Procrastination, values, and connecting long term goals to short term choices

student goal setting, values and procrastinationParents and teachers think that if only students would connect their short term decisions to long term goals, such as college and jobs, they would quit procrastinating and do their homework.

That’s why we’re always telling them about how important their future is.

Experience tells us that it’s not a reasonable connection. Kids won’t suddenly start doing their homework because they decided one day to be an astronaut or a sports agent. They do their homework because they think the homework is important unto itself.  Or not.

Every Child Wants Success

Students of all levels have high-standards and long term goals for themselves. But just wanting to go to a good college doesn’t get the homework done.

Even a highly-driven student who wants to get into the best college will not be thinking much about Princeton or Yale when grinding through difficult PreCalculus problems. That student’s sense of purpose for the homework is the same as that for college. The motivation for both is the same.

Whereas a high-functional student applies the same goal-directed approach to short term as to long term priorities, the lower-functional student may not actually know how to connect the wish to the act.

Some help to join the future to the today may be needed.

The Procrastination Trap

When students misconnect their aspirations to their daily decisions, such as procrastinating or not studying as hard as they know they could, they are essentially telling themselves that whatever they do now is more important than that thing they want later, such as going to sleep or gaming.

It works like this:

  1. I want to be a veterinarian

  2. I have homework to do.

  3. Right now, a nap is more important than either my homework or going to veterinarian school.

When struggling with procrastination, the student’s sense of urgency and importance of the task only arises at the deadline — suddenly it’s all very important, including the homework and including going to college and becoming who we want to be.

If we can push that urgency back away from the deadline, perhaps it can lead to more timely task fulfillment.

Applying Values: aspirational values can be taught

Long term aspirations won’t matter when a child has an easy solution to the difficulties of getting to work — that’s how procrastination works.

When facing an “aversive” task — annoying, boring, difficult, scary, you name it, the procrastinator resolves the anxiety caused by the task by seeking something more enjoyable for now in exchange for doing that task later. Specialists call this process “mood repair.”

The procrastinator may get to work at the deadline, but with all the extra costs therein of stress, incompleteness, lack of needed attention elsewhere, or having fun with friends who already did the assignment.

When cramming, the value of the task becomes tangible only at the threat of the deadline because that deadline serves as the trigger for “value” instead of an ongoing assessment of it in previous choices.

What we can do is to move that sense of importance further back from the deadline by making our long term values more important than the urge for “mood repair” that arises from the anxiety of aversive tasks.

A procrastinator’s connections to values and task aversion works like this:

–> Enjoyable + Valuable = most likely task completion

–> Enjoyable + Not Valuable = likely task completion

–> Unenjoyable + Valuable = unlikely on-time task completion

–> Unenjoyable + Not Valuable = least likely task completion

We can’t make every task enjoyable, but we can make a task “valuable” by replacing “enjoyable” or “unenjoyable” with “important.

Just saying so doesn’t make it valuable, but we can help students bridge the gap between the “now” and the “later” by engaging them in regular reflection of the importance of their daily tasks in relation to their long-term goals.

Does procrastination intervention actually work?

It can and does work — but only with regular and consistent intervention.

At the A+ Club we help students maintain an affirmational approach to their daily tasks through regular reflection and goal setting conversations with experienced teachers and educators.  The process engages prioritization and problem solving, and helps students to see themselves amidst the procrastination cycle from without rather than being stuck within it.

We employ simple strategies such as “structured breaks,” “pre-decisions,” and “getting started” (see “How to stop procrastination“). It’s no immediate cure, but these strategies can and do help students break the procrastination cycle.

Still, I hear from some students that they will apply their values and their will power to get through the more important or difficult tasks, but they still find themselves behind in other work, such as remembering to bring gym clothes or keeping a daily reading journal.

My question to them is if they are only making those difficult tasks important and not the others, and that, perhaps, they are rewarding themselves for having engaged the tough work by skipping or putting off the easier, less relevant work?

When we discuss it further, I usually find that the work not getting done lacks importance to the student, thus the continued procrastination. They have managed to connect the difficult work to their long term values, yet they are still procrastinating the seemingly less important work.

So back we go to identifying important work regardless of its enjoyment or perceived immediate relevancy – even the “busy” work. Reminding ourselves regularly that it all does ultimately matter makes even the little things important.

– Michael