and everything in between! Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University in Canada, frames it as “prioritizing short-term mood regulation over long-term goals.”
In essence, procrastination presents a tug-of-war in our brains between emotion and logic. The limbic system, the “react and feel” part of our brains, fights with the prefrontal cortex, “logic” part that involves focus, organizing, and impulse control. The short-term emotional payoff of putting off a task feels much better than the satisfaction of completed work. Over time as we repeat behaviors that delay work, procrastination becomes an ingrained habit.
Considering this information, it’s clear how challenging overcoming procrastination is for our kids. Their logical brains are trying to develop amidst this swirl of internal battles! Add in the pull to avoid anxiety and other unpleasant emotions, and you can see how procrastination can become an easy trap to fall into.
Identifying the Causes of Procrastination
A pervasive myth is that only “lazy people” procrastinate. Unfortunately, this belief over-simplifies the problem and keeps us from digging deeper to get to the underlying cause. You may be surprised at the number of reasons your child may procrastinate – and that many of them are because they care too much!
- A fear of failure is about a possibility of failing, which we adults know is almost always present. To kids, it can be overwhelming because it presents itself in a number of ways, such as fear of letting others down, fear of appearing less than competent (losing “face”), and fear of disappointing one’s own internalized beliefs about success. As stated in a Psychology Today article, “It is psychologically more acceptable to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short on performance.”
- There’s also perfectionism, or an attachment to a fantasy outcome, usually paired with strong self-criticism when that outcome is not achieved. Perfectionism can also be linked to anxiety, so we can see this grouping (along with a fear of failure) as the “perfect storm” of factors that feed procrastination.
- If we don’t consider the task itself challenging or stimulating enough, we will procrastinate in order to feel challenged or stimulated. When we have hours and hours to do something, there isn’t as much emotional incentive to complete the task soon, so we are more prone to put it off. This explains why we can get a LOT done when we think we don’t have enough time for it!
- Procrastination can also stem from feeling uncertainty. For example, if there is lack of a plan or structure in how to get started on a project or how to proceed once we’ve gotten started, your child will feel uncertainty. This can result in confusion, fear, and even paralyzing panic. It’s much easier to put a task off than it is to deal with those negative feelings!
- Speaking of uncertainty, a lack of confidence in one’s ability to complete a task is cited as a major factor in procrastination behaviors. The idea is that because we think we won’t finish, we won’t even start. As adults, we know this is a trick our minds can play on us, but as our kids struggle to develop their own understanding of this, they can easily fall into behavioral habits that keep both the low confidence AND procrastination habits in place.
- Finally, don’t overlook low energy. We already know our kids often feel stretched for time. On top of the time crunch, it takes a lot more mental energy to make ourselves do things we don’t want to do!
In sum, procrastination has a lot to do with feelings – sustaining good or neutral ones and avoiding negative ones. Understanding this helps us more effectively strategize with our children, which in turn gives them control over their emotions and work. More on that in part two!
Would you like to learn more about how 1:1 tutoring can help your child take charge of their learning? Contact us or give us a call at 312.260.7945 or 415.963.9229!