Procrastination and anxiety

What is it?

Why do we do it?

When is it a problem?

A guide for teachers and parents.

So what’s YOUR nemesis when it comes to procrastination? We all have those little corners of our lives where we notice either a conscious or unconscious reluctance. As an English teacher, one of my areas of procrastination was to do with marking. I would set and mark work regularly, – probably TOO regularly, a number of my pupils would claim. And part of me would love to see how they had got on with understanding and applying their work. But part of me would dread elements of the process. Although I was always able to overcome it and get that work done, and quickly too, I would notice certain behavioural traits emerging, sorting the pile into the easy stuff first, putting the essays that I know would be harder to read and slower to mark to the bottom of the pile. Checking my phone -emails and notifications much more frequently. And in the days when I worked in an open plan office, being prone to distractions and diversionary chats my hand reaching for the Tangfastics -‘rewards for the kids’ rather too often. When it comes to home-life it’s easy to know that anything involving a tax return, financial admin tends to be put off. 

What are YOUR areas of avoidance? What do YOU notice in your mind and body when you have something on your spinning plates that you’d rather wasn’t there? You know that the answer is to just get it done but somehow you also know that you are resisting it with – not EVERY fibre of your being – but a few of them!! Procrastination is something we can all connect with and recognise.

And in this connection lies a little superpower when it comes to working with our children or pupils when it comes to tendencies to procrastinate. Procrastination in ourselves is always forgivable putting off that tricky conversation making that big decision filling in those monster forms. Procrastination in others – on the other hand – is frustrating and annoying. Quite often it can be viewed as laziness, fecklessness, being complacent and uncaring. These more persecutory lenses for seeing this behaviour are not so effective for seeing and working on the roots of the problem. So a little bit of personal reflection and self-regulation before discussing the problem helps massively in approaching correcting the difficulty. It’s so easy to see a teen at home, lounging on the sofa or bed and doom scrolling AGAIN and AGAIN and get revved up by their inertia. Remembering that avoidance – and withdrawal – is very often a response that is driven by anxiety and threat we are programmed to either ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’ what is safe and good. Mind-reading and deciding that another person is avoidant of work rather than thinking about why starts to limit the options of the frustrated parent or teacher.

Procrastination can have several different causes. If we want to overcome it ourselves – or help the young people overcome it, we need to work out what’s at the root of the problem. It is important that we do work actively to dial down this tendency as it can cause so many difficulties as we develop. Avoidance is a highly problematic coping strategy as there is never any chance to reality check or master the fear, so that’s what grows. Avoiding avoidance is key! What follows is the synthesis of hundreds of coaching sessions with young people and adults over many years as an educator and as a coach. Some procrastination roots:

