Students are not born procrastinators. The behaviour of postponing tasks is a learned habit rooted in childhood. By following the five proven strategies described below, parents and teachers can help students develop resilience to procrastination.
The popular and well-known Portuguese saying «Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today» has not prevented many teenagers from being masters in academic procrastination1. This behaviour, identified in several cultural contexts2,3, translates into a deliberate and intentional postponement of school tasks, and its negative impact on adolescents’ school performance and psychological well-being4,5 makes this subject merit more careful attention.
Teenagers easily switch from school chores to activities that give them immediate pleasure, such as gaming, watching series, or chatting on social media, even more so now, that independent study has become much more predominant in students' daily lives. The good news is that the capacity for self-regulation and the perception of self-efficacy can mitigate this problematic – but common – phenomenon in education.
In an attempt to understand the nature of procrastination, several authors have studied intrapersonal factors, such as personality6, self-esteem7, motivation for achievement8, perception of self-efficacy9 and perception of time10, and linked them to academic procrastination. Other authors have studies socio-personal factors, such as parents’ educational background, the number of siblings11, parenting practices12, and the influence of peers13,14.
Research has shown that procrastinators often distort the way they think and that such distortion is responsible for their addiction to postponing things. For example, young people may underestimate the amount of time they need to complete a specific task, or they may believe they need the right motivation and mood to complete it15.
Self-regulation and puberty
Several theoretical perspectives and studies on academic procrastination support the existence of a failure in the learning of self-regulation16, which can be resolved17 during adolescence, given the window of opportunity in the development of executive functions. The ability to plan the completion of a more complex school project depends mainly on the prefrontal cortex, which does not reach its full maturity until the age of 2018. Therefore, delaying school tasks may be rooted in the development of the adolescent brain and not in acts of laziness or forgetfulness.
This dilatory behaviour is seen as a psychological mask, where adolescents attempt to lessen the impact on their self-esteem by attributing failure to strategic errors and not to their lack of capacity4. This focus on strategic errors allows them to transfer the blame for their bad results to external factors. For example, if adolescents fail due to a short deadline, they think «if I had not waited until the last minute, I would have done much better». If, in turn, they succeed, their feeling of self-worth increases because the desired results have been achieved, despite having postponed the task to the fullest. Thus, regardless of the result, their self-esteem always seems to remain intact5.
In 1984, Martin Covington, the architect of the self-worth theory, stated that it is in our nature to be willing to «endure the pangs of guilt rather than the humiliation of incompetency»19. When this human tendency is combined with the more decisive development phase in terms of identity construction, it is no surprise that procrastination becomes a common behaviour among adolescents and that those who are more secure about their identity are less prone to procrastination20.
Five ways to encourage students not to procrastinate
What can teachers do? To answer this question, we have compiled some of the most important recommendations21 derived from recent research.
- Spread deadlines out. Instead of proposing a single deadline, teachers can divide a project into multiple tasks with evenly spaced deadlines. For example, they can request students to submit multiple drafts of one assignment or make progress checkpoints with previously established dates. This can be useful for students who become paralysed in the face of big projects or intimidating deadlines, and will also allow teachers to detect problems in early stages and help students reduce their anxiety.
- Provide supportive feedback. Students, especially those with low self-esteem, can resist doing a good job if they are too worried about criticism or afraid to fail. Therefore, teachers should avoid highly critical or negative feedback, which can unintentionally make students feel nervous or embarrassed, as well as pay attention to the type of feedback provided in front of other colleagues, as it may cause some students to feel uncomfortable and withdraw from the task.
- Teach time management and study skills. Many students have not yet developed the necessary metacognitive skills to study efficiently and may struggle even with simple tasks such as planning for enough study time or knowing when to ask for help.
- Be mindful of the workload. When the deadlines for different assignments coincide, students are more likely to fail and experience higher levels of anxiety, as they may feel overwhelmed with handling multiple tasks at the same time. Teachers must be realistic and act in a coordinated manner to ensure that the proposed deadlines are feasible.
- Provide clear instructions and examples. Students are more likely to postpone schoolwork if they are not able to clearly understand what is expected of them. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that all students understand the requirements of a requested task, and it is also safer to put the instructions in writing so that they can refer to them whenever necessary. Giving examples of past projects will also help students understand what they are supposed to do.
