Procrastination is the tendency to put off work until the last minute. Although the person procrastinating might eventually turn in the work by the deadline or slightly after the deadline, the work is generally completed. There are many views on procrastination. There are some who think that procrastination is beneficial and others who think that it signals lack of discipline or time management strategies. For example, Parkinson’s Law states that work stretches to fill up available time and therefore, procrastination might be helpful in completing a task in a stipulated amount of time instead of allowing it to spread across more hours than are actually required. Professor Cal Newport, on the other hand, suggests that procrastination is a phenomenon that is evolutionary, designed to keep humans thriving. The inability to act on big and important plans is the brain’s way of gently signalling that the plan is not good enough. There are also categories of procrastinators such as active and passive procrastinators. Active procrastinators are those who delay their work intentionally and are able to manage their deadlines while passive procrastinators might be those who delay their work unintentionally due to a lack of clarity about the task at hand, low self-confidence in creating high quality outputs, lack of challenge inherent in the task or anxiety that might interfere with task completion. All types of people might postpone the work that they have to do – adults as well as children, those who are formally employed and even those who might work at home. Unless handled efficiently, procrastination can cause stress and impede learning as the focus might shift to task completion rather than mastery. In teachers, procrastination can add to their already large workloads and both students and teachers, could be forced to submit work that is slipshod obscuring their talents.
Pandemic and procrastination
The pandemic and the resultant shifting of classes online have meant that students and teachers have a new method of learning to adjust to. The constant anxiety regarding Covid-19 itself could interfere with the main work that one needs to attend to. Countless people took to social media aimlessly ‘doomscrolling’ for hours in a bid to ease the stress of uncertainty triggered by the pandemic. The lockdowns and closures have disrupted routine; work places have adopted new ways of working which has also meant that teachers and students have not been able to demarcate work and personal time. Culture building in schools is a time consuming and deliberate effort and the sudden move of classes to the digital sphere has meant that schools have not been able to build a new work culture suited to the new situation.
Christine Lobo* a special educator who teaches in a school in Navi Mumbai describes how work and personal life began to merge, “There was no end time to work and other tasks would constantly come up which would tire me out.” Geetika Yadav* who teaches English in an international school in Gurgaon mentioned that students are feeling the heat of activities piling up and spreading through their waking hours causing them to be exhausted and procrastinating their school work. “The same students are chosen for multiple activities. Apart from classes, students are also enrolled in extra-curricular classes that have shifted online, giving rise to screen fatigue as classes go on through the day,” she adds. Swapnil Gaikwad, who heads Flourishing Minds Foundation in Pune, says that during the lockdown, with the entire family being at home, women teachers especially were overburdened by household chores and thus delayed their school related work. Gaikwad found himself postponing monotonous tasks like completing reports that needed to be filled at the end of training sessions that he had conducted. Although the training sessions were exciting and he looked forward to them, it was the monotonous reports that he could not get himself to complete. Similarly, Lobo found that tasks such as creating individual lesson plans for her students; making PPTs and worksheets were delayed the most.
Akriti Mathur, who teaches TGT English at Springdales School in Delhi, shares that her eighth and ninth graders are turning into young adults who are at once trying to be independent and are yet influenced by their peers and social media. “Since they cannot step outside much these days, they end up watching shows on streaming channels or playing video games after classes. These take hours and most of their work takes a back seat,” says Mathur. Mathur’s students procrastinate on submitting their assignments and their group work, until the very last minute, despite numerous reminders. The easy availability of distracting applications and websites means that students are constantly occupied with highly attractive and addictive content on the same device that they are learning on. The laptop, phone or tablet, doubles as both a work and entertainment device, leading to more useful work being relegated to the bottom of the priority list. In some cases, students are also bonding over online games, and these gaming groups’ activities are taking precedence over school project groups.
Gaikwad who works with very young learners adopted an alternative approach that involves parents to teach children in using a messenger service. The method involved sending learning materials to parents who would then impart the lessons to their children. Gaikwad observes that people procrastinate, as they don’t feel confident about the work that has to be done. He himself procrastinates when the deadlines are not clearly communicated, or when the work lacks clarity.
Although procrastination is a common problem, it has to be addressed and all teachers have tried methods to address their own and their students’ procrastination. When Mathur found that students were repeatedly not turning in their work on time, she provided various ideas to help them identify their own tendency to delay their work and helped them overcome them. She believes that when parents are involved in the learning process of their students, students tend to regulate themselves much better.
Taking some time away from work and returning re-energized has been one of the ways in which teachers have helped to overcome their own procrastination. “When I find myself procrastinating, I give myself a few hours to re-energize and relax. I spend some time with my family, or friends and do some activities like reading which help me unwind and get back to work,” says Mathur. Lobo ensures she shuts off from work completely at the end of the day thus giving her a much-needed respite from work that seemed to have no end.
Gaikwad uses his training in counselling to seek a greater understanding of the underlying causes that result in procrastination. He refuses to feel guilty or move himself forcefully when he realizes that he is procrastinating a piece of work. He pauses, meditates and takes small steps towards completing the task. “I acknowledge the inner critic [that is critical of the procrastination] and don’t ignore it completely as the more I ignore it, the stronger it gets.”
Practical strategies such as making a list of things to work on for the next day have helped Lobo pace her energy and plan her time for the next day. She also makes to-do lists, and prioritizes tasks that are the most urgent. Yadav, who has 22 years of experience as a teacher, has multiple resources such as lesson plans, videos, and other learning materials ready which prepare a supportive structure that help her avoid procrastination. Yadav also stresses the role of school leadership in helping teachers develop skills that will enable them to complete their work in a timely manner. All these steps can also be adopted by students to better handle their procrastination.
Although procrastination can be harmful in a world where time is highly structured, both teachers and students need to be mindful of the reasons they procrastinate. If one procrastinates because they intuitively know how much time the task requires and will delay their start but complete their work on time, teachers might not have to worry about such students. For students who passively procrastinate, it might help teachers to accept that the uncertainties of the pandemic could contribute to students delaying their work. A physical community of students that constantly supports each other to stay on task is also something that has been disrupted. The problems have been exacerbated because of attractive digital content on the Internet that is designed to keep students engrossed away from their schoolwork. At such times, a session for students addressing procrastination can be useful. As students and teachers become aware of the reasons that contribute to their postponing their work they might be better able to regulate themselves. Finally, as Gaikwad mentions, revisiting the ‘why’ of what we are doing can help students as well as teachers reorient themselves to the larger goals surrounding the tasks that need to be done.
The author is the co-founder of InteGRAL, a gender focused research firm based in Asia. She can be reached at [email protected].