4 Reasons Why Teens Can't Stop Procrastinating
Why teens procrastinate and what you can do about it.
Posted Apr 17, 2018
Procrastination offers the illusion of freedom. It tricks us into believing we have countless hours, only to rob us of them (Edward Young). It seduces us with the promise of carefree play, but only offers what Tim Urban calls "The Dark Playground." This playground has the same fun activities as a real playground, but since you shouldn't be there, the experience is fraught with guilt and worry.
The procrastinator has a false sense of security. He feels optimistic that everything is in control, so there is plenty of time to goof off. He often misjudges the time it will take to complete a task; an estimate of 30 minutes for a job that will take two hours leaves him short. This is why procrastination has been likened to a credit card — it is easy and fun at first, but then you get the bill. And the interest is paid in feelings of dread, anxiety, helplessness, and self-hatred.
However, the habit of not doing is tough to break, because it’s self-reinforcing. A good grade (or sometimes just a passing grade) is proof that the system works, and that performing under pressure is necessary and effective. Unfortunately, the cost of putting things off is more than time. It strengthens the erroneous belief that work has to be unpleasant. Although the procrastinator becomes well practiced in avoidance, he never develops important skills, such as planning, organization, thought development, and attention to detail.
The cure for this malady is elusive, because procrastination is an attempt to resolve underlying issues we are not necessarily aware of — like anger, perfectionism, and self-doubt. While it does eliminate the anxiety associated with these problems, the root causes remain.
The Underlying Issues
The most common cause of procrastination I see in opt-outs is anger. Teens who resent the authority of parents and teachers can get even by delaying work or making a half-hearted effort. For adolescents who feel powerless, open rebellion is not an option, because the consequences would be too great, and deep down, these teens want to succeed. This form of revenge is manipulative and passive-aggressive, but also highly effective, because it takes authority figures' power away and drives them crazy. Never mind that it is also self-sabotaging; a teen cares more about their autonomy than their grades. In essence, the opt-out is saying, "You can't tell me what to do. I will do my work when I am good and ready.”
2. Playing the Victim.
Even though the procrastinator is imprisoned in a jail of his own making, he sees himself as the victim of those who set expectations and call the shots. He feels trapped in a no-win situation: Doing his work brings on uncomfortable feelings, but so does not doing it (though just not now). The victim approaches homework feeling that he has to do it, never that he wants to.
The pattern goes something like this: Your son dislikes chemistry, because it's hanging over his head and freaks him out. Since he hasn’t acquired skills in it, he can't do the assignments, so why try? Also, there's a test coming up soon, and he must do well on it — except he knows he can't. Suddenly, everything seems terribly unfair (the class is too hard), and the teacher angers him (“he goes too fast,” “he doesn't like me,” etc.).
Jeff is a teen who really struggled with this victim mentality. Though wicked smart, he feigned disinterest in academic achievement, saying it gave him no satisfaction. He was also at a complete loss about how to get work done. Something his siblings and friends were able to do every night (sit down and do their homework) completely eluded him. This mystification only intensified his victimization. He also becomes furious when his parents failed to notice even his smallest effort.
Though Jeff's wall of apathy and disregard for school seemed impenetrable, ultimately I learned what lay beneath it: a boy who felt ashamed of his inability to work and his helplessness to do anything about it.
Jeff is not alone. Like many opt-outs I’ve met, beneath his anger and resentment is a boy consumed with self-doubt. Kids like Jeff don't often start out feeling so hopeless. It takes years of questioning his own skills, wondering whether he has what it takes. This is especially true of kids who have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or learning disabilities. Opt-outs often did better in school when they were younger. However, when school became more challenging (as it always does), rather than step up the effort, they took their foot off the gas pedal. This is because they thought if school stopped being easy, it meant they were not smart enough. Trying was never an option, because it involved the possibility of failing, and then uncovering their perceived inadequacy.
A perfectionist may postpone starting a project because he feels overwhelmed by the sheer amount of energy it will take to do something perfectly. He will refer to work with words like "ought," "must," "have to," and "should." You probably don’t think of your son as a perfectionist; if anything, he is the opposite. However, most perfectionists suffer from deep feelings of inadequacy. His desire to make everything absolutely perfect may mask problems of self-esteem and self-confidence. High standards are great; they give us something to aim for. Perfectionism takes hold when the failure to meet these expectations becomes unacceptable. Perfectionists who procrastinate set unrealistic expectations and then avoid work to rid themselves of the anxiety it causes.
