Dear Dr. Fournier:
My son is a procrastinator, and I can’t get him to change. Last semester’s exams just reinforced the evidence. His constant procrastination drives us crazy. He has plenty of time, he knows he has to do it, he says he will do it, but he never starts studying until the last minute.
I helped him to set up study times, but he always finds an excuse not to do it. He says he has to clean up his room, or clean out his book bag, or move everything he needs to the dining room so he can study better. All these are just excuses to avoid studying. He is driving us crazy and I can’t go through what happened for his midyears, before the holidays. What can we do?
All of us suffer from procrastination at one time or another – and the operative word here is “suffer.”
Procrastination is the vehement avoidance of something that we must do – something that we know will ultimately catch up with us – yet we are willing to suffer the guilt and consequences of putting it off.
Perhaps the worst part of procrastination is hearing that inner voice that constantly reminds us of our responsibilities and screams out all of the negative possibilities. We all try to respond to that voice with some sort of self-rationalization, but invariably it’s a lose/lose situation: We lose valuable time as well as peace of mind.
We answer our inner voice with two primary types of responses:
- Avoidance Now is the response we give when we convince ourselves that we have to do something else first. This is the type of response your son uses when he believes he has to organize his room or his book bag before he begins to study for exams. With an Avoidance Now response, we believe that if we would just accomplish something else first, it will give us the time or peace of mind to do what we are avoiding. We turn off the inner voice by rationalizing that we are taking on responsibility by doing something else.
- Delaying Commitment is the response we give when we convince ourselves that we must plan to accomplish the task at a later date. We are responsible because “planning” helps get us out of “doing.” Delaying Commitment helps us turn off the inner voice for a while because we believe we have a responsible response. You can always spot those who delay because they’re the first to say, “Don’t worry, I have it under control.” It’s the same response a student uses when he claims, “I can’t study yet because the teacher hasn’t given us our exam study sheet.”
What to Do About It
Help your child figure out why studying for exams is so painful that he tries to avoid or delay his responsibility. Perhaps he feels locked in, can’t figure out where to begin, feels incompetent, or he believes that studying will simply take too long. All of these are legitimate concerns, but you must address these issues and not let your son use them as an excuse to procrastinate. Once you have pinpointed the fear(s), let your son respond to them by creating an “exam plan.” For example, if your son is worried that studying will take too long, help him divide the material into smaller chunks.
Studying for fifteen minutes a day for five days sounds like much less work than an hour and fifteen minutes at one time. Rather than asking your son, “When are you going to study?” ask instead, “Show me what you must learn and tell me what you have already learned.”
As you develop an exam plan, be sure to identify when procrastination has set in. Explain that you understand the two primary responses Avoiding Now and Delaying Commitment. Part of the exam plan is making a list of avoiding tactics I call this list “I Choose to Suffer” because it points out the eventual consequences of procrastination.
Keep this list in a visible place. If your son uses the same tactic over and over, tabulate it so he can see how he keeps himself in turmoil and suffering. The goal is not to fuel fights but to develop awareness of what your child does to himself when he dreads dealing with responsibility.
Just as you keep the “Suffer” list, keep track of what your child does without procrastination. He needs to see that he is capable of coping with responsibilities in a timely fashion. Exam time provides parents the opportunity to teach a lesson for a lifetime – to overcome the anguish of doing things that you don’t want to do by facing procrastination with perseverance.