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Why Does My Student Procrastinate?

Jennifer Sullivan


“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James

Procrastination is like the itch that can’t be scratched — it’s there and it happens (a lot), but even with adequate skill building and reminders from parents, students can’t quite figure out how to make it go away.

Time management strategies are definitely helpful. But what can you do when your student is aware of their responsibilities but still avoids them?

Keep reading to learn a new perspective on procrastination, why it happens and how to help it go away — for good!

More Than a Time Management Issue

Many parents (and teachers) believe that procrastination is a lagging result of students’ inability to manage time. For some students, turning in assignments late (or maybe not starting them at all) can, in fact, be a result of a lack of awareness of deadlines and time. Using organizational tools such as a planner, white board calendar or working with a coach for support can explicitly teach your student skills to decrease their procrastination and increase their success.

But research has shown there is a more important factor at play. Emotions, not time management, are frequently at the root of procrastination.

Students and adults who struggle with regulating their emotions (become overwhelmed by feelings of stress attached to certain assignments or tasks and then shut down) are seen by others as habitual procrastinators. But let’s reframe this perspective. Avoidance of tasks isn’t because students don’t know about the tasks. Students avoid tasks because of the feeling associated with completing them.

Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and head of the Procrastination Research Group, has conducted research on the subject of procrastination and views procrastination as a gap between intention and action. “You know what you ought to do, and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it.”

Why Do We Procrastinate?

“It’s all about our feelings,” Pychyl says. “Procrastination is the misregulation of emotion. We think that by putting things off, we’re going to feel better.” Students know the tasks they need to complete but they think that by putting off the task causing them stress they will feel better in the short term.

This may be true. Avoiding a stressful task or event eliminates stress or discomfort...temporarily. But the task doesn’t disappear. When it is time to again confront the task, students feel a sense of self-blame for their initial avoidance and still have feelings of stress about completing the task.

So procrastination avoids stress in the short term, but the feeling will come back at some point in the future.

Procrastination can also happen when we unintentionally go down "a rabbit hole" and time flies by too quickly. I know I’ve been guilty of watching a Netflix show, surfing the internet or having a “quick” snack which turns into a distraction lasting longer than I anticipated. Sometimes the things we do while we are procrastinating lead to more procrastination!

Students with ADHD in particular may feel extreme anguish at the thought of having unfinished tasks. This physical and mental discomfort can lead to more discomfort, causing students to feel emotionally overwhelmed and then shut down. When we feel shut down it can be hard to think logically and create steps forward without the help of a trusted friend, academic advisor, therapist or parent.

Lastly, when students start to emotionally shut down because of feeling overwhelmed it can lead to a negative cycle where past negative thoughts creep in as well. Students may experience negative thoughts such as “Why can’t I do this? I’m stupid” or “I’m failing this class. Why should I even bother? I knew I wasn’t capable of doing college.”

Negative thoughts can be like a runaway train that is often hard to stop on our own.

What Can We Do About It?

1. Don’t wait until you "feel like it."

Many students procrastinate because they're waiting for just the right moment to get started. Students have explained to me that they've developed a habit of working in spurts — they go through long periods of procrastinating and then have a burst of energy and focus, often staying up all night to complete missing assignments.

This roller coaster works in the short term but can create unproductive habits in the long term.

It can help to explain to your student that life requires us to do things we don’t feel like doing. Provide examples from your own life such as doing taxes, taking out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom, etc. Successful adults are able to look past their feelings of “I don’t want to do this.”

Regulating our emotions and doing tasks regardless of how we feel are two important skills under the umbrella of “executive functioning” skills. Executive functioning skills, developed in most young adults by the age of 25, help us "get things done" and include skills such as time management, organization, prioritization, planning and sustained attention.

Task initiation, or getting started, is closely tied to emotional regulation. Again, if our students wait until they “feel like” doing their calculus homework they may never get that feeling. We need to teach our students how to look beyond their feelings in the moment and reassure them that they CAN persevere even if they don’t feel like it.

2. Help your student without judgment.

“If my student doesn’t understand how to get started, why don’t they just ask me for help?” you wonder.

Acknowledging we need help and asking for help are two very different skills. Your student may admit that they need help but feel afraid that they will be judged, or that the person they ask will convey disappointment or frustration (even unintentionally).

If your student is brave enough to ask you for help, even if this request comes close to or after a deadline, respond with patience. It can be a big step for them to reach out, so make the experience a positive one by responding with a statement such as “I’m so glad you asked!” or “That’s a great question. Let’s think about it together.”

3. Focus on just one step.

Breaking down large tasks into small steps is a surefire way to get the ball rolling. Is your student avoiding scheduling a math tutor? Suggest that they look online to find the open hours of the tutoring center first. Is your student procrastinating looking for a summer job? Suggest they make a list of five locations in your community where they would like to work.

Taking one small step at a time can eliminate anxiety and help students focus. Offering to help divide the task into small parts can be just the help your student needs to see the path forward and complete the steps on their own.

4. Reward yourself after the task.

Our brains crave dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, and prefer to repeat behaviors that make us feel good. Writing an essay doesn’t create as much dopamine in your student’s brain as going out with friends.

If your student is motivated by a particular reward such as money on their Uber Eats account, or they enjoy going to the gym, they should pair the rewarding activity with the task they have been procrastinating.

James Clear's book Atomic Habits is one of my favorites for learning how to create and reinforce good habits. Responsibility first, then the reward after!

5. Know yourself and your moods.

As I shared in strategy #1, students (and all of us at times) put off tasks because we “don’t feel like it” at the moment. We'd rather wait until a later time when hopefully we'll feel more focused or more interested in completing the task.

Does your student know what time of day they are the most focused and energized? Whether that's in the morning, afternoon or evening, we all have times of day when we are most alert. Students who know themselves and their personal energy flow can schedule challenging tasks when they are most focused. Schedule tasks during these times will help students be most productive and lessen the opportunity for procrastination.

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S. is a private executive functioning coach for high school and college students and the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching. Jennifer lives in southeastern CT and helps students across the country improve their time management and organization skills. Jennifer currently teaches at UCONN in the Neag School of Education. She and her husband are the parents of two teenagers. Find more or her expert advice in her book, Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and their Families.
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