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

Perhaps the single greatest source of frustration for parents around schoolwork is the fear that their child may be a chronic procrastinator.

Parents come to me with stories of school nights or whole weekends devoured by worry, anger, confrontation and despair over homework left to the last minute or not finished at all. No amount of advice, badgering or conciliation seems to move an assignment or project towards completion.

Worse, if the stress is great enough, parents begin to think their children are lazy, or just not trying hard enough, or not managing their time well, or lacking the will to just power through the work. This judgment assumes the child is deliberately choosing to waste time and not to do the work, even simple work. Parents somehow imagine there is a silver bullet solution: “If my child would just   . . . .”

When we step back for a moment, we recognize that procrastination is a psychological behavior that affects everyone to some degree or another. Understanding more about how it works could help parents be kinder and more effective guides in moving their children beyond this impasse.

In his book The Now Habit, psychologist Neil Fiore describes the cycle perfectly. An individual gets overwhelmed, feels pressured, fears failure, tries harder, works longer, feels resentful, loses motivation, and procrastinates.

As Fiore explains, procrastination does not start the pattern. It is, instead, an attempt to resolve a variety of underlying issues.

My work with student writers has revealed that the number one reason students procrastinate is that they lack the knowledge or skills to go forward with a project. Younger students may not have yet mastered a reliable way to organize a narrative paragraph or short essay. A student with a learning disability may not fully comprehend a text.

Older students may lack a particular paradigm necessary for structuring a literary analysis or position paper. These students may have done preliminary work but are unable to organize the material into cogent form.

Hard-working students sometimes don’t understand the why or how of an assignment, or they have an incomplete set of instructions. However, they are afraid to ask for clarification. They don’t want their teachers, parents, or friends to think less of them, so they would rather wallow in uneasy silence.

Other students procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed by the dimensions of an assignment and have not learned to break a larger assignment into smaller, more manageable steps. Since open-ended tasks with distant deadlines are much easier to postpone than focused, short-term projects, dividing projects into smaller, more defined sections helps. The vaguer the task or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely a student is to finish it.

Perhaps the most pernicious reason students procrastinate is perfectionism. Perfectionists inflict on themselves unrealistically high expectations or standards, believing even their first draft must do perfect justice to the subject. The words “should,” “ought,” “must,” “have to” occur frequently in the perfectionist student’s conversation. I try to be particularly sensitive in my exchange with these students since their desire to have everything perfect often masks deeper problems of self-esteem and self-confidence.

One or more of these explanations may ring true for parents whose children procrastinate. Addressing the issues behind the procrastination is the key to leading a child to greater self-awareness and self-confidence, and eventually to managing if not fully overcoming the syndrome itself.

Procrastination in large part reflects our perennial struggle with self-control as well as our inability to predict how we’ll feel tomorrow or the next day. Students are often surprised when I explain that I face my own procrastination demons on a regular basis. I know my students have also appreciated when their parents have spoken of their struggles with procrastination.

Parents who feel calm and hopeful themselves are in the best position to help their child build a calm and hopeful inner center from which to approach schoolwork. This suggestion is difficult perhaps, but so necessary when helping a child learn how to cope with procrastination. I’m not certain it is possible to fully overcome this most human of tendencies. It helps, though, to learn how to manage the beast.

Just being aware of the psychic toll procrastination takes on their children may help parents act with more compassion when next faced with this behavior. Instead of expressing frustration or anger, parents can work to help their children understand how working to overcome or manage their procrastination will help them experience more peace of mind, a sense of strength and purpose, and a greater personal self-satisfaction.

Adding some humor into the mix doesn’t hurt either. I’ve shared with older students John Perry’s amusing and thoughtful essay, Structured Procrastination, which gives us a personal view on how the Stanford philosophy professor uses procrastination to his advantage. Psychologist Timothy Pychyl’s expansion on Perry’s ideas further illuminates the issue.

I am including several more references for those readers who might wish to delve more deeply into the topic of procrastination. Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit presents a broad psychological discussion of procrastination. Understanding Procrastination from the Cal Poly Academic Skills Center is a wonderful examination of the phenomenon, with concrete and practical suggestions. James Surowiecki’s What Does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves? offers an extensive overview of both practical and philosophical considerations of procrastination.


By Posted in Meltdowns and Setbacks on May 20, 2012

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