Getting to the source: why we procrastinate

Diana Monteiro

“Don’t procrastinate! Get your work done right away or you will be in trouble!” These are words we have all heard said to us during our childhood and adolescence, yet most of us have procrastinated at some point or other in our lives. As the world progresses, we are now faced with more and more to do with less and less time to do it in. Thus, putting things off for later is something we all have to do nowadays to survive. Is that what procrastination means? Yes, procrastination, according to the Oxford dictionary means, “The action of delaying or postponing something.” It means putting things off till later, though we could do them now. Of course, by this definition, everyone is guilty of this, as we can’t possibly get everything done that we have to or even want to. When does it become problematic postponement and begin to deserve additional attention? When a person procrastinates regularly and it begins to impact his/her life, academics, work, friendships, leisure, etc., it’s time to pay some attention to this issue.

Students today have to constantly multitask, especially since education turned online thanks to the ongoing pandemic. Students have more to accomplish with less direct guidance and support (than during in-person school) and it is likely that several of them have begun to procrastinate as a result. As the world waits for the pandemic to end, everyone has been putting things off for later- be it getting married, exercising, socializing, or studying and students are struggling with this too.

How can you recognize procrastination in your students?
As an educator, what should you be looking for in your students to recognize signs of procrastination? The most obvious signs will be the students not starting a task until the very last moment or not completing a task in the assigned time frame, so their assignments are always late or never submitted. You might also see students putting off high priority tasks in order to complete low priority tasks. Students might also experience significant anxiety or stress, get upset easily or appear to not care at all about not completing the task at hand. All of these could indicate that the student might be struggling with procrastination.

Why does procrastination happen?
The easy answer to this question is the availability of multiple sources of distraction – Netflix, phones, tv, social media, and anything else handy. Indeed, exciting distractions can be a way to procrastinate, however, often the reasons for it are deeper and varied. Further, if you have procrastinated yourself but have always gotten the task done in time, you might wonder whether it’s really a problem. For some of us, the ‘rush’ or ‘high’ of working against a deadline energizes us and thus we might put things off until it’s down to the wire. This might not be problematic and might not need any intervention. For others however, something else more challenging might be going on.

As a teacher or educator, we want our students to succeed and we know the importance of timeliness in achieving success. We might thus find it hard to understand why a student who clearly has the ability to do well, procrastinates. Procrastination is often associated with a fear of failure, which is ironic given that chronic procrastination is a surefire way to fail. A student who is scared of failing might not want to do the task at all, unless they can be certain it will turn out perfectly, thus keeping them stuck in a loop of fear of failure and wanting to be perfect. This then leads to indecisiveness about how to do the task correctly, taking longer than needed to get simple things done, and procrastination happens. This is also seen as a way of coping with the stress of it all (Ferrari, 1989).

Another reason for students to procrastinate might be boredom or a lack of interest in the task at hand. If a child cannot understand how something is relevant to them, how it can help them in the future, they might not be willing to do it, especially given the competition for their attention from other distractions. This boredom coupled with existing distractions and poor time management skills can leave a child appearing like a chronic procrastinator.

Another simple reason that children procrastinate is that they don’t understand what is expected of them. The task assigned to them might be unclear or the instructions are not understood which leads them to not know how to proceed. It can also be inadequate study skills which can contribute to this problem.

Many people think that procrastination is laziness or a lack of effort on a child’s part. Typically, this is not true and in the small percentage of situations where this may be the case, it is still important to delve deeper into the ‘why’ of the problem. Procrastinating, perfectionism, lack of effort or laziness all have underlying causes that make them happen, therefore, exploring and understanding the underlying dynamics that cause a child to behave this way is the first and most important step towards overcoming it.

When children procrastinate, they are often met with punitive consequences by parents or teachers who consider this the only way to solve the problem. In addition, the child also faces the negative consequences of not getting the work done (poor marks or failure), adding fuel to the fire. Without understanding the underlying causes, the consequences children face do little to improve the situation and it becomes a chronic problem for them.

How can teachers help students not to procrastinate?
As an educator, delving into the why of the problem is the surest way to get to the root of it and fix it. However, this might not always be possible in every case. Thus, some things to do before procrastination happens or it gets out of control are:

  • Give clear instructions: Give a child clarity on what is expected of them and how they can go about tackling the task at hand. This might mean helping a child understand how to break a task down into simpler parts or to do it step by step. Getting a child to have a plan and write down what has to be accomplished and how they will go about it before the task can help a great deal. A written plan ensures the child understands what to do and how to do it.
  • Teach time management skills: Children, both older and younger, often underestimate the time they have to complete a task. Given this and the wonderful, enticing distractions demanding their attention, it is likely that they have not learned (or been taught) time management skills. Thus, teaching them how to best manage their time, how to distinguish between high vs low priority and urgent vs not-urgent tasks can also go a long way in tackling procrastination.
  • Teach study skills: Students are brought to counselling due to poor academic performance and the problem is often poor study skills. It is rarely a matter of the child not wanting to study or being lazy and more an issue of using the wrong method to study. Teaching study skills to children at all ages can circumvent this issue easily.
  • Teach a child the skill he/she needs: Beating procrastination is about developing the skills the child needs to overcome it, so if it is goal setting, self-monitoring, self-esteem or anything that can be improved, help the child by providing the resources and learning required. A child’s cognitive development also needs to be kept in mind as older children might not respond the same way as younger children to some of the strategies used, so they need to be tweaked to be age appropriate.
  • Get parents involved and possibly professional help: Parents have to be a part of the larger plan in helping a child overcome procrastination. Most of the battle is won, when parents and teachers are on the same page about how to help and the child thus gets consistent messages about how to get better. If needed, professional counselling can also be a useful aid.

Children can be helped to overcome procrastination by using non-punitive methods that place high demands of good performance on them and by providing them with a high level of support to achieve the same. This form of parenting (authoritative) has been known to be the best way to develop healthy children who function optimally. Teachers are second parents to children who are best suited to help them overcome their difficulties with warmth, support and high expectations of achievement from children. A child will only achieve to the level we expect of them and help them climb their way to success. When we are dealing with procrastination, ‘now’ is better rather than waiting for them to figure it out.

The author is a Counseling Psychologist and Director of the Hyderabad Academy of Psychology, a counseling and psychological training center. She can be reached at [email protected].

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