Procrastination- helping young people “get on with it”

“I’ll do it later.”  “I’ll start tomorrow.” “I’m waiting until I’m in the right mood.” “I work better under pressure.”  “I’m waiting for the rest of my group to get started.”

We all put things off from time to time or find it hard to make a decision.  For the most part, we can usually come up with the goods in time to avoid dire consequences.  However, some young people get so stuck in putting things off that it starts to have a big impact on their life.

Some people might procrastinate about health checks, career choices, finances, chores, and relationship issues,  but the type of procrastination that we know the most about is academic procrastination. Because the majority of research is done in universities, it’s much easier for researchers there to utilize the students in their courses when they study (we know a lot about the psychology of first year under-graduate psychology students).

We do know that chronic procrastination is difficult to change and, like most things in psychology, procrastination is complex.

Some people procrastinate a little bit and some people do it a lot.  Some do it to the extent that their lives, and perhaps the lives of others they care about, start to be affected.   Those students who procrastinate regularly risk poorer academic performance, including withdrawing from courses or failing to complete requirements.

In an attempt to untangle the complexity of academic procrastination, one of the things that researchers  have found is that there is a link between academic procrastination and certain personality traits.  Procrastination is associated with certain personality types; with certain levels of motivation; with stress, anxiety and mental health; and then it can still vary from situation to situation.

Generally, students are less likely to procrastinate if they are conscientious. Conscientiousness is about having a desire to do well and to be careful and vigilant. However, even the most conscientious student might procrastinate if they are frozen by anxiety or stress in a situation where, for example, they really want to please someone.  Procrastination is also affected by how close the deadlines might be and the size of the reward people are working towards.

Some people procrastinate because they are worried and some procrastinate because they are not worried enough!

Further clues to what might be going on for a procrastinator can be found in the students’ typical pattern and mood as well as their excuses, rationalisations or justifications.

Some people procrastinate because of perfectionism or fear of failure.  These anxious people form only a small proportion of the overall group of procrastinators, but usually they are the clearest to define or to see what might be maintaining their delays or indecision. Anxious procrastinators become confused, uncertain or fearful.  These students usually need help that targets their fears and worries to help them get unstuck.

However, the most common procrastinators are those with a high need to socialise and preference for a lot of variety in their life – the students who have a desire to try a big variety of things or who find it hard to tolerate boredom.  Some cite social reasons for procrastination.  Some are easily swayed by friends or offers to socialise.  Others procrastinate as a means of being a little bit antisocial or rebellious.  Still others procrastinate because they’re discontent with studies or have lost interest in, or energy for, the overall goal.

If you are a parent, teacher or an educational counsellor, you may well be keen to know the best way to assist a student who might be delaying work to the point where you can see it is starting to have a negative effect on their work and/or their mood.

Assisting someone to overcome procrastination is not a one size fits all approach because of the complexities involved.

It’s important to consider the various factors affecting the student at any given point in time and listen closely to their excuses and justifications to help guide you to assist them.

Not all procrastination needs treatment for anxiety, but those prone to anxiety, perfection and fear of failure may need some help from a mental health practitioner. If your child is prone to perfectionism or fear of letting other people down, try to help them celebrate and learn from mistakes, to ask for help and to broaden their interests to things that they may not be so good at.  See my previous blog.

Sometimes, there may be a need to improve conscientiousness by working on impulsiveness and self discipline.  At times, we need to help children learn to regulate their behaviour.  There are a number of in-school programs being adopted in Australia such as RULER  or Positive Education.  It will take researchers some years to work out whether these programs assist to reduce academic procrastination, but it makes sense to work on learning how to label and understand your emotions and learn to adjust them for different environments.

Those who cite social distracters may need some help with assertion or learning to say “no” to persistent social offers (see my blog about teaching children assertion)  or use available software to help them manage their social media use.

If “energy’ is an issue, perhaps have a student reflect on their own patterns of energy.  Are they a morning person or does their brain come alive at night?  Also remind them about exercise and eating well.

For some, it can help to look at their goals and rewards.  Break big jobs down into smaller ones but also make sure that the jobs are chained together for one big endpoint or reward – set smaller sub-goals, but don’t lose sight of the big one.

Overall, if you notice a student in your household or classroom is procrastination, don’t put off bringing it to their attention and asking if they would like some help with it.  Asking early and providing the right support early may prevent academic failure or withdrawal.

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