With this new era of home schooling many of us are discovering we have a houseful of little procrastinators who find all sorts of interesting and unique ways of putting things off. “I just need to fill my water bottle”. “I’m just going to finish watching this episode of Friends and then I’ll start”. “I’m waiting for the zoom call just to be sure I know what to do”. Ring any bells? Well apparently, we are not alone in our frustrations with some children being more prone than others to putting off today, what they can start tomorrow. Dr Trevor Richards, Headmaster of All Hallows gets behind the science and provides some brilliant strategies on how to get your kid’s ball rolling…
I have been meaning to write this for about three days, but I have always found good reasons to do something else. Such procrastination can be a barrier to learning development. Progress clutters our mind, hanging over us as a cloud and detracting from our happiness.
Whilst we need to help our children overcome procrastination to develop their study skills, it is also helpful to understand why some pupils are more likely to procrastinate than others and how we can support them overcome this impediment.
“Sometimes the bareness of a blank piece of paper at the start of an assignment can be an obstacle in itself.”
Whilst procrastination is exceedingly common, psychologists have found that it is associated with some students more than others. Students who are not confident in their academic abilities are most likely to procrastinate, followed by those with low levels of self-regulation. This seems to me to be entirely logical, as we (a) put off things that we do not feel we are good at and (b) are more likely to procrastinate if we can’t manage distractions. Those with low self-esteem also appear likely to procrastinate. One possible reason for this is because procrastinating can be a self-protective strategy, providing a handy excuse to hide behind (i.e. ‘I only failed because I didn’t try’). Those with a rebellious streak might be more likely to procrastinate, too. They may perceive externally imposed deadlines as a form of control, lack of choice or imposed authority and therefore do their best to avoid them. Furthermore, those who procrastinate are more likely to feel stressed, which may contribute to lower performance, particularly in exams.
So, what might we do to help and what strategies might we seek to develop in our young people?
- Do the task for just a few minutes – not only do procrastinators spend longer distracting themselves doing the ‘wrong things’ but they also postpone starting the ‘right’ things. To combat this, Professor Richard Wiseman writes about The Zierganick effect, which describes how once you start something, your brain remains alert until you finish it. Starting a task is often the hardest part. If you can persuade someone just to start it for a few minutes, the brain’s desire to see it through to completion should then take over. Twenty-five minutes’ work seems to be enough to get us hooked.
- Manage the environment – If you can see temptations, you are more likely to be distracted by them, and therefore procrastinate. For example, a recent study found that having your phone in sight, even if you are not using it, can make you perform 20% worse than if you had put your phone away. The authors of this study state that ‘the mere presence of a cell phone may be sufficiently distracting to produce diminished attention’. I know I have to put my phone out of sight and turn of all notifications if I am going to focus on the task in hand – or even what my wife is saying.
- Chunk tasks and set series of short deadlines – Piers Steel notes that ‘it has long been observed that the further away an event is, the less impact it has on people’s decisions.’ Break down the task and give yourself a short deadline for each part.
- Increase confidence and self-belief – one way to increase their confidence is to highlight how others who have been in a similar position have been successful. This can make the task at hand seem achievable and provide a possible template to follow.
Right, I have to get back to some very important work policy work. Perhaps I will just check in on Year 5. Or find a quiet space to practice my skipping. This overcoming procrastination seems to be harder than I thought!