Homework & Studying

Preventing Procrastination 101

If your child has ADHD and struggles to finish their homework or hand in assignments, fight procrastination with these three time-tested tips. From setting a timer to starting small, help your student find success in the classroom — and beyond.

Girl with ADHD procrastinating on laptop with notebook near her
Girl with ADHD procrastinating on laptop with notebook near her

Getting your child started working on homework or studying for a test can be a humbling experience. Nightly, thousands of parents ask their children, “Did you start your homework yet?” Children answer: “Not yet, but I’ll do it when I get to the next level of this video game” or “I’ll start it after I check my Instagram account. Don’t worry, Mom!” Procrastination is a nightmare for any parent — but it can get even worse when your child has ADHD.

So we parents become “procrastination prosecutors.” It is a tough job. There are two types of procrastination — functional and dysfunctional. Functional procrastinators manage to get their work done and don’t seem to stress about putting things off. Let’s say your son has a math assignment due on Friday. He doesn’t start on it until 9 p.m. on Thursday night, but he completes it, even though he has to stay up a little late. This is functional procrastination.

On the other hand, your daughter was given two weeks to write a research paper that is due on February 25, and she doesn’t start it until late on the 23rd. She needs to write her thesis, research, create an outline, and so on. Although she manages to get it in on time, the work is sloppy, she’s stressed, and you are furious about another last-minute project. That’s dysfunctional procrastination. Your daughter knows what she needs to do, but cannot make herself do it.

The ability to regulate emotion in order to get started is rooted in executive function. That’s why so many students with ADHD procrastinate. Procrastination, especially the dysfunctional type, produces two results: a lower GPA and stress.

Why Do Kids Procrastinate?

Research using brain imaging, conducted in the last two years, shows that procrastinators, teens and adults alike, believe that they must be in a good mood to tackle an uninteresting task, such as homework. When they consider what to do next — homework or video games — video games win out. The more pleasurable activity will always trump the other task because it will improve the mood. This approach almost never works, and, in the end, procrastinators are disappointed in themselves when they realize how much time they’ve wasted. They feel worse later, when they miss a deadline or have to deal with an angry parent.

[Free Resource: Common Executive Function Challenges — and Solutions]

Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada, is a leading researcher on the topic. He states that emotion is at the core of procrastination. He and his colleagues suggest that helping procrastinators realize how their attempts to fix their mood are sabotaging their efforts is the first step.

Knowing that you are at a fork in the road and that you have two choices — to do the task at hand or to avoid it by doing something more pleasurable — is important. So how do you get your child to see that he is at a fork in the road?

1. See It, Feel It

One approach, researched by Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., from Bishop’s University, in Sherbrooke, Quebec, is called “time travel.”

Sirois studied 4,000 people and found that those who could project themselves into the future and think about how great it would feel to finish a task were more likely to ward off procrastination. It wasn’t only good thoughts that they were trained to imagine. They also thought about how awful they would feel if they gave in to the “I’ll do it later” syndrome. Visualization is a common strategy successfully used by athletes, and it can be just as effective for procrastinators of any age.

2. Start Small

Experts in the area of procrastination say that in order to start a task, an individual must make the “barrier to entry” low. In other words, make the threshold for getting started so low that you are positive you can be successful.

Let’s say that you want to clean out your closet, but you’ve put off the task for months because it’s so unappealing. This time, instead of moving it to another day on your to-do list, tell yourself, “OK, I’m just going to walk into my closet and line up my sandals. That’s it. Sandals only!” Research shows that even the worst procrastinators improve significantly by choosing simple action items to get started. They feel a lot better after they’ve done something, even if they haven’t reached their ultimate goal.

The same principle works for students. Many middle- and high-schoolers do not know how to set simple goals to help themselves get started, so they give in to “mood fixers” such as Instagram, Twitter, or texting (see below). Students can make behavior changes by focusing on one of two areas: time (setting a specific time limit) or task (finishing a simple duty):

Time: Set a timer for five minutes and say, “I’m going to do math for only five minutes.” Most students usually find that they can keep on going after they get started.

Task: Give yourself something easy to do to get started. You may say, “I’m going to do the first problem on my math homework for now. Just one problem!” Again, merely starting reduces anxiety and gives students a small sense of accomplishment and the confidence to keep on going.

Recognizing when you are in “mood-repair” mode and creating easy tasks for yourself to get started works.

[Dear Organizing Coach: The No Motivation, All Procrastination Problem]

3. Be Easy On Yourself

It’s typical for people to become demoralized when procrastination is the norm. When this behavior occurs frequently, students (and adults) often get angry with themselves for lack of initiative. Studies show that this negative dialogue makes the problem worse.

In a 2010 study, by Michael Wohl, Ph.D., at Carleton University, college freshmen who had the habit of engaging in self-doubt were randomly put into two groups before an exam. After the test, one group was instructed in how to forgive themselves for putting off studying. These students procrastinated far less than the other group when studying for the next exam.

Getting Sarah Over the Hump

I once worked with a college sophomore, Sarah, who had flunked out of James Madison University because of her poor time-management skills. She was a solid student in high school; a structured environment helped her succeed. With a lot of free time in college, she couldn’t get things done. She was a dysfunctional procrastinator.

When I started working with her, she had transferred to Old Dominion University. Sarah tried very hard. She locked herself in the library for two or three hours straight, but she didn’t get anything done. She was overwhelmed and under-prepared. She had no strategies to get started.

Sarah realized that she needed accountability. She bought a timer and began taking breaks. She set the timer for no more than 30 minutes, and worked diligently during that time period. She allowed herself short breaks of five to 10 minutes to check her text messages and to get a drink. Sarah learned that her phone was a tempting distraction. She turned it off and got back to work. Sarah also set up study sessions via FaceTime (for no more than 30 minutes) to review the day’s lecture or study for a test. She found that when she had an “appointment” with a peer, she was likely to follow through.

What worked for Sarah may not be the ticket for everyone, but I bet every student can find a tip mentioned here that will work for him or her. It will make a difference in getting you off the launch pad.

[Procrastination Busters for Our Kids]

How to Get Started: Lower the Bar

Example 1: Start Studying

Feeling: It’s Wednesday and you are tired. You have a Spanish test on Friday. You want to put off studying today and push it all to tomorrow, Thursday, which is what you typically do. Problem: In the past, this hasn’t really worked because you feel overwhelmed and stressed out. You end up staying up late and are exhausted the next day.

Strategy: You give yourself a task that you know you can easily accomplish. Solution: You decide to study just five vocabulary words, since learning vocab is the easiest thing for you.

Example 2: Start An Essay

Feeling: You have an essay due for your English class and you’re feeling overwhelmed. You have good ideas, but getting them onto paper is hard. Problem: You think you need extra adrenaline to get it done. You decide to watch TV and to start writing right before bedtime, when you’re pressured to finish.

Strategy: Instead of viewing the essay as “all or nothing,” you figure out what you can do easily to get started. Solution: You set a simple task for yourself— to write the first sentence before you eat dinner.

Example 3: Start Your Homework

Feeling: Chemistry is a tough subject and you need extra help from your teacher. Meeting with her after school would be beneficial. Problem: You are starving and want to go to Chipotle, but you also don’t know how to solve those chemical equations.

Strategy: Instead of getting help with the whole assignment, you ask your teacher for help with the first question only.Solution: You meet with your teacher for just a few minutes, ensure that you understand how to do the work, and then run to Chipotle.