Do you believe that kids (and adults) who procrastinate waste their time, are being lazy and don’t care about finishing things? If so, you are not alone in subscribing to these myths about motivation. In fact, most procrastinators rarely spend their time doing nothing. Instead, they are great at doing other things — sharpening pencils, picking the right music to listen to, tidying up their workspace, etc. Sometimes it seems that kids, especially those with ADHD, can only be productive if they focus on what interests them.
When a student is procrastinating, they are struggling. Unsure how or where to begin, daunted by the size of the task, driven by perfectionism or feeling uncertain about their abilities, children and teens may not ask for assistance or reject any help that is offered. Procrastination can be debilitating. Your child or teen puts something off until the last minute when their panic about not having it done kicks in. You may do the same thing. Adrenaline jumpstarts your activity level by fueling the neuronal dopamine pathways in the brain to fire. Jaden, age 15, explains: “I’m the best procrastinator ever. I work best under pressure because I need the heat to make me do it. My dad says he and my mom do the same thing.”
When a student is procrastinating, they are struggling. Unsure how or where to begin, daunted by the size of the task or driven by perfectionism, children and teens may not ask for assistance or reject any help that is offered. Anxiety plays a significant role in procrastination. A student may be worried about the outcome of the assignment or lack confidence about their capabilities, so they avoid something as long as possible. When the due date stares them down and they’ve run out of options, they take the plunge, often forgoing quality for completion.
There are three types of procrastination:
- Perfectionism procrastination shows up as immobilization from worry about not getting something right or doing a good enough job. There’s concern about disappointing others and not meeting expectations — yours, your parents or your teachers. A youngster tries to limit mistakes and reduce future shame: “I’m not going to begin this because I don’t know if I can do it perfectly, well enough. I’d rather not try.”
- Avoidance procrastination is directly related to a fear of failure or an expectation of failure based on past experience. There’s a dominant-negative belief that, because someone has struggled and failed before, it will occur again: “Why bother? It hasn’t worked before so why do I think I’m going to succeed now?” Or there may be a powerful sense of overwhelm: “I’m going to avoid trying this because I don’t know where to start or what to do next.”
- Productive procrastination is a delay tactic that feels really good. A student does something that is less cognitively or physically demanding (e.g. deleting messages in a full voicemail, then starting the English essay). They both need to be accomplished but the easier task that operates on autopilot gets pushed to the front, resulting in greater long-term stress: “I’m going to do these other things that are easy and get some relief from the pressure of all the things I have to do. But, I’m not starting that big thing because I don’t know if I’m going to do it well enough.”
Collaboration with kids about shifting their habits of procrastination starts with discussions about what is daunting about a task. Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and investigate which type of procrastination they are dealing with and how they put things off. Ask questions that begin with what, where, and how instead of why. Overcoming the negative voice in their heads also reduces procrastination. What is that self-defeating talk saying to them? What could they say to themselves that contradicts those limiting beliefs? Learning to reassure and redirect their attention to their past successes and current resources shifts their lack of confidence and their avoidance. Work together to create some effective phrases such as “Yes I can do this and I have succeeded in the past” or “This may not be fun but it will feel better if I start than if I don’t.”
Follow these four strategies to help your child or teen overcome their procrastination. (You may even want to try these yourself!)
- Procrastination is directly related to the size of a task: If someone can’t get started on something, the task is too big. BREAK IT DOWN. If the task is still daunting, make it even smaller. Something that may seem small to some people, like doing a spelling worksheet, reading a chapter in a book, or putting away folded laundry can feel enormous to others. Your child or teen needs help chunking things and figuring out how to work for blocks of time followed by earned, time-limited breaks.
- Tackle mood issues head-on: Kids may not want to do something because they just don’t feel like it. Emotional regulation and starting anyway is what’s called for. With a smaller chunk of work as your goal and a set start and stop time, they might be more likely to summon the motivation to begin. Consider getting exercise beforehand, going outside to change the environment, or sitting down with a drink and a snack first to shift the energy. The mood may never arrive and that’s okay. Agree to do it anyway with a desirable incentive at the end. See if they have a friend who can be their study buddy: kids like to do parallel work with their peers. Or, you can sit with them and do some of your things in a family work scenario.
- Acknowledge the presence and trickery of anxiety: Anxiety often erases memories of competence and courage. It also distorts things and exaggerates the discomfort or impossibility of doing a task. Many youngsters, especially those with ADHD, also deceive themselves into thinking they cannot do something because it didn’t work before without giving themselves a chance to try it again differently. Think about a time when they dreaded doing something and left it until the last minute. How did that work out? What lessons can they learn from that experience and apply to this one? Can you think of a time when they did an unpleasant task or assignment? What helped them? Assist your child or teen in thinking outside of the box and doing more of what works.
Apply the PINCH approach: PINCH stands for Play, Interest, Novelty, Competition, and Hurry and it’s often used for children, teens, and adults with ADHD. But, when someone struggles with procrastination and motivation, this method can be very useful. Sometimes you have to gamify tasks to heighten interest and make it easier to get started. Other times, shifting the environment like changing the place of study or the order of things triggers the ability to begin. Using time-based frameworks such as who can do something first or fastest can assist some kids as well. Brainstorm together how you can make doing the dishes, dealing with the laundry, or learning vocabulary words more fun. Have a dance party to clean the kitchen; watch a show and fold the clean clothes; throw a ball or do a push-up and learn a word.