‘In a minute’ — Understanding Procrastination

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

In a minute.

I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve heard these words in my own household. The response has typically been triggered by a request to complete some undesirable task. Please clean your room. In a minute. I think you should get started with your homework. In a minute. It’s time to get ready for bed. In a minute. Of course, a minute is never really a true minute, and I could easily find myself making the same request several minutes…or hours…later.

I wish I could tell you this tendency to procrastinate is something that dissipates as our children get older. In my family, that is not the case. My children, now well into their teens, still procrastinate when it comes to a variety of tasks and situations. And, to be fair, it’s something I continue to grapple with as well. Our most recent discussion at home was about my son’s summer reading and work assignments. While talking with him about developing a strategy to tackle the work, he proudly told me that he works well under pressure, apparently preparing me for the inevitable last-minute push to complete the assignments in the final days of August, before school begins.

Of course, this makes no sense to me. Why procrastinate? Why put off something when we know we will eventually be required to do it, but with less available time and, consequently, more pressure and stress? Intuitively, this makes no sense. Yet I’ve talked with dozens of parents over the years who tell the same stories about their children.

Procrastination research suggests that my son may be onto something. Most social science research about procrastination focuses on two underlying and related factors: motivation and anxiety. Procrastination is viewed as a behavior related to low motivation, often because the avoided task is unpleasant, boring, difficult, or anxiety-provoking. It is our tendency to choose short-term relief over a long-term solution or benefit.

But motivation is not exclusively influenced by anxiety and avoidance. Self-determination theory suggests that there are different types of motivation that determine how a task is approached and completed. Someone with autonomous motivation completes an activity because it’s enjoyable, or because there is something about the task that is intrinsically rewarding. By contrast, controlled motivation leads a person to complete a task to earn a reward or avoid a punishment. Needless to say, household chores and other undesirable tasks are typically fueled by controlled motivation. And although many adults would like to believe the motivation underlying summer reading assignments is autonomous, a quick survey of most kids will reveal that the motivation to complete this activity is also controlled.

It seems that time and self-confidence are also factors related to procrastination. In a recent issue of the journal Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, researchers examined the longitudinal relationships between procrastination, motivation, and anxiety. Their research was based on temporal motivation theory, which suggests that the amount of time available to complete a task, coupled with the desirability of that task, influences a person’s motivation level.

The research examined the study habits of 182 college students over the course of a semester. The researchers found that while there was a strong relationship between procrastination and anxiety at the beginning of the semester, anxiety levels often decreased over time even when students continued to procrastinate. Additionally, the researchers identified another factor linked to procrastination that had nothing to do with motivation or anxiety: self-efficacy. They found that students who reported high levels of confidence in their abilities to complete the required assignments had lower levels of anxiety, regardless of whether they procrastinated.

Recent research indicates that parenting style can influence procrastination as well. Another study of 685 university students indicates that overly strict, punitive parenting styles are generally not effective strategies to decrease student procrastination because they adversely impact perceived self-efficacy. Instead, a firm but supportive approach is recommended.

So how do we help our children change this tendency to procrastinate? Set some limits, provide some tangible guidelines and support, and reiterate your confidence in your child’s ability to complete the task at hand. We can rely on some external strategies, like teaching our child to break the larger task into smaller, more manageable and less overwhelming tasks. For a messy bedroom or playroom, focus on and tackle one specific area of the room rather than the whole thing. For summer reading and other academic work, divide the number of pages to be read by the number of available days and set up a schedule. 

We can offer praise and encouragement; maybe schedule some rewarding time off as our kids achieve the smaller goals leading to completion of the larger task. Of course, these tasks will most likely still be driven by controlled motivation which, as we’ve established, contributes strongly to procrastination.

The other approach we can adapt is more internal. Make an educated and informed appraisal of your child’s abilities. What is his track record for completing required tasks on time? Does she convey well-founded confidence in her ability to complete the project successfully? If so, then maybe we remind our kids of the benefits of long-term planning, but also accept that procrastination is a habit that’s hard to break.

So when my son proudly touts his ability to work well under pressure as a reason for postponing his summer reading and assignments, I will try to remind myself that his motivation to complete the work may be different from my own, and his confidence in his ability to get it done on time is a strength that will help him sidestep the anxiety I’m feeling as he tells me this. And maybe, freed from some of my own anxiety about his procrastination, I can focus on other projects I’ve been saving for the slower months of summer. Or maybe I’ll gather my thoughts a bit more and get started on those tomorrow.

Beth Greenberg, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Psychology and coordinator of the Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling program at Becker College. Dr. Greenberg is a licensed clinical psychologist with 20 years experience in the treatment of children, adolescents, and families. In addition to teaching graduate students, she provides supervision in the Counselor Training Clinic at Becker College, which provides counseling services to the community. For more information about the graduate program and the clinic, email Dr. Greenberg at beth.greenberg@becker.edu or visit the clinic website: mhcclinic.becker.edu.