Don’t Delay Exploring the Science of Your Child’s Procrastination

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ProcrastinationSchool just started and already you’re learning at 9:00pm that your child’s project is due at 8:30am. Why oh why did he or she leave it this late? Because your child is a procrastinator, that’s why. And let’s be honest: Did the apple really fall that far from the tree? Do you do today what could be put off ’til tomorrow? Or do you check Buzzfeed and drink coffee and play just one more game of Carcassonne until the tipping point at which you can’t possibly procrastinate any longer without dire, real-world consequences?

The journal Psychological Bulletin calls procrastination “a prevalent and pernicious form of self-regulatory failure.” Darn, that seems kind of harsh. How bad is procras­tination, really? First, it’s bad enough that when you try to study it, you find things like this: “High scorers on the procrastina­tion scale were more likely to return their completed in­ventory late,” from an article in the Journal of Research in Personality. Who are these slackers whose inability to return a questionnaire on time makes them nearly impossible to study?

The JRP study shows their personalities are largely what you would expect: Disorga­nized, impulsive, distractible people who are likely to rate their enjoyment of projects higher when the time it takes to complete projects is lower. At least that’s the case when the project is assigned by some force beyond themselves. See, believe it or not, there’s a positive side to the personality of procrastinators: procrastinators also believe in their own self-efficacy and are motivated by factors other than achievement.

More and more, research is showing that procras­tination isn’t a defect in ability or personality but rather a disconnect between the demands of a task and what motivates the procrastinator. Procrastinators are intrinsically and not ex­trinsically motivated, meaning that neither tempting them with rewards nor warning them the sky will fall is likely to up their motivation to the threshold of action. Instead, the procrastinator has to want to do something. Maybe he or she would start this minute on a model of an ancient Meso­potamian ziggurat, but no amount of threatening or cajol­ing or bribing will make that person write a report on the same thing.

Ninety-five percent of procrastinators claim to want to reduce their procrastination. Here’s the secret: Rather than focusing on a task’s rewards and punishments (or creating your own system of rewards and punishments) help your child find aspects of a project that he or she can care about. You know your child. Will researching Mesopotamia aid Minecraft map design? No one else’s reasons will make your procrastinator get to work, but helping your child discover aspects of a project that ring true to their own scheme of awesomeness will help him or her get started. There has to be something. And it may be up to you to find it.

According to the authors of the Psychological Bulletin article, one thing is certain: “Further research on procrasti­nation should not be delayed.”

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Delay Exploring the Science of Your Child’s Procrastination

  1. I’ve realized this with myself and our oldest daughter. “You’ll be late!” is not a motivator. Ever. “You’ll miss [insert activity she wants to do] if we don’t get there soon!” is a GREAT motivator. Same with picking out clothes in the morning: she gets motivated when I give her a timeline when I’m coming to pick clothes for her (and, yes, I do follow through!). I’ll start looking for more ways to discover motivators to get her going–well, her *and* me.

  2. Cheers, Tim! It sounds like in both cases you’ve been able to tap into her *intrinsic* motivations — in the first case, her intrinsic desire to be on time for a preferred activity and in the second, her intrinsic desire to not look as if her dad dressed her (believe me, my kids should fear the same…). “You’ll be late!” is from your point of view. “You’ll be late for your favorite activity,” is from her point of view. Very cool.

  3. Ha, I’ve been dealing with this for myself for a long time…

    “Mow the lawn! Or it’ll look like crap!” Eh, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’m busy playing a game/watching a movie/reading a book…

    “Pick up your son’s toys before he goes to bed!” Okay, okay! Last thing I want to do is bump a toy and wake him up in the middle of the night!

    It really is all about the motivation from the doers perspective.

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