Why Students Procrastinate

It’s 8:00pm at night and you’re exhausted.  You’ve had a long day at work and fought traffic from Washington DC to Vienna, VA.  You’re ready to call it a day when you ask your 13 year old if he’s finished with his homework.  “No, not yet, Mom.  I’ll do it when I get to the next level of this video game!”  Your heart begins to race and you’re ready to let loose on your teen for procrastinating yet again.  Wouldn’t life be easier if your child would simply make good decisions by doing homework first and playing video games after he’s done?

boyplayingvideogameThe question is, why do individuals procrastinate in the first place?  New research using brain imaging conducted in the last two years reveals that procrastinators, teens and adults alike, are under the faulty impression that they must be in a good mood to tackle the uninteresting task, such as homework.  So, when weighing what to do next – homework or video games – video games win out.  The more pleasurable activity will always trump the other task because individuals believe it will repair their mood.  The problem is that this approach almost never works and in the end, procrastinators are disappointed in themselves when they realize how much time they’ve wasted.  They actually feel worse later on when the miss a deadline or have to deal with negative feedback, such as an angry parent.

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada is a leading researcher on the topic.  He states that emotion is at the core of procrastination.  He and his colleagues suggest that helping procrastinators realize how their attempts to fix their mood are actually sabotaging their efforts is the first step.

How can this work with kids in your home?  Here’s what researchers suggest:

  1. Open up the dialogue with your child at a peaceful time, not in the midst of an argument over procrastination.
  2. If your child doesn’t see that procrastination is negatively impacting him, stop here.  He or she must acknowledge the problem before going forward or even the best ideas will not work.
  3. Mention that you are trying a new strategy (experts recommend that you own it before sharing with your child).  State that when you feel like you’re about to put things off, you say to yourself, “How will I feel later on if I check my Facebook account for a half hour instead of starting bill paying?  Will I feel better in the end, or will I be mad at myself for procrastinating?”  Mention that you weigh both options and when you think you’ll be disappointed in yourself, you recognize the feeling and stop there.
  4. Help your child to realize that starting something you don’t want to do will be uncomfortable and that it’s okay to have a feeling of discomfort.
  5. Give an example of how the strategy has worked for you.
  6. Remember, you want to impart that the key is simply to recognize the emotion.  If you or your child can step back and understand the emotion you are feeling; that’s a huge step.
  7. One way to overcome a child’s resistance to try something new is by saying, “This might work for you or it might not”, or “This could be a bad idea.”  Strange as it sounds, letting your child know that this strategy may or may not work will allow him or her to be open to the suggestion.

In my next blog I’ll get into the nitty gritty with research-proven ways to actually get started once you recognize that negative feeling just before procrastinating.