- I can do it later.
- This is too boring.
- I’m probably just going to get it wrong anyway, so what’s the point?
After working with teenagers for over 20 years as a teacher, learning specialist, and academic coach, I am very familiar with what teenagers say about putting school work off for a later time.
You probably are as well.
Most kids I work with have had chronic procrastination issues with school for years and they feel pretty hopeless about being able to change. What started as a response to a fear of failure or discomfort turns into an automatic response to schoolwork that seems out of their control.
Their parents have tried different planners, the game of rewards and consequences, and the whiteboard to-do lists, only to find it only provides short term relief, if at all. Parents turn to me when they are desperately looking for solutions to avoid the next “nightmare hair on fire moment,” as one parent put it to me. I use a different approach than what most kids are used to: happiness.
Most students will say something along the lines of “I just need to make myself do it.” The power of last minute cortisol and adrenaline is their only tried and true tool for “success.”
The good news is that the strategies I have found work the best to reverse the procrastination habit use different chemicals in their nervous system. Ones like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine that increase happiness, lower stress, and are pretty simple to apply. Here are 3 of my favorite strategies that I use in my own practice with students to apply the science of happiness to help them get out of the procrastination cycle.
- Make some space
Although a good physical decluttering also has some great benefits, in this case, I mean creating some mental space.
A short pause helps students get out of their limbic system (the place in the brain that runs things via impulse and emotion) and into their executive functioning system (the place responsible for thinking ahead, self-monitoring, and reason).
I teach students to notice what their own personal procrastination voice sounds like and then use that as a trigger to do some mindful STOP’ing: a process coined by mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn that I have tweaked just a little for my teenage clients.
It works like this:
The student notices their automatic thought to put something off until later, but before following it, they put a little space between their feeling and their action by going through these steps:
T-Take 3 mindful breaths. Feel the breath move in through your nose, all the way down into your belly. Pause and feel what it’s like for your lungs and belly to be full, then feel the breath fully leaving your body.
O – Observe your senses.
- What are the colors in the room around you that you can see?
- What do you hear that is close up?
- What do you hear that is far away?
- What do you smell and taste?
- If nothing, what does nothing smell and taste like?
- Feel where your body is making contact with other surfaces. What does that feel like? Hard, warm, sturdy, smooth? Do a scan from head to toe. Do you feel any places in your body where you can relax?
P – Proceed with whatever you decide would be the best action for your goals. What choice would be a nice gift for future you?
Two alternatives for creating mental space are:
- Make it personal
What’s in it for me?
I’m not sure many students are even conscious of it, but I think a lot of teen procrastination is resistance to doing things that are about other people’s expectations and goals.
To change that, you can have your student make a personal do/be/have list. They can list out things they want to do, be, and have in their life in the short term and long term. Maybe they want more time on the weekends to hang out with friends, or maybe they have a long term desire to go to Paris for a summer art program on a scholarship.
Sometimes just checking in and getting clear about those inner motivations for the kind of life they wish to have and the type of person they wish to be can help them make choices aligned with the identity of the person who actually is that way. And, wouldn’t that be so much more interesting to talk about than, “what do you have to do for homework this weekend?”
They can increase the power of that do/be/have list by posting it somewhere visible where they will see it often and asking someone they trust to check in with them about it each week or month. Oh, and at their age (actually, at my age, too) their ideas will change about this, so making a fresh one each month can help.
Another way to make things personal is to help them think about how to align how they do their work with their personality and temperament.
- Maybe it’s listening to a playlist of music that makes them feel good.
- Maybe changing up their environment and working by a window or around other people feels better.
- Maybe they love to dance, so they take 5 minute dance breaks every 20 minutes.
Have your student brainstorm 5 different things they enjoy. How can they connect that to the task they tend to procrastinate on? One of my favorite tech tools to help students with this is speechify. Your student can turn any digital text into audio and listen to it while they walk, shoot baskets, even roller skate (true story from a student I know).
Many students need physical movement to fire up those feel good chemicals. It’s so different from the way they have been culturized to believe schoolwork needs to be done that they might need a little pushing or extra permission to think and learn in a way other than sitting relatively still and quiet.
For many students, this leads right into the third technique to reduce procrastination with the science of happiness.
- Make it social
In her book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, Katy Milkman says, “Because you care about gaining peer approval, feeling watched by groups of other people changes your behavior.”
Even though this research is about adults, I’m sure you are familiar with how important peer approval is for teenagers. It’s actually baked in to their biology at this time of their life. So, let’s teach them to use it for good.
Just being in the presence of other people who are working and focused can help teenagers also act in a similar way. And because they are acting like it, before they know it, they actually feel like it too.
And it’s not all about wanting to look good around other people. Emotions are contagious. Procrastination, just like motivation, is an emotion. For a deep dive into the psychology and neuroscience behind it, check out the science of emotional contagion or “body doubling” as it’s called in the ADHD community.
We can help our teenagers put this to good use by offering to take them to a coffee shop or library or even dedicate an hour or two at the table together to do some focused work at the same time. If none of that is available, I have also had students find success by turning on the “Study With Me” youtube channel to tap into co-regulation virtually.
A final word on contagious emotions: As their parents, caregivers and educators, we are a huge co-regulating force for our teenagers. They pick up so much more on what they see and feel from us than what they hear us saying to them.
Rather than trying to fix the problem for them, we would do better to apply some mindful stopping of our own, do some brain dumping about our own personal do/be/have list to get our own happiness chemicals firing, and find some co-regulators to lift our spirits.
Tricia Underwood is a former high school teacher and learning specialist turned academic well-being coach and writer. She founded Rare Bird Learning out of a desire to help students cultivate their capacity for more joy, purpose, motivation, and happiness as the pathway to greater success in school and beyond. If that sounds like something you’d like to have more of for the teenagers in your life, you can join her weekly newsletter here and check out her website for all the other good stuff she creates including a new book titled Happy Grades scheduled to be out by August 2022. She raises her own children including one teenager in Atlanta, GA where she does her best to practice what she teaches.