Procrastination is something that most people have at least a little experience with. No matter how well-organized and committed you are, chances are that you have found yourself frittering away hours on trivial pursuits (watching TV, updating your Facebook status, shopping online) when you should have been spending that time on work or school-related projects. Whether you're putting off finishing a project for work, avoiding homework assignments, or ignoring household chores, procrastination can have a major impact on your job, your grades, and your life.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
We all procrastinate at some time or another, and researchers suggest that the problem can be particularly pronounced among students. An estimated 25 to 75 percent of college students procrastinate on academic work. One 2007 study found that a whopping 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinated on a regular basis, particularly when it came to completing assignments and coursework. A 1997 survey found that procrastination was one of the top reasons why Ph.D. candidates failed to complete their dissertations.
According to Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown, there are some major cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination.
Students tend to:
- Overestimate how much time they have left to perform tasks
- Overestimate how motivated they will be in the future
- Underestimate how long certain activities will take to complete
- Mistakenly assume that they need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project
As you read through that list, you can probably recall a few times in the past that the same sort of logic has led you to put things off until later. Remember that time that you thought you had a week left to finish a project that was really due the next day? How about the time you decided not to clean up your apartment because you "didn't feel like doing it right now."
We often assume that projects won't take as long to finish as they really will, which can lead to a false sense of security when we believe that we still have plenty of time to complete these tasks. One of the biggest factors contributing to procrastination is the notion that we have to feel inspired or motivated to work on a task at a particular moment. The reality is that if you wait until you're in the right frame of mind to do certain tasks (especially undesirable ones), you will probably find that the right time simply never comes along and the task never gets completed.
Self-doubt can also play a major role. When you are unsure of how to tackle a project or insecure in your abilities, you might find yourself putting it off in favor of working on other tasks.
The Negative Impact of Procrastination
It's not just students who fall into the "I'll do it later" trap. According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done, around 20 percent of U.S. adults are chronic procrastinators. These people don't just procrastinate occasionally; it's a major part of their lifestyle. They pay their bills late, don't start work on big projects until the night before the deadline, delay holiday shopping until Christmas Eve, and even file their income tax returns late.
Unfortunately, this procrastination can have a serious impact on a number of life areas, including a person's mental health. In a 2007 study, researchers found that at the beginning of the semester, students who were procrastinators reported less illness and lower stress levels than non-procrastinators. This changed dramatically by the end of the term, when procrastinators reported higher levels of stress and illness.
Not only can procrastination have a negative impact on your health; it can also harm your social relationships. By putting things off, you are placing a burden on the people around you.
If you habitually turn in projects late or dawdle until the last minute, the people who depend on you such as your friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students can become resentful.
The Reasons Why We Procrastinate
In addition to the reasons why we procrastinate, we often come up with a number of excuses or rationalizations to justify our behavior. According to Tuckman, Abry, and Smith, there are 15 key reasons why people procrastinate:
- Not knowing what needs to be done
- Not knowing how to do something
- Not wanting to do something
- Not caring if it gets done or not
- Not caring when something gets done
- Not feeling in the mood to do it
- Being in the habit of waiting until the last minute
- Believing that you work better under pressure
- Thinking that you can finish it at the last minute
- Lacking the initiative to get started
- Blaming sickness or poor health
- Waiting for the right moment
- Needing time to think about the task
- Delaying one task in favor of working on another
How Do Procrastinators Differ From Non-Procrastinators?
In most cases, procrastination is not a sign of a serious problem. It's a common tendency that we all give in to at some point or another. It is only in cases where procrastination becomes so chronic that it begins to have a serious impact on a person's daily life that it becomes a more serious issue. In such instances, it's not just a matter of having poor time management skills; it's an indication of what Ferrari refers to as a maladaptive lifestyle.
"Non-procrastinators focus on the task that needs to be done. They have a stronger personal identity and are less concerned about what psychologists call "social esteem" - how others like us - as opposed to self-esteem which is how we feel about ourselves," explained Dr. Ferrari in an interview with the American Psychological Association.
According to psychologist Piers Steel, people who don't procrastinate tend to be high in the personality trait known as conscientiousness, one of the broad dispositions identified by the big 5 theory of personality. People who are high in conscientiousness also tend to be high in other areas including self-discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility.
Falling prey to these cognitive distortions is easy, but fortunately, there are a number of different things you can do to fight procrastination and start getting things done on time.
American Psychological Association. (2010). The Psychology of Procrastination: Why People Put Off Important Tasks Until the Last Minute. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/04/procrastination.aspx
Green, K. E. (1997). Psychosocial Factors Affecting Dissertation Completion. In Goodchild, L. F., Green, K. E., Katz, E. L., & Kluever, R. C. (Eds.), Rethinking the Dissertation Process: Tackling Personal and Institutional Obstacles. New Directions for Higher Education, 99,. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 57-64.
Steel, P. (2007). The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65-94.
Tice, D. M. & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health: The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling. Psychological Science, 8(6), 454-458.
Tuckman, B.W., Abry, D.A, & Smith, D.R. (2008). Learning and Motivation Strategies: Your Guide to Success (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Kids will try anything to not start homework. And who can blame them? Starting is hard. In fact, it’s the hardest part. The brain has a hard time transitioning, starting things that don’t have immediate gratification waiting. Like creating something from scratch, it feels daunting (read: impossible) to do all the parts—gather the materials, sit down (for goodness sake!), open your book, and actually start attending to what is on the page. But, the brain does like finishing things. It loves, loves, loves it! And so do we. Neural satisfaction circuits light up like a Christmas tree—flashing and making merriment— when we finish things. So a parent’s job is to help kids develop a routine to quickly jumpstart their work, get a hook into those books, so that their wired-in desire to finish things will reel them in and help them get the work done--the sparkly lights lit, and your sanity intact.
