by Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler
Between now and the end of the school year is usually a crunch time, when girls feel pressured to do nightly homework while also finishing projects, writing papers, and studying for final exams. But many are honest enough to admit that they make this stress even worse by procrastinating. Instead of getting down to work when they get home from school, or right after dinner, they find a trillion “reasons” (read: excuses) to put off opening the books: “I’ve got to clean my room before I can do anything else,” or “I’ll just watch one show to relax first.” Most often, it’s “I’ve got to check my Facebook updates for a minute….” Of course, what usually happens is: “But then I got sidetracked by looking at everyone’s pictures. Before I knew it, an hour had passed…”
It’s human nature to procrastinate. We do it for various reasons: when we’re tired, we don’t feel like doing something, or we’re distracted by other thoughts and feelings. Sometimes certain tasks make us anxious or totally bored.
So we get involved in something else—or opt out by taking a nap. Either way, we keep from feeling bored, annoyed, frustrated, or afraid. Procrastination is just a fancy word for avoidance!
The problem, however, is that it’s not a particularly good coping strategy. As soon as we face up to what we have to do, those same feelings return—with a vengeance. Now we have even less time to get things done, putting additional pressure on us. Even while engrossed in playing a computer game or shopping online, you’re probably aware of that huge To Do list hanging over your head. That only worsens the stress. Plus, procrastinating often makes us feel bad about ourselves.
The good news is that you can learn to stop procrastinating—or at least to do it less. First, figure out the cause(s). Then you can find solutions that work.
Use this mental checklist to understand what’s making you put off ‘til later what you can finish now:
Sleepy? After a long day of school, you’re probably tired (especially if you didn’t sleep enough last night). But before you take a quick power nap that turns into a 3-hour sleep-fest that makes you groggy (and keeps you wide awake tonight), try these strategies:
- Listen to upbeat music. That’ll perk you right up.
- Switch your routine. New and different experiences cause a rush of brain chemicals that make you more alert. If you usually sprawl across your bed when you work, sit cross-legged on the floor.
- Get active. You’ll be more awake if you’re moving than if you’re sitting still. A 10-minute walk will boost your energy for up to 2 hours. (BONUS: Taking your dog might earn you brownie points.)
Hungry? Our brains need fuel, especially when we’re stressed. Avoid raiding the junk food, which will probably make you sleepier. Instead, boost your brainpower with a high protein snack such as a handful of nuts, some cheese, hummus, or yogurt.
Mentally exhausted? Is your brain on overload?
- Make a list. Write down all tasks and due dates in order of priority. Enjoy crossing them off.
- Pace yourself. Alternate easy and hard tasks—or ones that take you the most and the least amount of time.
- Take breaks. Play a quick game on your iPhone to have fun and activate brain cells. WARNING: Make that ONE game—or set your phone alarm to go off in 5 to 10 minutes.
- Breathe deeply and exhale fully. This will get rid of excess carbon dioxide so you get more oxygen to your brain and feel more mentally alert.Do whatever works. Spend 10 minutes doing whatever relaxes you.
- Work out. Exercising in the early afternoon or up to two hours before bed lowers the stress hormone and releases feel-good endorphins.
- Do whatever works. Spend 10 minutes doing whatever relaxes you.
To avoid procrastination, the best strategy is using self-discipline. That’s when we make ourselves do things even when we really don’t want to. It’s not easy, but well worth the effort. Research shows the most successful, confident people aren’t necessarily the smartest, but they’re persistent and self-disciplined.
Roni Cohen-Sandler is the author of Stressed Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. To sign up for Dr. Cohen-Sandler’s free e-newsletter, Parenting 21st Century Teens: Issues and Solutions, visit www.RoniCohenSandler.com.
“You found out about this project weeks ago; WHY did you wait until today to start working on it?”
It’s one of the most common concerns I hear from parents.
Whether it’s waiting to start a project until the night before the due date or beginning tomorrow’s homework at 10 pm, procrastination is a regular way of life for many students.
For parents, this can be incredibly frustrating, because it seems so easy to avoid (“If you had just started your homework when you got home, you’d be finished already… now you’re going to be up half the night!”).
It’s extremely tempting to call teens out for being “lazy,” lecture them on the costs of procrastination, or point out the bad decisions that got them into this mess.
