George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Addressing the Emotional Roots of Procrastination

Research finds that procrastination often stems from emotional dysregulation—and teachers can help students overcome it.

April 22, 2022
High school student doing homework in room at home
petrunjela / iStock

Recent research in human behavior and psychology reveals that the most effective way to address your students’ procrastination may not have anything to do with time management, although time management strategies are definitely helpful. What can you do when your students are aware of deadlines and responsibilities but still avoid them?

Many teachers (and parents) believe that turning in assignments late (or maybe not starting them at all) is a result of students’ inability to manage time. If this is in fact the cause, educators can introduce and utilize organizational tools in their classroom, such as homework planners and digital calendars. But research has highlighted perhaps a more important factor at play.

The head of the Procrastination Research Group, Tim Pychyl, is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada. He’s conducted research on procrastination and views it as a gap between intention and action. He found that emotions rather than time management are frequently at the root of procrastination. Task avoidance doesn’t happen because students don’t know about the tasks—students avoid tasks because of the feeling associated with completing them.

“It’s all about our feelings,” Pychyl said during an interview. “Procrastination is the misregulation of emotion. We think that by putting things off, we’re going to feel better.”

There is a biological basis to this rationale. When we feel stressed about a task, our amygdala (the brain center that regulates emotion and perceives threats) responds by telling our body to avoid the situation causing us anxiety. Procrastination thus provides a reinforcing, positive loop: stressful task, perceived threat, avoid stressful task, and feel better.

But this is a short-term solution because the task doesn’t disappear.

8 Ways to Help Students Overcome Procrastination

1. Don’t judge. You may wonder, “If my students don’t understand how to get started, why don’t they just ask me for help?” Your students may admit that they need help but feel afraid they will be judged for asking for it. If your student is brave enough to ask you for help—even if this request comes close to or after a deadline—respond with patience. Try saying, “I’m so glad you asked!” or “That’s a great question. Let’s think about it together.”

2. Focus on one step. Breaking down large tasks into small steps is a surefire way to get the ball rolling. Is your student avoiding studying for the PSAT or SAT? Suggest they look at the College Board website and create an account. Are your students procrastinating looking for a summer job? Suggest they make a list of five locations in your community where they would like to work. Offering to help divide the task into small parts can be just the help your students need to see the path forward.

3. Use a timer to set break time boundaries. Sometimes the things we do while we’re procrastinating lead to more procrastination. I’ve been guilty of “quickly” checking my email, which turns into a long distraction. Students can use tools such as setting alarms on their phones to create boundaries for break time. You can model this strategy in the classroom by using a timer for fun activities to remind students when it’s time to get back to work.

4. Reward yourself after the task. Our brains crave dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, and prefer to repeat behaviors that make us feel good. Writing an essay doesn’t create as much dopamine in your student’s brain as playing video games. If your student is motivated by a particular reward, such as funny meme stickers on their papers (my students love these!) or Jolly Rancher candies, they should pair the rewarding activity with the task they have been procrastinating.

5. Know yourself and your moods. We all have times of day when we are most alert. Students who know themselves and their personal energy flow can schedule challenging tasks when they are most focused. My workbook Sharing the Transition to College features worksheets to improve students’ self-awareness of their strengths and learning preferences. Scheduling tasks during times of high energy will help students be most productive and lessen the opportunity for procrastination.

6. Reframe negative thoughts. When students start to emotionally shut down because of feeling overwhelmed, it can lead to a negative cycle in which past negative thoughts creep in too. Students staring at an empty page may experience negative thoughts such as “Why can’t I do this? I’m stupid” or “I’m failing this class. Why should I even bother?”

Negative thoughts can be like a runaway train that’s often hard to stop on our own. Teach your students to practice forgiveness and self-compassion. Yes, they missed the deadline because they procrastinated, but let’s move forward.

7. Consistency is key. Students have told me that their procrastination habit works because they focus on “spurts.” They go through long periods of procrastinating followed by a burst of energy and focus, often staying up all night to complete assignments. This roller coaster may work in the short term, but it can create unproductive habits in the long term. Reinforce consistency in your classroom by encouraging sustained effort. Reward students who push (even slowly) through challenges.

8. Don’t wait until you “feel like it.” Many students procrastinate because they are waiting for just the right moment to get started. Explain to your students that life requires us to do things we don’t feel like doing. Provide examples from your own life, such as doing taxes, taking out the garbage, etc.

If your students wait until they “feel like” doing their biology homework, they may never get that feeling. We need to teach our students how to look beyond their feelings in the moment, and reassure them that they can persevere even if they don’t feel like it.

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