‘I’ll Do My Homework Later’ – What’s Behind Procrastination?

Procrastination. We all do it. We put off what we can do today, for tomorrow, or the next day. Whether it’s cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn, or waiting until the ‘last minute’ to finish a school project, most everyone procrastinates to a certain extent. Common assumption about procrastination is that it is a sign of laziness. But is that really what is happening? In her recent article in The New York Times, “Why You Procrastinate”, Charlotte Lieberman explains that procrastination is not a character flaw, but rather a coping mechanism.

Learning how to cope with uncomfortable feelings in healthy ways is part of growing up and a skill that needs to develop for children. It is important to know that wanting to avoid unpleasant feelings is normal. But to help children with procrastination, it’s helpful for parents to understand what is going on behind the behavior.

‘I can’t wait to take out the garbage!’ said no one, ever! Many tasks, like taking out the trash, are not attractive to most people. To some these tasks are gross, for others they are boring, but there tends to be some sort of an emotional response. For most, if not all, activities we attach an emotional value to them (like disgust or boredom to household chores), but for others, like school or homework, the emotions can be more complex. For example, some children are excited to read a new book, but for another child reading a book can cause frustration, anxiety, or self-doubt. As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. note in Smart Love, some “children feel shame when they don’t know everything.”(2)

When we procrastinate we often evaluate the emotions associated with the activity at hand with the emotions of a more attractive alternative. And this is where procrastinating often takes place. For example, instead of beginning a new science project a teen may choose their algebra homework because they are more familiar with the concepts and content. They aren’t being lazy, rather they are avoiding the unpleasant, yet normal, emotions associated with starting something new and unknown.

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem. It is the primacy of short-term mood repair, over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions”(1) says Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The problem presents itself when unfinished schoolwork becomes patterned behavior. Temporarily putting off an unappealing school project is normal for children and likely won’t have large consequences, but putting it off completely surely will. Not only can children earn a poor grade, but their emotional health suffers as they may begin to feel badly about themselves. Common assumption is that these kinds of emotions should motivate a child to finish their school work the next time, but in fact research shows quite the opposite.

“The momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what fuels the behavior. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief as well as a reward for procrastinating. And we know that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again”(1) says Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. But telling ourselves to ‘stop procrastinating’ doesn’t address the root cause. Instead it perpetuates and emboldens the emotions that drive procrastination.