Unfortunately, these responses rarely help.
When they’re lectured about the evils of procrastination, teens will passionately defend their strategy of leaving things until the last minute, claiming that it makes them more productive and it’s the best time to get things done.
But in my conversations with teens during our coaching sessions — when they don’t feel judged or criticized and can let go of their need to justify their behavior — most students admit that they wish they could procrastinate less. They know that procrastination stresses them out, causes them to lose sleep, and hurts their grades — and their lives would be easier if they didn’t do it. They just aren’t sure how to get themselves to stop.
So, what’s the solution?
Procrastination itself is just a symptom. To actually solve the problem, it’s important to identify and address the underlying cause(s) for the behavior.
There are a vast number of reasons why students — and people in general — procrastinate. Here are some of the most common.
Top 12 reasons why students procrastinate…
- Forgetting about it. For whatever reason — missing class, being distracted when the teacher announced the homework, not writing it down, or forgetting to look at the class website — sometimes students leave their work until the last minute because they genuinely have no idea that there’s any work to be done. (That is, until a friend mentions it the day beforehand or until they walk into class the next morning.) Technically speaking, this wouldn’t be classified as “procrastination” because the student is not resisting their work — they simply don’t realize they have any work! But this is definitely a common cause of leaving things until the last minute.
- Lack of clarity about the desired outcome. When students are confused by an assignment, or don’t know exactly what is expected of them, they often put off the assignment in hopes that they will understand it better later. This is especially problematic for students who are uncomfortable with uncertainty or unknown situations. Unfortunately, when they look at it the night before the deadline, they usually have no more information than they did before and no time left to ask their teacher for clarification.
- Optimistic time estimates. Optimism is a wonderful quality… in most situations. But when it comes to estimating how much time it will take to complete an assignment, optimistic time estimates can create big problems. Students commonly overestimate the amount of time they have left to complete assignments, and underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete them. Consequently, they fail to leave themselves enough time to complete the work.
- Overly-lenient deadlines. When teachers don’t enforce deadlines and allow students to turn in late work without a penalty, students learn that deadlines aren’t meaningful and cease to take them seriously. Without meaningful consequences, external deadlines can start to feel as arbitrary as internal deadlines, which — while helpful — are not as effective at discouraging procrastination.
- Not knowing where to start. When students think of papers or projects as a whole, rather than as a series of steps, they can seem overwhelming and they don’t know where to begin. So, they end up putting the whole project off, until it’s so close to the deadline that their worry about not knowing the “right” place to start is overshadowed by their fear of not having enough time to complete the work at all.
- Poor study routines. Students’ after-school routines tend to be fairly habitual. Once they are established, these behavior patterns are followed automatically, with very little conscious thought. For example, students will sometimes will start watching TV as a break after school, which automatically leads to procrastination because it’s hard to turn it off. Or, students will have a pattern of leaving their most difficult work, their studying, or their long-term projects until the end of their homework time, when they have the least energy and the smallest amount of willpower. These habits can cause students to procrastinate automatically, without even thinking about it.
- Distractions. Sometimes students set aside time with the intention of completing their work, but end up distracted with other things. These distractions can be external (Facebook, text messages, etc.) or internal (their own thoughts & impulses). Either way, this results in them spending time that had been budgeted for their work in other ways.
- Overwhelm. When an assignment seems very complex or time-consuming, even thinking about it can seem scary and stressful. So, students often fall into the trap of putting it off. Unfortunately, this ultimately backfires when they eventually do start the project… because now the inherent difficulty of the project is compounded by the fact that they have insufficient time to complete it. So, they end up with far MORE stress than they would have had if they had started earlier.
- Perfectionism / Fear of failure. Students preoccupied with making their projects “perfect”, nervous about making mistakes or “messing them up”, or afraid of criticism, are often so concerned about doing assignments incorrectly that they will put them off to avoid the anxiety they feel when they are trying to work on the project. This can lead to the seemingly irrational behavior of avoiding the project even more as the deadline approaches (because they become less and less likely to be able to do a good job on it)… until, at last, they are so close to the deadline that producing an ideal assignment is no longer possible, and their only options are to do an imperfect job or turn in nothing at all.
