The science and art of procrastinating, and how to get your kid to stop


The scratches of pencil tip on paper continue late into the night as the homework is done. Blurry blood-shot eyes meet yours as the vacation comes to a close and a bookcase worth of projects is in the waiting. Find yourself dealing with the leftover tasks often? Take note: You may be raising a procrastinator.

Procrastination – or putting off a task intentionally in spite of knowing you’ll need to do it at some point – has a terrible rap as behavior stemming from laziness. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, say experts. It could very well be caused by negative self-talk and a fear of abject failure. Or the niggling need for perfection. Or, as Tim Pychyl, author of ‘Procrastination, Health, and Well-Being’ explains, puts it – emotional dysregulation.

Jessica Canero, Holistic Therapist at UAE-based Illuminations clinic, adds: “Procrastination is defined as the intentional delay of accomplishing a certain task. It is actually a very unconscious and very focused form of motivation based around the stories we tell ourselves, and our emotions are at the core of these stories. There is a conscious awareness that a specific job has to be done, but it is directly challenged by an unconscious process that is happening, and that unconscious process has a lingering tail of emotion that keeps it in a tight loop that is very difficult to break , even with willpower and focus.

Negative churn of emotions

“You may find a past experience of a perceived failure that initiated a feeling of embarrassment, shame or guilt in the child, thereby creating a strong protective mechanism that shows up as robust, determined resistance to any engage in anything that may trigger those feelings once again,” she explains.

You may find a past experience of a perceived failure that initiated a feeling of embarrassment, shame or guilt in the child, thereby creating a strong protective mechanism that shows up as robust, determined resistance to any engage in anything that may trigger those feelings once again .

-Jessica Canero

Nature, nurture or just personality?

Are the genes to blame for a child’s propensity to push aside tasks for gratification in the short-term while knowing that it will be a cause for stress in the long-term? While it is something hotly debated – wouldn’t you like to blame the parents for your bad habits? There may be some truth to it; at least for women.

A 2018 study titled ‘The Structural and Functional Signature of Action Control’, conducted in Germany and published in PubMed, an online resource monitored by United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, found that people who procrastinate have a larger amygdala . This area in the brain is responsible for emotion processing.

The same researchers also found an association between a gene that produces the tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) enzyme and procrastination. TH is responsible for the regulation of dopamine – a neurotransmitter that aids in focus – and when a certain variant of TH is produced, it has a domino effect on dopamine pumping that negatively affects concentration. Dr Erhan Genç, from Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany, who was part of the study was quoted by Medical News Today as saying, “The neurotransmitter dopamine has repeatedly been associated with increased cognitive flexibility in the past. This is not fundamentally bad but is often accompanied by increased distractibility.” The catch, added the study published in the ‘Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience’ journal, is that this variant only seems to impact women. Further studies are of course required to build on the findings.


Are some kids predisposed to procastination?

Time to talk to the kids

The first step in getting rid of an issue is acknowledging that there is one. The second is being able to define it. Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist, Camali Clinic Child and Adult Mental Health, says: “A fun way for kids to think about how procrastination affects them is to time travel. Have your child take a trip into the future and using visualization. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine how they will feel once the task is complete and how they will feel if it is not. Sometimes this is all they need is the realization that ‘If I don’t clean my room now, that mountain of socks will be even larger when I have to clean it tomorrow and want to go out with my friends’.”

A fun way for kids to think about how procrastination affects them is to time travel. Have your child take a trip into the future and using visualization. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine how they will feel once the task is complete and how they will feel if it is not.

-Sneha John

Next, try the following steps to rush your kid out of procrastinator mode.

Canero suggests the following:

1. Take resource inventory: Check in with your child and ask if they have the resources to complete the job. Whether it is homework, assignments, chores or otherwise, if a child doesn’t feel that he or she contains the necessary resources to start or finish the job, they may feel frustrated and subsequently decide that the work is not worth the feeling, or that the feeling is an indication that they can’t do the job and give up all together.

2. Talk about the why: I’d advise to take your child aside and gently ask them if they understand the task that is required of them and be ready to break it down for them if need be. There may also be a need to explain the significance of the task to them outside the context of ‘Because I am the authority, and I am telling you to’. This can create a state of passive aggressiveness in the child that can create an even stronger aversion to the task and is detrimental to their motivation level.