Though many adults procrastinate, for some teens, it is a sign of immaturity. Getting down to work involves postponing pleasure until work is done, and being able to tolerate the anxiety and frustration that accompanies learning something new. You can hear your teen's low frustration tolerance when he says things like: "This isn't fair, it’s too hard." I have written a great deal in my book, He's Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself, about helping kids to develop an "I think I can" attitude, and how parents can set expectations in a way that allows teens to still have autonomy and feel more in control. This is the only way to help them develop the internal motivation necessary to get work done.
However, let's look at a few things you can help the procrastinating teen with:
1. Rebut rationalizations.
Let’s face it: Procrastinators are liars. They lie to themselves on a regular basis about how long it will take to complete a project, and that they will have enough time to get it done well. These lies are called rationalizations. To stop, the procrastinator must be able to recognize, argue against, and defeat his rationalization. Either challenge him when you hear him use one of these rationalizations, or show him this list and ask if anything sounds familiar:
- "I'm more productive when I work under pressure, so I'm postponing all my work until the pressure builds up, and then it will be a breeze to polish this off.”
- "If I wait until the last minute, this paper won’t take so much time to write."
- “If I do this work right now, I'll miss out on (insert once-in-a-lifetime activity, including playing Fortnite or another video game for the fifth night in a row).”
- “Chill out. This is just one assignment. The world isn't going to come to an end if I don’t do it."
- “I don't know how to do this problem, so I'm waiting until I do."
- “This job is easier to do when I'm feeling it, so I am going to wait for the mood to strike."
- "I waited until the last moment before, and it worked out okay, so why not this time?"
2. Challenge negative thinking.
Procrastinators have a negative attitude towards work. Here are some negative things they tell themselves, and more positive substitutes:
Instead of saying this: Say this:
I have to... I choose to...
I must finish. When can I start?
This project is so big and so important. I can take one small step.
I must be perfect. I can be perfectly human.
I don’t have time to play. I must make time to play.
3. Uncover the roots to procrastination.
Recognize why you are delaying something unnecessarily by following these steps:
- Discover the real reasons for your delay. List as many as you can think of.
- Dispute those real reasons and overcome them. Be vigorous.
- Begin the task.
- Make the tasks look small and easy in your mind. ("I've written lots of excellent papers; this is just one more paper.")
- Do only a small part of the task each time. ("I'll just check out the books tonight. Later, I'll glance through them.")
- Change your environment: If you can't study at home, find a place where you can, or change your study situation at home.
- Five-minute plan: Work on something for just five minutes. At the end of five minutes, switch to something else if you want. Chances are, you'll have gotten involved enough to keep going.
- Use the Pomodoro System.
- Do what Eric Barker (author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree) calls the one-minute dash: First make a to-do list and put the terrifying stuff at the top, and the easier stuff at the bottom. Then do a "one-minute dash" and write out the steps needed to beat the first problem. Barker writes: “This should help you get past the fear and start building momentum. If the dashes aren’t working, they’re not short and easy enough."
Finally, remember that we want to elicit commitment, rather than compliance. To do so, help your son focus on manageable objectives rather than overwhelming expectations. Praise him for steps that send him in the right direction, rather than criticizing him for making mistakes. And whatever you do, don’t nag. That only creates resentment (in both of you) and adds more external pressure for your son to rebel against.
Mason Lasley said, “Procrastination makes easy things hard and harder things harder.” Combined with an attitude of victimization, it creates additional worry and intensifies a negative attitude towards school. Though they may help, the procrastination habit cannot be broken with a few strategies or tricks. The only way to truly conquer it is to learn it and become actively engaged in learning. For the opt-out, this takes time and emotional growth. However, the benefits of breaking the habit are significant. They include peace of mind, a feeling of strength, purpose, and being in charge of your life. While the procrastinator feels weak and helpless, the engaged student will feel strong, competent, and capable.
Check out Tim Urban’s Ted Talk, "Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator"
The Procrastination Habit by Dr. Neil Fiore (1988 Tarcher Perigree Press).