My son is a terrible procrastinator – whenever there is a deadline for something he needs to do, he puts it off until the very last minute. I get angry with him and start nagging – he gets frustrated with me and then stressed out because his time has run out. What can we do to change this process? It happens over and over again, no matter what we do!
Signed: Groundhog Day
Dear Groundhog Day,
We used to think that people who procrastinated had issues with time management or problems with their organization skills. And to some degree, there could be an element of truth in this – if we have too much going on and we are overloaded with everything we need to get accomplished; something is going to slip to the bottom of the pile. If we are inexperienced in understanding how long a task will take and don’t leave ourselves enough time to accomplish it, we may find ourselves working on it right up till the very last second.
But research now tells us that a regular pattern of procrastination is more of an issue with managing our emotions, rather than our time. The task we put off is making us feel bad – perhaps it’s boring, too difficult or we’re worried about failing – and to make ourselves feel better in the moment, we start doing something else that offers a more pleasant sensation. We are all guilty of clicking onto Instagram or Tik Tok or getting lost in crazy cat videos or Pinterest posts, when we know we really should be working on meeting an important deadline for work or for some priority in our personal life. We see the clock ticking and the moments slipping away – but we just can’t stop binge watching our favourite show or cleaning the kitchen until it sparkles. The pressure builds – the guilt mounts – and before we know it, we are stressed out and wondering what is wrong with us – we know better, yet here we go again, not staying on task like we should.
You can help your son in a few different ways: Teach him how to use his phone/some form of scheduling app on a daily basis – allow him some control over the time management that he feels a task requires. Ensure that he works on the task in stages – that he tries little steps spread out over a period of time, so the task doesn’t get too overwhelming all at once, and so he can feel a sense of achievement as he tackles each stage of the process. Once he takes the first step towards a certain task, the follow through on the next steps becomes easier.
Help him find a balance between breaks/downtime and a focus on responsibility – all work and no play is a prime formula for procrastination. Studies show that for every 20 to 30 minutes of focused time on something heavy, kids should get a 5 to 10 minute break – they need to mix in moments of physical activity, water breaks, snacks and healthy distractions between the rounds of work they are trying to accomplish, in order for the end result to be most successful.
And lastly, help your son understand that we all need to learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and stay in the moment in spite of those feelings, as we prioritize choices and actions that help us accomplish the real goals in our life. Support him as he finds ways to face and overcome those less than pleasant emotional responses that he might be having – doubts about his own abilities, fears of failure, etc. Once he gets started, he will find it easier to keep going – it is the getting started part that is everything.
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