Everything you need to know about procrastination!

Blog written for The Tutor Team, published May 2019.

Everything you need to know about Procrastination

In last month’s blog we learned that creating new habits can be difficult so consistency is key, if your son or daughter has always been a procrastinator or perhaps has recently started this blog will help you to understand why and how to support them so they can get on with their work and revision more effectively!

What is procrastination?

‘Procrastinare’ The latin meaning putting forward until tomorrow.

It may seem hard to believe but procrastination hasn’t always been seen as a negative behaviour (Van Eerde, 2003). In the 1600’s procrastination was used to describe thoughtful decision making which produced better outcomes. Psychologists have found that sometimes leaving a task and coming back to it is a quicker and more effective way of solving a problem. However with the Industrial Revolution procrastination began to be associated with missing deadlines and laziness (iresearch, 2019). Perhaps this is why we perceive it negatively today.

Soloman and Rothblum (1984) define procrastination as “the act of needlessly delaying tasks to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort”.

Who procrastinates?

If you’re feeling frustrated that your child procrastinates be reassured that it is very common (Kim & Seo, 2015). Only 20% are estimated to be chronic procrastinators (Nemko, 2018), but 80-95% of students procrastinate (Steel, 2007).

Some research hasn’t found negative impacts of procrastination on learning, although Kim & Seo’s (2015) meta-analysis of 33 studies, suggests that this can be explained by self-report methodologies previous studies have used and also because procrastination has a domino effect. It might start with a late piece of homework, then the student misses a few classes and then decides to delay revising. As a consequence of these combined actions their performance suffers. The strongest correlations are however for secondary students.

More able students and perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate. Steel and Klingsieck (2016) found that conscientiousness is a core personality trait for procrastinators. Conscientious students want to do the task well and take their studies seriously, however they also tend to be less flexible and spontaneous. Therefore, trying to complete a task in a shorter time limit or with slightly less care or less perfect handwriting could create feelings of anxiety.

Why do we procrastinate?

Evolutionary psychologist, Mark Leary, uses immediate and delayed returns concept to explain procrastination. In our ancestors’ past our environment provided us with fairly immediate returns, if we hunted an animal we could eat it. This led our brains to value immediate rewards. Consequently, in the modern day a student may procrastinate because they are enjoying the reward of watching a YouTube video or messaging their friend. However, our modern environment doesn’t suit immediate returns if we are to be productive and effective, we know that rewards will often be in the future. For students the rewards of their studies will pay off on results day but the significance will become greater when they are applying for university or applying for jobs or even looking at a second career. These events can be years into the future so it isn’t a surprise students’ may not be motivated by them.

Dr Nemko, who specialises in procrastination argues there are three types of procrastinator.

  1. Those that enjoy the buzz of a last-minute rush (Harriot & Ferrari, 1996).
  2. Those who are afraid of failing or succeeding, often with an overconcern for other people’s opinions. Soloman & Rothlum (1984) found that 49.4% of procrastination was due to fear or failure.
  3. Those who struggle to make a decision, possibly because then they don’t feel responsible for the outcome.

Dr Price also argues that in young people, procrastination offers the illusion of freedom (Young) and sometimes it happens because young people misjudge how long a task will take. It may also be that students are experiencing lots of change as they move from GCSEs to A levels and Higher education and so they try to avoid this happening by seeking distractions (Janis & Mann, 1977).  

How to procrastinate less!

  • Tim Ferriss advocates the importance of defining your fear. If your child is procrastinating because they are feeling afraid of success or failure try to explore with them what their worst fear really is. Is it a realistic fear or more than likely, what other outcomes could there be if the worse case did happen?
  • Judson Brewer suggests asking your child what emotion they are feeling? Are they bored, frustrated, scared, over-active? What can they and you do to counteract this feeling? For example, if your child finds a topic boring is there a way to revise it using a fun game or can you relate it to something they are interested in?
  • James Clear emphasises the need for habits to help us achieve long term goals (delayed returns). See my blog last month for more on habits. Clear argues it’s best to focus on small daily goals that will accumulate to a greater goal. You can help your child do this looking at the big goal and then breaking it down into small regular tasks. Ideally the habit will be practised every day.
  • Dr Nemko recommends the pomodoro technique, this is where we work for a set period of time without any distractions. For example, 20 minutes on a task without looking at a phone, website, going to get a snack! Then your child has a 5 minute break to do such immediate reward activities.  
  • If your child struggles to make decisions it will really help to have a set schedule to follow. Many successful leaders describe how they make their day easier by not having to make certain decisions. If your child knows Monday night is mathematics and art homework then it isn’t a decision that has to be made.
  • If your child is very conscientious or a perfectionist it might be worth teaching them about the 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle) and help them to keep things in perspective. Spending 3 hours on a homework that should take 30 minutes is not a good use of time. (See e.g. Brian Tracy, 80 20 rule explained). They can try this as an experiment and see whether there really is any difference in the outcome.

Take home messages

  • Procrastination is common
  • Procrastination can be useful
  • To help you child ask them about why they are procrastinating
  • Try at least one of the above strategies, experiment and make it fun.

Jessica Bloomfield, Psychology Tutor and Freelance Psychology Writer

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