Why students procrastinate (Hint: it’s not what you think)

How does your teen respond to deadlines & due dates?
 
Do they typically…
a) Get started on their work as soon as it’s assigned?  
b) Wait until the due date approaches before they begin?
c) Delay starting their work until (or past!) the last possible second?
 
While many students argue that waiting to start their work is “no big deal”, procrastinating can actually have some pretty serious costs.
 
For some students, it means they don’t have time to finish their work before the deadline…so they’re getting low zeros on uncompleted assignments and low grades on tests for which they weren’t prepared.
 
Other kids manage to meet the deadlines by staying up late to complete their work…but end up feeling stressed out, exhausted, and coming down with frequent colds & illnesses. 
 
And these are just the short-term costs.
 
In the long term, high levels of procrastination are associated with lower salaries, shorter terms of employment, and a greater likelihood of being unemployed or under employed rather than working full‐time (Nguyen et al. 2013).
 
WHY do students procrastinate?
 
Given all the problems procrastination creates, why is this such a common and widespread problem?
 
Why don’t students learn to avoid it? 
 
We used to think that procrastination was due to a character flaw, and that people who put things off until the last minute were simply lazy, or unmotivated.
 
In fact, laziness is still part of many dictionary definitions, for example:
 
Procrastinate: to be slow or late about doing something that should be done : to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy, etc.
– http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/procrastinate
 
But in more recent studies, researchers have discovered that for many people, procrastination is not due to “laziness”, but instead to challenges with emotional regulation. 
 
 
The Procrastination Trap
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When students think about the task they’re supposed to work on, they experience an uncomfortable negative emotion: stress, overwhelm, anxiety, boredom, etc.
 
This triggers an impulse to do some sort of pleasant or relaxing activity that will repair this negative mood — for example: texting friends, watching a YouTube video, or checking out the latest episode of your favorite Netflix show. Often we’ll rationalize this decision by telling ourselves: “I’m too tired/stressed/distracted/etc. to do this now…I’ll feel more motivated later.”  
 
In the short term, these mood repair activities work!  They distract students from their negative emotions, and lead to temporary increases in happiness.
 
However, as soon as that activity is over, and they go back to thinking about the task, the negative emotion returns.
 
Only this time, the negative feelings are STRONGER, because there’s even less time available (which creates more stress & anxiety), PLUS there’s the added negativity of feeling guilty for not starting the work sooner. 
 
And so the cycle continues…until there’s so little time left that we have to choose between tackling the task in spite of our negative emotions, or running out of time to do it at all. 
 
It’s human nature to avoid negative emotions, and seek out positive ones.  So, it’s easy to fall into this emotional procrastination trap…especially when you’re a teenager, whose brain is wired to respond more strongly & impulsively to emotions than adults do.
 
Escaping the trap
 
Here are 2 approaches that can help students (and adults!) to escape the procrastination trap…
 

1. Decrease the negative emotions associated with your work.   

  • If your work feels boring or tedious, try making it more fun & enjoyable.  Turn it into a game by racing to see how quickly you can finish, or awarding yourself points for every problem you complete.  Or make the task more pleasant by doing your reading outside, or going to your favorite coffee shop to work on your term paper.

  • Increase the meaning associated with your work, by brainstorming 3 things you want to learn from this experience, or asking how this task relates to your life, to other things you’ve learned about in the past, or to things you might do in the future.

  • Make your work more motivating by creating a reward you’ll give yourself after completing each assignment, setting aside time to relax & have fun after you finish all your homework for the evening, and/or planning a special celebration when you complete a major assignment or test.

  • If you’re feeling guilty for not starting your work sooner, practice forgiving yourself for your mistake rather than beating yourself up about it.  Researchers have found that students who forgive themselves for procrastinating on a past test are less likely to put off studying for the next one.

  • Use mental time travel to think about how good you’re going to feel when you finish the task, and envision yourself completing the steps you need to take to get there.

2.  Reduce your temptation to give in to your ‘mood repair’ impulses.

  • Commit to getting started…no matter how you feel in the moment.  It might seem like you can’t work well if you’re stressed or tired, but the truth is that you usually are capable of doing effective work even when you don’t feel like it.  If you stop letting yourself off the hook because you “don’t feel like it”, and commit to getting started no matter how you feel in the moment, you’ll often find that your you’re capable of .  Most of the time, you’ll find that you are capable of more than you expected. 

  • Recognize that your feelings about this assignment won’t change until you start working on it Think about the last time you put something off, thinking that you’d be more excited to start later.  Did you really feel better later? Or just more stressed?  Putting things off generally does not increase your mood….if anything, it tends to decrease it. The best way to increase your mood is just to get started with the task.  As soon as you do, you will feel more confidence & accomplishment, and find it’s easier to continue.

  • Create a plan in advance for how you will handle distractions & impulses.  For example: “If I get an urge to watch the next episode of my favorite show, I’ll remind myself that I’m going to do that after dinner.”

  • Create obstacles to procrastination, by blocking distracting websites, or putting your phone in another room. The more effort it takes to indulge in your favorite relaxing, stress-reducing activities, the less tempted you will be to give in to those urges.  

  • Practice activities that build self-regulation and reduce impulsivity, like mindfulness & meditation.  The more you develop your ability to delay gratification, and practice observing your emotions without responding to them, the easier it will be to push through the momentary discomfort of getting started with your assignments.
 
Questions & next steps:
(for teens &/or parents!)
 
How often do you procrastinate on your work?
 
What are some consequences you’ve experienced as a result of putting things off until later?
 
What would happen if you got into the habit of starting your work right away, rather than putting it off until later?
 
What is ONE thing you could do this week to reduce your level of procrastination?
 
 
 
 

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About the Author:

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 support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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