“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.
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.
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.