Here are lots of ideas to get started on getting finished, constructively.
Set Up the Launch Pad and Walk Away What’s the number one stumbling block to starting homework? Getting the papers out of the backpack. Or the backpack out of the car. An unopened backpack two feet away can feel like the mission to the moon and be a reason to delay for hours—we just can’t m-o-v-e. Crossing the room, unzipping the backpack, finding the books, the instructions, are you kidding me? There are no limits to how each one of those microsteps can become the sinkholes into which our children’s motivation falls.
As a pre-emptive strike to procrastination, have your child set up their work station, unzip the backpack, open up their books, engage just enough to decide (and take a quick peek at) what task they’re going to tackle first, and then… walk away. Yes. Walk away. Go get a snack, do something fun for 15-20 minutes, and meanwhile their mind will be secretly thinking about returning to that work because in one sneaky move you’ve turned homework from something to start into something to finish. When they return to their books they will do so with the transition already underway.
Think Menu, Food Menu That Is: Have your child start with an “appetizer,” an assignment that’s not too hard and that they’re not dreading, once they’ve warmed up their brain with that assignment, they can move into the “main dish”—the assignment that requires the most time and effort. Then, because your child’s going to be tired, finish off with “dessert”— an assignment that’s relatively easier or something that’s difficult but that your child wants to do.
Planned Breaks Rather Than Stolen Ones: Yes, it’s great to follow that strong current of inertia to a video game, the tv, or facebook, but when does the break begin? When does it end? Is it really called a break if you’re getting nothing done? Have your child sit down and plan to take a break after 45 minutes or an hour of work. Make the break short and sweet 5-10 minutes tops is best; move around, and before your child heads out on that break, have him take a look at what he’s going to do next. Your child should always leave a “path of crumbs” back to what he’s going to do next to prevent him from having to do a transition all over again.
Stop 7/8ths of the Way Done: Remember, we lose time with start up—procrastinating the beginnings—if we stop our work when we’ve finished one task, we’ll have to face the mountain of starting from scratch again to begin the next one. While it might sound counterintuitive, encourage your child to stop (for a break, or, in the case of long-term assignments—for the night) just short of completing an assignment. This way, knowing exactly where your child is going to pick up will encourage that “finishing behavior” and they can jump right back in, finish, and then move on to the next task all warmed up and ready.
Create Time Estimates for Assignments: Dread impairs our ability to estimate time accurately. When we don’t estimate time well our dread increases. It’s a vicious cycle. So, when your child sits down to do work ask—how many minutes/hours do you think this will take? First answer will likely be something like: “forever,” and you can respond—“right, that’s how it feels, but if you had to make a bet, what do you think?” Putting a time limit on it (even if it’s just an estimate) will help your child spring free from that existential sense of interminability that even the youngest students seem uncannily able to experience, and see—this is doable.
Chunk It! Like adults, children dread being trapped in something unpleasant. Instead, break an assignment down into discreet tasks, jobs or sections so that your child builds up momentum along the way by completing small goals faster as she works toward the bigger goals.
Separate Your Emotions From the Task: Does the work take a long time or is it the emotional reactions that are so time consuming? Help your child not confuse working with complaining or “freaking out” about work. If your child is worrying about the million things he has to do, this very much slows down the completion of the one task that is in front of him. Instead, have your child schedule a 2 minute “freak out” or worry time, where your child is naming all the things he has to do and how it feels impossible, then, with that done, sit down and start chipping away at the first task.
Time the Process: Children hate homework, but adding an hour of resistance to the 15 minutes it often takes to complete the work is just extending the misery. Challenge your child to see how quickly they can get their work done when there’s minimal grumbling. The result will sell itself. (Don’t ruin the project by saying things like—see, I told you it would be faster if you didn’t complain. Best if your child discovers that for himself). Alternatively, have your child set a specific allotment of “grumble time” so that their inner pessimist can speak but won’t derail them when their inner achiever has other plans.
Put Down the Ducky: Remember Ernie wanting to play the saxophone on Sesame Street? He had to put down his beloved rubber ducky first. Translated to your kitchen table—if your child really wants to get homework done, and out of the way, she’s got to put the phones out of reach, turn off the internet on the computer, make technology a reward at the end of the process, not a distractor along the way. No it’s not fool-proof, your teen can always sneak, or turn the internet back on, but challenge her to see how much more she can get done when the technology is out of the way for a bit.
Writing An Essay? Give One Minute On the Clock for Brainstorming: A blank page, a new assignment is always daunting. Sneak past the beginning by jumping in the middle. If your child is writing an essay or even a term paper, have her give herself one minute on the clock and write down all the ideas she has that she wants to say. No proper grammar or full sentences, just phrases. After a minute she can look at her list, circle the ideas she likes, then number them in the order that makes sense for now. Suddenly your child will have the beginnings of an outline. She can then begin developing those points and she’s on her way. She shouldn't worry about introductions and conclusions, she should just start in the middle and the rest will follow.
Fire the Critic! Often kids procrastinate because they are thinking about what grade they’re going to get, worrying about what the teacher will think, how this will impact their GPA, and before they know it, they’re not working on their paper, their in total paralysis about their future. Help your child see that the best way to succeed in the future is staying in the present: putting all of their focus on the work now. Make the grade watcher and perfectionist critic sit in another room until they’re done.
Many a parent has told me that these strategies work for them too. Check out my article about overcoming procrastination for adults—hey, why not now?
And, if you’d like to learn more about how to teach your child to take charge and free themselves from anxiety, check out my new book: Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: The Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life, From Toddlers to Teens!
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014 No portion of this work may be reproduced without permission of the author.