  1. Forgetting to do it technically not ‘procrastination’ – because there’s no resistance or avoidance involved. It’s a question of designing a reminder system that will work for them – whether that’s on-line reminders, better use of planners or REALISTICALLY structured ‘to-do’ lists.
  2. Uncertainty – particularly a problem for those who find unknown situations difficult. Encouraging young people to get help, seek clarification, recognise when they aren’t clear on their instructions and act on it earlier. Quite frequently, this reality only emerges the night before the deadline – when it’s too late.
  3. Not knowing where to start. Or requiring ‘ideal circumstances’ to get going. This can feel overwhelming, scary, and stressful. It’s never going to be the right time to start a novel – or clear 3 hours to write an essay or ‘do’ your DT / Geography / Science project. There are no perfect circumstances. Get going – and find the pebbles that will start the landslide. Teachers can help by suggesting ideal starter activities and timings to get things going. Parents can do similar by asking for notional starting points – getting your child to suggest small scale starting points and having a go. Experiential approaches make for faster results than waiting for everything to be perfectly aligned.
  4. Undue optimism about time! Over-estimating how much time is left before the deadline and under-estimating how much time it will take to complete the work leads to a lack of urgency. Young children have a basic mechanism that allow them to process time, but they need a lot of help with time management. Adolescents tend to underestimate time tasks will take, whereas adults tend to overestimate. Adults aged 35+ are more future oriented, whereas adolescents are more present-oriented. So this forms the perfect storm for parents at home with adolescents. Being aware of these fundamental inter-generational tendencies and compassionate – or at least objective – really helps. The development of the abilities to judge time in different contexts is dependent on the development of attention and executive functions. Some teens will find it harder than others to manage time – eg where ADHD or ADD is concerned. Giving clear guidelines about the pulsing of the tasks set within a project, and the time needed for each section can help enormously. Both for those who procrastinate, underestimate and rush, and for those who have perfectionist tendencies who will go over and above the brief set and spend far too much time on the work. It’s helpful for parents to recognise that executive functioning skills – being able to plan and be strategic about time and tasks – takes time to come on stream. Be realistic it takes time for these skills to come on stream and this will be dependent on you moving from director (ie very active supervision) to collaborator (mentoring), to champion (coach) where time management is concerned between 11-16. Micromanaging does not develop executive functioning skills.
  5.  Distraction – we talk about ‘paying’ attention for a reason. It’s a valuable commodity that is very under attack by the various devices we ALL have and the apps we install on them that are designed to hijack our dopamine and novelty-seeking circuitry. Read Nir Eyal’s Hooked and let your teen read it too, there’s nothing teens hate more than feeling manipulated, so learn – and let them learn about how our devices are designed to keep up clicking and looking. And how it chips away at our focus. Along with looking at how our children and teens’ devices are set up to ping at their attention, look at creating a working environment that supports focus. Clear of clutter. Looking at having a designated working space that is fit for purpose. A little bit of fengshui so that there is – as much as is practical – a separate space for work, a separate space for hobbies and games, and a separate space for rest.
  6. Fear of failure. Procrastination is an evil twin to perfectionism – which itself is a FAR from benign addiction. When people are preoccupied with unattainable ideals, or are afraid of criticism or making mistakes, they can fall into cycles of avoidance which increases as the deadline looms – as they become even less able to do a good job. Perfectionism is hugely on the rise. And with it terrible feelings of fear at not being good enough. It’s really important to address this by encouraging early attempts and early feedback. This can take the form of peer review in the classroom. Working with perfectionists on following the brief as it is rather than spending hours getting that extra 5% is very worthwhile. Perfectionism can feel very good – kids get a lot of positive reinforcement from trying really hard – but it has a growing hidden cost which is toxic for mental health, wellbeing, and relationships. Helping your child notice the hidden cost – and making that hidden cost more visible to the school also can help where the pattern is ingrained. Don’t collude with late nights – burning the midnight oil on school work robs our kids of their dreams – both literally and metaphorically.
  7. Too many commitments – overscheduling. This can lead to resistance – a form of rebellion against not having sufficient time to rest, relax, have their own agency and choice about what they do. Procrastination becomes the expression of this resistance. Beware the deficit narratives about catching up – which can lead to threat-based ‘fix-it’ parenting. Plugging gaps by engaging tutor after tutor might feel like a good response in the moment – but ALL kids need balance to work, rest, and play. It is heartbreaking unpacking routines which reveal insufficient time to rest after school, to sleep sufficiently (see the NHS age-by-age guidance), to connect with family, to play let alone do homework. Just because online tutoring is now so available, does not make it the right solution. IT is more helpful for parents to work with the school and get advice about more targeted interventions. When teachers uncover these routines and a downward spiral of morale and engagement it is important to give parents professional advice and for the school to do some straight-talking with parents about being realistic about how much structure is helpful, and what is proving harmful.

So how do we know when procrastination is getting out of hand? I often talk about a rule of ‘too’ When we are feeling TOO different, TOO intensely, and for TOO long. When has a tendency become more pervasive, impacting on the ability to work, and to relate. Watching out for when we are spending so long oscillating between wanting to engage with a task, feeling the burden of it, and avoiding it – that it means that we are engaging in self-limiting and damaging behaviours:

  1. Preventing us getting enough sleep – 9 hours,15 minutes for an 11-14 year old, gradually reducing through adolescence to needing between 7-8 hours sleep as an ADULT (is 25+) see the NHS age by age guide to how much sleep children and teens should get.
    1. Preventing us having quality connections with friends and family – ie work being a common excuse not to eat supper together, take breaks together etc. gradually cutting ourselves off from that all-important social nutrition that gives us perspective.
      1. Preventing us feeling ‘satisfaction’ or mastery, a really important aspect of our psychological wellbeing – without it, our sense of capability, our self esteem diminishes, and leads to feelings of shame, guilt, of being not good enough.  

I hope this article has given you some helpful signposts for understanding and working with procrastination. A recap of how to help:
•  Regard procrastination with objectivity and curiosity rather than being judgmental. Shame is not an effective motivator. Humiliation does not actually work in making people change – rather it makes them angry and disengaged.
• Unpack the feelings involved. Help a young person name those feelings accurately.
• Hold the space for the procrastinator to count the real costs of the problem.
• Create a sense of what’s at stake? where this is going? what is the direction of travel if things continue as they are? or not?
• Connect with positive moments. We motivate ourselves much better for the good stuff rather than through fear or threat, What does it feel like to complete and hand in on time? 
• Grow the vision of what they want to change, why it matters? what it will feel like?
• Identify the small steps they can start to take straight away.
• Help them notice, mark, and celebrate the small stuff, the pebbles that will start the landslide towards those important feelings of completion and mastery.
Feel free to get in touch with questions, feedback, or topics that would be of interest to you in the future. IF you are feeling stuck with working on procrastination, consider coaching as a way of finding the reflective space to get some traction, plan your steps, be held to account supportively, and succeed. With love, and gratitude, as always. Emma.

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