March 12, 2015

Procrastination: why we do it and how to manage it today

  • It is the eleventh hour and your daughter is still pouring over her History textbook. On the day before her test, she gathered her notes together and discovered that she had hours of studying to do and no time left to spare.
  • Just a week before your son takes the SATS he finally starts studying. The pressure of the impending test day has, at last, broken his resolve to playing video games all weekend.
  • Your youngest waits until the last minute to announce that she needs supplies and help with her science project. You pile into the car and dash to the craft store, while her deadline slowly ticks away.

Your children have been telling themselves, “I’ll do that tomorrow,” and now it’s too late. They are not prepared, they haven’t made a plan, and they are scrambling to get their work done and score well on their assignments. While we all procrastinate sometimes, choosing an easy or fulfilling alternative over more daunting responsibilities, students’ academic performance is often most affected by procrastination habits. Our children put things off, because they are either ill-equipped to take on the task, or they have misjudged the time needed to complete a task thoroughly and thoughtfully. And, once they have “failed to launch” in a timely manner, the assignment gets harder and harder to face.

What is Procrastination?19

In truth, your children are not lazy, they are merely succumbing to a wide range of psychological influences that predispose them to put things off, and make it almost impossible to say no when the temptation to procrastinate arises. Procrastination is “the act or habit of procrastinating, or putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention.” It usually entails choosing something more pleasurable over something less pleasurable, and addressing the immediate before the long-term. Procrastination is also the result of a series of neurological and psychological factors. To name a few:

  1. Temporal Discounting is the human tendency to over or undervalue a reward based on its temporal proximity. That is, we prefer immediate rewards over future rewards, even if the future reward has greater value. For example, if given the choice between $100 dollars now or $150 dollars in one year, most people would choose $100 dollars now. Likewise, your children spend hours watching Netflix right now, because the immediate reward feels greater in value than a high SAT score months from now. However, when test day arrives, the value of that test score suddenly rises, causing students to cram at the last minute.
  2. Tempting neurotransmitters, like dopamine, flood your brain every time you do something enjoyable. In turn, dopamine modifies the neurons in your brain, making you more likely to repeat that fulfilling behavior. So, every time your child plays a game on their phone or checks their Facebook page, they get an immediate boost in dopamine, which invites them to play again and again. This consistent flood of dopamine is what, in part, causes the vicious procrastination cycle and can make positive habit formation so difficult for children to achieve.
  3. A cycle of anxiety brews thereafter that, according to Samuel Johnson, causes “every moment’s idleness [to increase] the difficulty” of the task. That is, the longer your child puts off writing a paper, the harder the task becomes, because he has less and less time, but just as much work to finish. The stress of such a scenario, in turn, makes task initiation incredibly difficult. And, students may fear the task so much that they either skip the assignment altogether or stay up all night trying to finish. Even worse, students in this position rarely produce their best work, which increases their anxieties about failing similar future assignments.

How to help:

When it is so clear that procrastination affects everyone, of all ages, it starts to seem like a normal fact of life. But procrastination can have a profound effect on children, especially in an age of endless screen-time distractions. Children do not yet have a sophisticated control of their impulses, which can make avoiding temptation and weighing immediate reward against eventual gain very difficult. But there are some strategies that can help beat procrastination. Check out the following options and try them at home with your kids:

  1. The Pomodoro Method or The “Parking Lot” Strategy: Giving your child a reward in intervals can make working on difficult tasks a little less daunting. The Pomodoro Technique, named for the tomato timer that Francesco Cirillo used in his original time-management studies, asks that students break their work into regular intervals separated by short breaks. These short breaks act as the immediate reward that your student is looking for, and can give the brain a chance to recharge. The presence of the timer increases accountability for the task at hand, and lends the work time a sense of predictability. At Engaging Minds, we use a similar strategy called the “Parking Lot” strategy, which, used together with the Pomodoro intervals, can enforce productive work and break habits. The Parking Lot strategy challenges students to eliminate distractions by placing off-topic ideas on sticky-notes “in the parking lot” for discussion once “work time” is over.
  2. Building a “Mechanism” or Externally Imposed Deadline: Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics who has taught at both Duke University and MIT, argues that people need a “mechanism,” routine, or specific circumstance to force them not to procrastinate. He uses the example of a 401k plan, which automatically draws money from each paycheck to put into retirement savings. This automatic mechanism does not allow the earner to make a decision that might (naturally) prioritize their immediate circumstance over the long-term. Instead, it automatically puts the long-term goal first, eliminating the option to procrastinate. Ariely also argues that, if a student understands his opportunities and his own sense of self-control, he can create these mechanisms for himself. One such “opportunity” might be to consult a teacher ahead of a long-term deadline and agree to some intermediate check-ins leading up to the ultimate goal. These check-ins make the student accountable for steady work, and remove the opportunity to put things off until later, which prevents him from cramming at the last minute.
  3. Think positive! While working on a difficult task, even with a timer or mechanism, it can be hard not to think, “Only twenty more minutes of torture until my break.” However, if your child can change his thought process, and consistently remind himself that he is being productive and meeting an important goal, his brain will start to re-categorize the work he is completing as something enjoyable. He may even start to experience a flood of dopamine to areas of his brain that promote intrinsic motivation and encourage him to work just as hard again and again. With an optimistic perspective, he’ll feel less anxious, and more able to tackle the daunting task ahead. James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds,” points out a “perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.” Instead, getting the work done with a positive mindset makes people happy and productive.
  4. Divide and Conquer: Surowiecki also notes that, “Since open-ended tasks with distant deadlines are much easier to postpone than focused, short-term projects, dividing projects into smaller, more defined sections helps.” In essence, creating the illusion that task deadlines are immediate and attainable, by attending to smaller, interim sections of the project, can postpone procrastination. And, for students with executive functioning problems, or other difficulties adhering to deadlines, dividing their tasks into manageable pieces can be just the support they need to succeed.
  5. Remove the temptations: If you or your child does not have the willpower to resist watching television or checking email, then remove those temptations altogether. Shut off the internet while your child works on a reading assignment. Or show him how to lock down distracting websites together, using an app like or Take the video games away until the task is finished, or until your child shows he can manage them appropriately himself.

Procrastination gets the best of all of us, sometimes. But it doesn’t have to get the best of your student forever. With the right strategies and understanding, your child can seize opportunities and use mechanisms that support, encourage, or even force his adherence to deadlines. And when he sees how productive he can really be, he’ll want to keep working hard to avoid the vicious procrastination cycle.