Procrastination

Adolescent Questions About Procrastination

Putting off work until later for the sake of pleasure now can be costly

Posted May 27, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Questions from a high school media project reminded me of graduation concerns about procrastination.  

Could this practice hold students back as they begin the final and most demanding stage of adolescence, Trial Independence (ages 18 – 23), and progressing through the college age years?

So what follows are five questions that were asked, and my personal opinions in response – as a counseling practitioner, not as a psychological researcher.

To begin, I suggested one way to think about procrastination was not as some kind of mental disorder or disease. Instead, consider it as an often self-defeating habit of delay intended to put off dealing with present demands until later, usually for the sake of having something preferable to do now.

“WHERE DO YOU THINK TEENS PICK UP THE HABIT OF PROCRASTINATION?”

I believe that to some degree the practice of procrastination can be a common byproduct of early adolescent growth. Separating from childhood around ages 9 – 13, a young person starts testing and contesting the family powers-that-be by pushing against and pulling away from parental authority for more freedom to grow. 

Now there is more active resistance in the form of argument and there is more passive resistance in the form of delay, this latter resistance sometimes laying a foundation for procrastination. 

It is often easier for parents to get timely compliance from a cooperative child than from a more resistant adolescent who agreeably promises to do as asked “in a minute.” However, as a matter of minutes drags on into a matter of hours, parents find that additional reminders (supervision) are required to get what they wanted accomplished in a timely way. 

This kind of “stalling” to show parental authority that they can’t get immediate compliance can have unintended consequences for older adolescent growth.  Unwittingly, by passively resisting parental authority now they also can learn to resist their own authority later on. “I tell myself I’ll do it in a while, but I often don’t.” And now procrastination in response to one’s own demands can prove a frustrating experience. 

Where the early stage adolescent response to external demand was “You can’t make me,” the late stage adolescent response to one’s internal demand can be, “I can’t make me!” At worst, at an older age when shouldering independent responsibility is essential, the procrastination response can feel disabling. “I can’t make myself do what I need to do. I keep putting things off!” 

Now a habit of procrastination can become self-defeating. For example, entering college a young person can rebels against their own authority, making it harder to make themselves regularly attend class and accomplish homework. Now procrastination can be to their academic cost. “We have met the enemy and they are us!”  I believe a continuing habit of procrastination is one factor that contributes to the low freshman retention rate in many colleges (the percent who academically fail to return for sophomore year.)

“WHAT USUALLY CAUSES TEENS TO PROCRASTINATE IN HIGH SCHOOL?”

As students transition from elementary school to middle school to high school, their educational and social lives become more complex and demanding, while worldly influences become more compelling and alluring. 

In the high school years, what I see as the third stage of adolescence (Late Adolescence, ages 15 – 18), there is increased focus of acting more grown up, which means gathering more worldly experience in encouraged and discouraged ways. The desirability of these experiences makes it increasingly difficult to place obligations and work before interest and fun. 

And now the full force of growing up in two worlds – the offline and the online – can be felt. The Internet is the greatest human circus of entertainment ever invented, creating constant demands for attention and opportunities for escape that are very hard to ignore. Screen time activities can feel irresistible, while off-screen activities are easy to relegate to second place, procrastination helping this change in priorities become so. It naturally becomes harder to engage in work and obligations, and easier to avoid them because this ever-present diversion is always only a click away. 

Today, I believe the Internet is where most procrastination goes to play. 

“HOW DOES PROCRASTINATION RELATE TO TEEN STRESS?”

When it comes to stress, procrastination is often a bad bargain because by putting off demand a young person creates stress in two ways. First, delay now only adds to demand later, so obligations pile up. Second, stress can be deliberately sought as a motivator to get unwanted tasks accomplished. 

Case of this second point is how a teenager can wait until the last minute to get started on a school project assigned two weeks ago. Now caught in a self-created emergency, the stress response (a functional, survival response to crisis) comes to the rescue, generating emergency energy to overcome resistance to engaging with the unwanted task. “I needed to wait until the last minute to get it done!” 

So, the morning after she or he has pulled an all-nighter to get an assignment in on time, the young person feels exhausted. “Now I need to sleep it off!”  

“Stressaholics,” people who becomes dependent on stress partly for the excitement of urgency and partly to motivate accomplishment, are typically last minute producers. “I operate best when I’m almost out of time!” 

It’s useful to discriminate between two kinds of procrastination because the stress in each case is somewhat different. Type One Procrastination is when the young person waits until the last minute to get a task done, playing the “put it off/ pull it off” game and winning, albeit to a stressful cost. Type Two Procrastination is when the young person delays so long the window of accomplishment is closed, and now it is too late to get the work submitted. Here the stress is failure and the effects thereof. On balance, it’s probably better to be a Type One Procrastinator than a Type Two.

“IS PROCRASTINATION HARMFUL?”

As mentioned above a habit of procrastination can certainly be stressful, and protracted stress can become increasingly serious as it worsens over four cumulative stages of unhappy functioning -- from feeling fatigued and worn out, to feeling in pain with emotional or physical discomfort, to feeling burned out and losing traditional caring, to breaking down and not being able to maintain normal operating capacity.

Of course, the cost of Type Two Procrastination can result in the failure to perform and the attendant consequences, like when a teacher denies an extension of time to get a project accomplished.

There is also a relational cost for someone who regularly procrastinates.  Between a couple, one person’s continual procrastination can be harmful to the other when the procrastinator continually delays doing what the other asked, was expecting, or was promised.  Initially this behavior can cause frustration, disappointment, hurt, and anger, but if allowed to continue it can erode trust and caring in the relationship. In significant relationships, it pays to be reliable and timely in meeting one’s commitments to each other, and proves costly when one does not.

“WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT TEENS CAN DO TO PREVENT PROCRASTINATION?”

Obviously, the short answer is simple: practice being prompt and timely in meeting and discharging your commitments and obligations to self and others. Sometimes it helps to keep a written list and schedule to refer to during a time when there is so much in life going on. Such a self-management tool can help maintain accountability. Thus, before escaping into some diversion or entertainment, a young person can ask themselves: “Is there is something I need to attend to before I do?” 

Another final question might be: How can a teenager recover from a habit of procrastination? 

Initially, it can seem logical to say: “Just stop doing it!” But remember, we are talking about a habit here, an established pattern of behavior practiced over a long period of time. Simple prohibitions are usually powerless to stop a self-defeating habit.

So, instead of trying to stop practicing an old habit, trying starting to practice a new one. Try beginning the next unwanted demand a little more promptly. For example, rather than wait until the night before a project is due, give yourself freedom to experiment. Just for once, try starting it two nights before the project is due, and see what that feel like and what happens. When it comes to changing habits, rather than fight the old repertoire of behavior, try starting a new one. 

The most powerful antidote to procrastination is self-discipline – practicing a strong enough work ethic to address demands and obligations in a timely way. (For more information about this, see my 2/19/2019 blog, “Eight Self-discipline Skills and Readiness for College.”) 

Next week’s entry:  Adolescent Questions about Growing Up as an Only Child