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PROCRASTINATION AND TEENS – HOW CAN WE HELP?

by Milena Ćuk,

Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training

“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they started.”

David Allen

Have you ever spent hours staring at a blank page trying to write a meaningful paper or e-mail, etc.?  Have you ever postponed a boring or unpleasant task until the last minute when you couldn’t put it off any longer? Have you ever caught yourself doing all sorts of unimportant activities such as washing dishes or rearranging the furniture instead of getting started on a pressing obligation? What was your favorite time zapper when you were a student yourself?

Let’s face it – we’ve all procrastinated. If you want to help your teen avoid becoming a chronic procrastinator, we suggest you start by admitting that you’ve dealt with this issue as well. We hope that gaining a better understanding of the underlying causes of procrastination and following some of the tips we suggest, will enable you to help your teen overcome the habit.

So, what is procrastination?

Authors Olpin & Hesson (2013) define procrastination as the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. While delaying tasks from time to time is nothing to worry about, it becomes a problem when transformed into a habit and starts to affect important aspects of our lives – academic, professional and personal. Or,  as Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby put it: “Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.” Fortunately, each habit is learned so it can be unlearned as well.

In order to understand a teen’s mind and world better, I asked my 15-year-old niece about her experience with procrastination as it related to schoolwork. This is what she told me:

I used to have a lot of problems with this pro, pro… Now it’s much better, but back when I was routinely putting my school obligations off, it was always when I was up against more complex tasks; when I knew the work would be more difficult and that I’d need more time to complete it. Why was I acting like this? Because I didn’t want to face it. I didn’t want the burden. It was easier to leave it to the last minute. I could force myself to study only when it was urgent and when I knew that I couldn’t postpone it any longer. Deadlines, actually, are a great help in this! And while I was waiting till that very last moment, I was usually hanging out, watching movies, a TV series on the Internet, or just lying down and doing nothing.

According to psychologist Linda Sapadin, author of the book How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age: 6 Change Programs for 6 Personality Styles, my niece fits the Crisis Makers style of procrastinators. Crisis Makers, addicted to the rush of high emotion, wait until pressure mounts to take action. Other styles are: Perfectionists (afraid of making mistakes, they waste tons of time unnecessarily focusing on details); Dreamers (lack initiative and fail to translate their big ideas into action); Worriers (afraid of change, they’re focused on worst-case scenario); Defiers (may be openly rebellious or passive-aggressive, defy authority or avoid making agreements and often don’t do what they promised); Pleasers (have problems setting priorities and saying “No”, so they make the job harder than it needs to be).

It is very important to first identify the root of the procrastination since this is the key element in pursuing the ongoing battle against it. For instance, if you realize that your teen’s perfectionism is the reason he’s putting off his school obligations, you should focus on helping him overcome his fear of making mistakes, as well as talking to him about time management and related coping skills.  Reassure him it’s okay to make mistakes; teach him that perfection is an illusion, the enemy of the good; advise him just to keep moving, not to get bogged down in details and lose focus on his main objective.

We should acknowledge that chronic procrastination is not a simple matter of time management or self-discipline but a complex psychological and/or neurocognitive issue (Burka and Yuen, 2008). These authors suggest that procrastination is a strategy people use to manage other issues, for instance: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of feeling controlled, or fear of facing reality.

Also, in this high-tech, digitalized age we live in, the accessibility of gadgets and the virtual worlds we tend to inhabit (this applies especially to teens) are not helping us win the procrastination battle. On the contrary.

You can read about the advantages and disadvantages of technology in one of our previous articles: Education and Technology: A Match Made in Heaven or Hell?

So, what to do if you recognize that your teen has a problem with procrastination?

I asked my niece what has helped her. She said:

When I was younger, my parents would keep reminding me to study but it didn’t work. I would pretend to study in order to please them but in actual fact, it was waste of time and I’d end up cramming anyway. Now that I’m in high school, I realize that everything depends on me. My subjects are more complex and since I want good grades, I’d exhaust myself staying up at night with mountains of schoolwork. And I was tired during the day, both in class and during training (volleyball). I realized that procrastination makes me tired and leads nowhere. I now try to organize myself better and study more consistently. And it’s funny – it is not as hard as I used to think. I think that’s because I made the decision on my own, nobody forced me to. It wouldn’t have worked if anybody else tried to force me or to organize my time for me. I had to do it for myself.

We can learn a lot from our kids, don’t you agree? However, it is also useful to get empowered through reliable sources. There are comprehensive and detailed programs developed in order to overcome the habit of procrastination. For your information, you can check the references at the end of the article.

In a nutshell, these are our suggestions:

  • Talk openly and without criticism about the issue of putting obligations off. Show empathy. Through talk and through time it is more likely that a teen will gain insight about how procrastination is affecting him and whether and what he wants to change.
  • Remember your own experience with procrastination and how it made you feel. Share that with your teen. What tasks nowadays do you hate to do and tend to put off? You can talk about it as a common problem and search for solutions together.
  • Share what worked for you when you struggled with procrastination. It doesn’t mean it will work for your teen, but it’s a good start. Praise his efforts to beat the habit.
  • You should figure out what is at the root of his/her procrastination. Underlying reasons need to be addressed, such as any kind of fear, resistance, perfectionism, etc. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from a coach or therapist if you estimate that it is needed.
  • Help him/her learn how to study and how to plan his/her time.
  • Help him recognize his favorite time zappers – how he usually deflects when he procrastinates (social networks, TV, video games, surfing the Internet, oversleeping, panicking, etc.) and make a deal that he try to overcome these impulses during study time. That is where time management skills are important.
  • Encourage him to ask for help if he doesn’t understand the subject matter or doesn’t know how to do his homework.

One of the first authors of self-help books, Robert Collier, has suggested:

“If you procrastinate when faced with a big difficult problem… break the problem into parts, and handle one part at a time.”

This strategy is well-known and is recommended in all manuals for overcoming procrastination: to break a bigger task into smaller, measurable actions with a realistic deadline for each of these smaller actions.

The other one well-known tip for more demanding tasks is to hit the most difficult (or the most unpleasant) part first, if at all possible. As the pioneer in the personal development field, Dale Carnegie observed: “Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves.”

Help your teen recognize what motivates him and what gives him energy. Teach him to use these as rewards for maintaining self-discipline and progress in the adoption of a new habit. It is easier to go through unpleasant tasks if we know that we will be rewarded afterward.

Teach your teen to deal with details at the end. For instance, if he is writing a paper, teach him to write the main parts first, to keep moving and to leave dealing with details last.

While these are general tips to deal with procrastination, keep in mind that each person is unique and tailor your approach to what works best for your teen.

Need additional support in helping your teen overcome procrastination? Don’t hesitate. We can help. Schedule an appointment with our coach.

References and useful links:

  1. Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It Now, by Burka, J. B. & Yuen, L. M. (2008)
  2. Stress Management for Life: A Research-Based Experiential Approach, by Olpin, M. & Hesson, M. (2013)
  3. Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age, by Dr. Linda Sapadin http://beatprocrastinationcoach.com/
  4. Procrastination and Science, including quotes related to procrastination https://procrastinus.com/
  5. Award winning video by John Kelly about examination of procrastination https://vimeo.com/9553205
  6. TED Talks: Tim Urban – Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator#t-831583