Other classic strategies, such as changing the working environment, dividing projects into smaller tasks, or using the Pomodoro technique (taking a 5-minute break for every 25 minutes of hard work), can also be useful. The hardest part is always to get started. However, teachers can help young students resist the strong temptation to procrastinate by encouraging them to establish interim targets and giving them a little push so that they don’t stop until they reach those smaller goals.
1 Ziegler, N., & Opdenakker, M.-C., «The development of academic procrastination in first-year secondary education students: The link with metacognitive self-regulation, self-efficacy, and effort regulation», Learning and Individual Differences, 64, 2018, pp. 71-82.
2 Klassen, R. M., & Kuzucu, E., «Academic procrastination and motivation of adolescents in Turkey», Educational Psychology, 29(1), 2009, pp. 69-81.
3 Svartdal, F., Pfuhl, G., Nordby, K., Foschi, G., Klingsieck, K. B., Rozental, A., et al., «On the measurement of procrastination: comparing two scales in six European countries», Frontiers in Psychology, 7:1307, 2016.
4 Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., and Olafson, L., «Doing the things we do: a grounded theory of academic procrastination», Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 2007, pp. 12-25.
5 Kim, K. R., and Seo, E. H., «The relationship between procrastination and academic performance: a meta-analysis», Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 2005, pp. 26-33.
6 Beck, B. L., Koons, S. R., and Milgrim, D. L., «Correlates and consequences of behavioral procrastination: the effects of academic procrastination, self-consciousness, self-esteem, and self-handicapping», Journal of social behavior and personality, 15, 2000, pp. 3-13.
7 Chen, B.-B., Shi, Z., and Wang, Y., «Do peers matter? Resistance to peer influence as a mediator between self-esteem and procrastination among undergraduates», Frontiers in Psychology, 7:1529, 2016.
8 Saddler, C. D., and Buley, J., «Predictors of academic procrastination in college students», Psychological Reports, 84, 1999, pp. 686-688.
9 Klassen, R. M., Krawchuk, L. L., and Rajani, S., «Academic procrastination of undergraduates: low self-efficacy to self-regulate predicts higher levels of procrastination», Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33, 2008, pp. 915-931.
10 Chen, B.-B., and Kruger, D., «Future orientation as a mediator between perceived environmental cues in likelihood of future success and procrastination», Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 2017, pp. 128-132.
11 Rosário, P., Costa, M., Núñez, J. C., González-Pienda, J., Solano, P., and Valle, A., «Academic procrastination: associations with personal, school, and family variables», The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 12, 2009, pp. 118-127.
12 Pychyl, T. A., Coplan, R. J., & Reid, P. A., «Parenting and procrastination: gender differences in the relations between procrastination, parenting style and self-worth in early adolescence», Personality and Individual Differences, 33(2), 2002, pp. 271-285.
13 Nordby, K., Klingsieck, K. B., and Svartdal, F., «Do procrastination-friendly environments make students delay unnecessarily?», Social Psychology of Education, 20, 2017, pp. 491-512.
14 Chen, B.-B., & Han, W., «Ecological Assets and Academic Procrastination among Adolescents: The Mediating Role of Commitment to Learning», Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2017.
15 Tuckman, B.W., Abry, D.A, & Smith, D.R., «Learning and Motivation Strategies: Your Guide to Success (2nd ed.)», Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.
16 Steel, P., «The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure», Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 2007, pp. 65-94.
17 Grunschel, C., Patrzek, J., Klingsieck, K. B., & Fries, S., «“I’ll stop procrastinating now!” Fostering specific processes of self-regulated learning to reduce academic procrastination», Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 46(2), 2018, pp. 143-157.
18 Luna B., «The Maturation of Cognitive Control and the Adolescent Brain», In: Aboitiz F., Cosmelli D. (eds) From Attention to Goal-Directed Behavior, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2009, pp. 249-274.
19 Covington, M. V., «The self-worth theory of achievement motivation: Findings and implications», The Elementary School Journal, 85(1), 1984, pp. 5-20.
20 Shanahan, M. J., & Pychyl, T. A., «An ego identity perspective on volitional action: Identity status, agency, and procrastination», Personality and Individual Differences, 43(4), 2007, pp. 901-911.
21 Terada, Y., «3 Reasons Students Procrastinate - and How to Help Them Stop», 2020.