The key is to create an awareness and a need for the task’s completion from the child’s perspective by explaining how it will directly affect them in a positive way once done, and using emotions here is essential. For example, ‘Cleaning your room is important for you, because when there’s less clutter and more space, you’ll have a much bigger space to play and that will feel great! Do you agree?’

3. Importance of deadlines: If you find that clarity is there and the resources are present, you may then ask your child if they are aware of the deadline and specify the importance of the deadline beyond the threat of a penalty. As an example, if you wish for your child to complete their school assignment by Friday evening before the weekend, consider explaining to them the importance of the weekend, and how the Friday deadline will provide them the freedom to really enjoy their days off with their friends or family with the awareness of knowing that the task is already completed and sitting on their desk, ready to submit on Monday. Incorporating self-motivation into your reasoning will always work out favorably.

Child procastination

Use a reward system to redirect a child’s focus to the task at hand.

4. Reward system: Another strategy is to provide the child with something they have to look forward to once the task is done, such as a day out to their favorite place or an activity they love to do. This works exceptionally well with younger children, as this motivator attracts the child’s focus and redirects it to center solely on the outcome and the association of the pleasure it will bring. Since children tend to gravitate towards that which brings immediate joy, this ensures you have planted the seed in their mind to keep them fixed on attaining that joyful state as soon as possible, which is theirs to experience as soon as the task is done.

5. Create a colorful schedule: Using the features of a tangible schedule are a great strategy for creating focus and inspiration for the younger child. Using bright colors and pictures to engage their senses, create a schedule which clearly states the jobs they have to do and the time given to complete them. It is advisable to schedule these tasks at a time which is most aligned with the child’s most productive state, and that is determined by the individual characteristics of each child. You may find that they are most productive in the mornings, or perhaps in the afternoons after they’ve rested but before play time. Use this awareness to your advantage and the advantage of your child by scheduling the most compelling of tasks during the times that they are most energetic and active. This will ensure greatest productivity with minimal cajoling or intervention.

6. Fear-factor: A factor quite commonly missed is a deep sense of fear or failure that feeds the need to procrastinate. If you find this factor present in your child, address this directly through a gentle approach of sitting with the child and unwinding their fears to find what lingers behind them.

John, meanwhile, proposes a ‘STING’ approach. She explains the five-step plan as:

  • S: Select one task you want your child to do. If it is a large, overwhelming job, break it down into smaller, manageable tasks.
  • T: Set a timer in keeping with your child’s developmental level – 5 or 10 minutes if they’re younger, longer if they’re older.
  • I: Ignore everything else while the timer is ticking. Help them stay focused and free from distractions. Don’t let them start another task until the first one is done.
  • N: No breaks allowed until the timer goes off.
  • G: Give them a reward when the timer sounds. This can be a snack, a break to play outside or special time to read a book with mum or dad.

A legacy of procrastination

Feel like you are handing down the ‘do-it-later’ attitude to your child because your own habit to delay things? John says: “To overcome procrastination you need to have an understanding of the reasons why you procrastinate and the function procrastination serves in your life. After identifying the reasons for procrastination, start with a specific goal which would be to do a certain task that you have been putting off. Children can also be made aware that you are taking one step to finish the task and together you can brainstorm ways to get it done.

“At the same time, you can even talk about the possible distractions and how you plan on managing them. Make it a game to see who can complete simple tasks around the house that usually take up a lot of time such as brushing their teeth, putting on their shoes or getting their backpacks ready for school tomorrow. The more fun you make time management for your kids, the easier it will be to get them to understand time’s importance and how to manage that constantly ticking clock.

“As your kids are just beginning to learn about time management, stay on task. When time’s up, move on to what’s next on your schedule no matter how involved they are in that current task. Straying even a few minutes away from the schedule can throw kids off. Stick to your schedule, especially in those early days and weeks of learning about time management.”

The habit to let things slide may come easier to some than others, but if you really want to let it go – there are ways forward. And who knows? Those evenings you spend trying to get the kid’s tasks done may become a distant memory.

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