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What Is Procrastination?

And why it's a problem for kids with learning or mental health disorders

Writer: Adam Zamora, PsyD

Clinical Expert: Adam Zamora, PsyD

Procrastination is something we all do when we have a task that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe the task is difficult or something we’re not sure how to do, or maybe it’s something we’re afraid we might not be good at. Putting off the task allows us to escape the discomfort, but only temporarily. In the long run, of course, it makes the bad feeling worse. Procrastination brings added stressors of knowing that we didn’t do what we were supposed to when we should have, or having to rush through a complicated assignment at the last minute. Who isn’t familiar with this cycle?

Procrastination is a particular challenge for college students, who are expected to complete longer-term projects and are responsible for their own use of time. More than a few college freshman find that they have procrastinated so much during their first semester that December presents an impossible academic lift.  

Kids with learning or mental health challenges are especially prone to procrastination. Anyone who has struggled with anxiety or depression or a learning disorder has probably had a bad experience with schoolwork — trouble understanding an assignment, worries their work wasn’t good enough, or a grade they were ashamed of. Bad experiences can trigger discomfort when we’re presented with new tasks and a powerful urge to avoid them.

Because avoiding discomfort makes us feel better, even in the short-term, it’s a behavior we tend to want to repeat. But stalling on school projects until they are due — and panic mode sets in — continues the cycle of bad experiences and leads to more procrastination.

Signs you might be procrastinating 

When we procrastinate, we sometimes alleviate anxiety by getting busy with other things, telling ourselves that we’re really being productive. Procrastination doesn’t always look like doing something fun or mindless — it can also look like doing work that’s unrelated to something more important. 

Here are some signs of procrastination:

  • Filling your time with low-priority tasks so you can check something off on your To-Do List, or coming up with new tasks, even as the time you have for something more important runs out.  
  • Reading e-mails, texts, or assignment descriptions multiple times without responding or putting pen to paper because you don’t know how to respond, or you’re worried you might make a mistake.
  • Starting a big assignment, and then heading out to get something to eat, going to get some coffee, texting with friends, or watching videos.
  • Telling yourself you need to be in the right mood — there’s never a “right mood” or “right time” to get a tough task done. 

The first step towards combating procrastination is recognizing you’re doing it in the first place. The more you get to know yourself and your motivations, the better you can work towards your goals. 

What’s so bad about procrastination?

The downside of procrastination isn’t just that it leaves you with less time to write a good paper or study for a test. It also increases stress.

  • Stress makes it harder to concentrate and more likely that what you need to know will “go in one ear and out the other.” 
  • It’s more effective and less daunting to study for short periods of time more frequently than it is to study during one exhausting, marathon session.
  • With writing, waiting until the last minute ensures an inferior final product. You don’t get a chance to test-drive your ideas by discussing them with classmates or professors or fine-tune them by writing several drafts.

How to fight procrastination

One powerful way to fight procrastination is to withhold what you want to do until your more stressful tasks are completed first. That way, desirable tasks become a motivating reward. 

Whether it’s answering an email, calling someone, reading a report, or writing a paper, your goal should always be to dispense with your most difficult tasks first. When you lift the burden of a more difficult task, it eases your stress, leaves you feeling accomplished and good about yourself, and gives you motivation to do the next thing.

Other ways to fight:

  • Eliminate distractions. The reality is that when you want to be distracted, you will be.  Shut off the push notifications on your smartphone. Keep your web browser closed. If you find you need help resisting temptation, some software programs will prevent you from using it for pre-set intervals. You can even set your phone to airplane mode. Once your study period or task is complete, then open your texts and other messages. 
  • Ensure you have adequate energy. You cannot concentrate or think well if you are tired or undernourished. Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Eating well releases serotonin, which helps you regulate your sleep, think more clearly, and boost your mood. When you study, bring snacks and drinks to stay energized and hydrated. 
  • Understand your discomfort. Think about all the reasons you don’t want to complete a task, as they may not be immediately obvious.  Keep asking yourself: Why don’t I want to make that phone call? Why don’t I want to write that book report? Why don’t I want to go to class? Whatever your reasons, bringing awareness to them lessens their power to induce procrastination and control your thinking. 
  • Remind yourself why a task is important. In your mind, walk through the consequences of not completing the task. While too much anxiety can be paralyzing, a little can be motivating.
  • Rehearse the steps. Before you go to sleep, remind yourself of what you want to accomplish the next day. Then envision yourself completing those tasks. Rehearse the steps you will take to do it. When athletes and other professionals rehearse what they need to do to be successful, it helps them to achieve their goals.
  • Plan rewards for yourself. Looking forward to a reward creates a craving that can be motivating. The challenge is resisting that craving in the moment. If you want to jump to the reward before you’ve earned it, try your best to stop and remind yourself of why the task at hand is important. 
  • Tell other people about your plan. You don’t have to struggle in isolation. Take advantage of the people around you! Make a dealwith your friends to complete homework together or get together after you’ve finished your assignments. You’ll be more likely to follow through if you’ve made those promises. Also, if you’re having trouble motivating yourself, talk to a friend about what you’re feeling and ask for their support. 

Finding ways to get the support you need to have good experiences with schoolwork is the key to breaking the procrastination cycle. The more you can overcome the temptation to avoid tasks, successfully complete work, and get positive feedback for it, the less likely you will be to associate schoolwork with discomfort. And getting the academic support you need to produce work that reflects your actual ability will make that work easier, improve your self-esteem, and ensure you get the grades you deserve! 

This article was last reviewed or updated on July 3, 2024.