- Difficulty regulating emotions. Recent studies have suggested that procrastination is less of problem with time management than we had once believed, and more of a difficulty with emotional regulation. Students who feel bored, tired, frustrated or nervous when they work on assignments will often pursue a strategy of trying to make themselves feel better in the short-term by downplaying the assignment (“it’s no big deal; it won’t affect my grade much anyway”) and distracting themselves with fun, rewarding activities in order to improve their mood.
- Too many commitments. If a student has so many scheduled activities and so little free time that their life feels like an endless string of obligations and chores, with little or no time off, they may use procrastination as a method to artificially create “free time” for themselves. Unfortunately, this type of “free time” is usually not very satisfying because it’s also accompanied with a sense of guilt for avoiding the things they “should” be working on.
- Resistance. Students will sometimes procrastinate as a form of rebellion when they view work as something that is being “forced” on them by an unreasonable teacher or authoritarian parents. Procrastination becomes their way of resisting this authority. When students think of assignments as something they “have to” do, schoolwork becomes a chore rather than a choice and they are more tempted to procrastinate on it. Procrastination can then become their way of resisting the message that they are “supposed to” complete their work by showing teachers and parents “you can’t make me do it”.
The solutions to use with students are different for each of these scenarios… which is why it is so important to identify the root cause for a student’s procrastination before giving them tips or advice about how to fix it.
For example, reminders about the consequences of an impending deadline may help a teen who hasn’t been taking deadlines seriously but, for a student with a fear of failure or difficulty regulating emotions, it could actually make things worse by increasing their anxiety about the assignment and their desire to do something else in order to avoid these negative emotions.
What type(s) of procrastination is most common for your teen?
Which of the descriptions above sounds most like the behavior you’ve seen your teen exhibit?
Based on the description of their type of procrastination, what types of encouragement or support could you provide to help them get started with their work earlier, rather than leaving it until the last minute?
What you can do…
Consider trying one or more of the following strategies with your teen.
- Talk about homework as something they’re “choosing” to do, rather than something they “have to” do. For example, ask them “what homework are you going to do tonight?”, rather that “what homework do you have to do tonight?” It’s a subtle difference, but can help students feel that they have more control and autonomy, which reduces the desire to resist the work through procrastination.
- Express interest in your child’s schoolwork. Ask curious questions about what’s involved in their project, what they want to write their paper about, and how they plan to start studying for their exam. Don’t judge or critique their ideas, just listen. The goal is to help them clarify their goals, start planning out their approach, and envision themselves starting the work. Your interest and genuine curiosity may also help them see the assignment as more interesting and worthwhile.
- Make sure they have a brightly lit, clutter-free environment with minimal distractions from TV, siblings, pets, etc., in which to focus on their schoolwork.
- If you think they might be over scheduled, talk with them about the activities and commitments they’re involved in and see if there are some things that they’d be willing to postpone or eliminate in order to have more time available to complete their schoolwork.
- If your teen is having difficulty starting a project, offer to help him or her identify the first steps to take. This may mean asking questions to help brainstorm possible essay ideas, or typing the first few lines of an essay while your student talks out loud, to help them get started. (This can be especially helpful for students with ADHD). Usually, once they are started, continuing on their own becomes easier.
- Use language that encourages progress. Talk about when they can start the work, rather than when they will finish. Praise effort rather than results, and treat mistakes as learning opportunities. Celebrating progress, rather than completion, can minimize anxiety, perfectionism and fears of failure.
With any of these ideas, remember to offer your support, but don’t require your teen to accept it. Keep in mind that, while you may be concerned about their procrastination, this is ultimately their problem rather than yours — and, especially for resistant students, the more you push them to start their work, the more they are likely to resist.
What to do if you want more information or support:
If you are interested in learning more about the work I do with teens to address the underlying causes of their procrastination, click below to schedule complimentary 30-minute ‘Academic Success Strategy Session’ with me. We will discuss the causes of your teen’s procrastination, identify the approaches that will be most helpful for them, and talk about how academic coaching might be able to help them.
Is coaching a good fit for your teen?
If you'd like to discuss how academic coaching can help your teen stop procrastinating, develop effective study skills, and get more organized, focused, and motivated, click here to schedule a complimentary consultation with me.Schedule my call!
Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email firstname.lastname@example.org