MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern

Posted on November 13th, 2017, 0 Comments

How to Help When Your Teen Procrastinates

Almost all teens procrastinate at something. Cleaning their room, writing thank-you notes, starting a big project all come to mind. It probably is of little consequence much of the time, but procrastination can become a harmful habit, particularly when it involves your teen’s schoolwork.

It is commonly believed that students procrastinate because of their fear of failure. However, a series of recent studies suggests that fear of a poor grade sometime down the line may not be the main cause of academic procrastination. Instead, procrastinators might put-off difficult work because they have a low tolerance for the pins and needles feeling linked with sitting down and getting started at any given moment. Despite realizing the longterm harm in what they’re doing, these students focus on feeling good now.¹ And they tend to get lost in two kinds of wishful thinking: I’m just waiting for the best time to do the work or I know I can pull it off at the last minute.²

The problem is that students who engage in this kind of thinking typically end up putting things off until panic sets in and then working furiously – cramming and even pulling all-nighters – to get it all done. As a result they learn less and the quality of their work suffers. Plus these students say that putting off their work makes them awfully anxious.¹

Telling your teen to “just do it” is not going to work any better than telling them to “cheer up” when they’re sulking.² So how can you get your teen to get at their daunting and unpleasant schoolwork and get it done? You can’t. At least not directly. Teens have to mostly get themselves unstuck. But you can talk with your teen about procrastination and offer to help by providing tips that have been shown to work.

Try This
The key to overcoming procrastination, according to researchers and academic coaches, is to just get started. And because almost any task – no matter how daunting or unpleasant – can be tolerated for a short stint, experts recommend that those prone to procrastinating begin by working for just ten minutes at a time.²

Specific suggestions³ translated into strategies that can be used to help a teen are summarized below:

Encourage your teen to start small.
If your teen is having trouble getting started on a big project designed to take several nights or weeks, you can often support them best by helping them break the work down into manageable pieces. Then encourage them to start hammering away at those little pieces one at a time.

If they’ve done nothing, suggest they start by doing anything for ten minutes. The less they’ve been doing, the lower their (and your) expectations should be in the beginning. If they’ve done nothing on the project, suggest that they start by doing anything on the assignment for ten minutes. They might begin by organizing the materials they’ll need for the project, or, if research is required, they might begin by doing a preliminary online search. Whatever it is, once they’ve put in their ten minutes, they have succeeded and are free to take a short break or continue working.

Once they’ve been working on the project somewhat consistently, suggest that they try using the first ten minutes on the hardest task.
If they’re working on a research paper, for example, they might begin to take notes on some of the reference material, or they might start a bit of rough draft writing. Again, once they have done ten minutes of the hardest task, they are free to shift to an easier task or take a short break.

Nudge them to do at least ten minutes of project work everyday. Even on days when they have lots of homework or a busy extra-curricular schedule, try to get them to squeeze in ten minutes on the project. A commitment to consistency will help keep them mentally and emotionally connected to the project.

Allow (even encourage) rewards for completing the ten-minute work chunk. Small concrete rewards (a short break for chatting online, listening to a favorite song, or eating a snack) are ideal. You might even add to the options by keeping some of their favorite treats in the pantry. And remember, in the beginning it’s more about process than product. It’s not whether what they’ve done is fabulous, it’s that they sat down and did what they committed to doing.

A note about starting small to help them build momentum:
I can hear many of you protesting that ten minutes of work on a project is not enough to amount to anything – that you can’t imagine suggesting it, much less rewarding it. I get it. I once felt the same way. That is until I came to understand that the ten-minute chunks of work are about more than merely helping a teen complete a school project. It’s about helping them rebuild trust in themselves as they strengthen their willpower muscle and build momentum. And that’s best done slowly and with practice. Like when bodybuilding at the gym, willpower is best developed by regularly exercising it in small ways. You don’t want to do too much as once.⁴

Sources and Resources
1. Jaffe, E. Why wait? The science behind procrastination. Observer. April, 2013.
2. Hoover, E. Tomorrow, I love ya! Chronicle of Higher Ed. December 9, 2005.
3. McKinney, M. Overcome procrastination. Tomorrow’s Professor. Msg. 833.
4. Weir, K. The power of self-control. Monitor on Psychology 43: 46.

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