From what I’ve observed, procrastination – putting off tasks until later that one doesn’t want to do now – is well practiced in adolescence, but the objectives often seem to shift from stage to stage of growing up. Procrastination can be a means to a variety of adolescent ends. What follows is a reflection on how this might be so.
PROCRASTINATION FOR REBELLION IN EARLY ADOLESCENCE (ages 9 – 13): At this more self-determined age, parental demands are emblematic of authority, and delaying cooperation is one form of passive resistance to use for delaying what one has been asked or told to do. Rather than active resistance through argument or outright refusal, however, the young person agrees to comply, but then gets busy procrastinating, doing other things that feel more rewarding to do. Multiple parental reminders are now often required to get requests fulfilled and chores accomplished. The teenager is pushing to operate more on her own terms, as if saying, “You can tell me what, I’ll decide when, and when I get enough ‘when,’ I’ll do what you want.” Parental supervision, repetition, insistence, or nagging (call it what you will) is often required to bring this use of procrastination to a timely end.
For the Early Adolescent, passive resistance can enlist procrastination to assert more independence.
PROCRASTINATION FOR LIBERTY IN MID ADOLESCENCE (ages 13 – 15): At this age, time with one’s ‘family of peers’ has a greater value for adolescents than it did for children. In addition, there is a Tyranny of Now that makes delay and denial of immediate gratification very hard to bear. Procrastination is one strategy for preserving this freedom of choice. Putting parents off as long as possible keeps social freedom open as long as possible. “I’ll get it done as soon as I finish talking with my friend,” vows the teenager, “the minute I get off!” He uses promises for later to buy freedom now. But when promises have proved to be false currency in the past, parents may become more conditional in what they permit and provide. “When you get your chores done to my satisfaction is when I will drive you over to your friend’s, and not before.” Sometimes adolescents at this urgent age will make desperate promises they later find impossible to keep: “I promise if you let me go this weekend I won’t ask again for a month!” As for those parents who repeatedly make bad bargains with adolescent promises that are repeatedly broken, these trusting adults often end up enabling the procrastination about which they often complain.
For the Mid Adolescent, procrastination is often used to capture more urgent social freedom now.
PROCRASTINATION FOR ESCAPE IN LATE ADOLESCENCE (AGES 15 - 18): Like boredom, procrastination can stimulate the desire for escape. Where boredom seeks escape from having nothing to do, procrastination seeks escape from what one doesn’t want to do or from facing what is going to happen. In late adolescence, with the scary next step of leaving home for more independence looming ahead, it can be tempting to avoid dealing with this reality as long as possible. Some high school seniors, for example, can let grades fall to failing senior year and jeopardize graduation or can put off college or job applications, delaying willingness to deal with the next more independent phase of life. Now distraction and diversion offer inviting alternatives, among the most common being electronic ones like cellular communication, cable TV, video gaming, and computer entertainment. Sometimes it seems that parents are highly complicit in the procrastination of their late adolescent by equipping him or her with every means of electronic escape. “Temptation city” was how one parent described his son’s room. “How is he supposed to get work done when he’s surrounded by so many possibilities for fun?” It can be hard to engage with present demands when recreational escape is so readily available.
For the Late Adolescent, procrastination may be used to avoid encountering the challenges that come with growing older.
PROCRASTINATION FOR MOTIVATION IN TRIAL INDEPENDENCE (ages 18 – 23.) Without the discipline from parents to check and remind and nag her to get things done, the last stage adolescent (often living away from family) can be at the mercy of her own lack of self-discipline. For some young people procrastination at this reluctant age can come to the rescue by making demands urgent enough that she wants to get them met. In some ways it seems like a game. “How long can I put it off before I manage to pull it off,” is the challenging question? As deadline stress builds, so does anxiety which drives emergency production. So the college all-nighter results in a paper barely finished on time by a triumphantly exhausted student. “I work best under pressure,” the she proudly confesses, by which she really means now she can’t complete school work without it.
For the Last Stage Adolescent, procrastination can be used to scare up emergency effort by waiting until it feels too late to delay any longer, or else.
Then, of course, comes YOUNG ADULTHOOD (About ages 23- 30) when many young people are experiencing committed romantic attachments for the first time. Some can be bedeviled by the habit of procrastination in this way. One person delays telling a partner about what would have served both better if the unhappy truth had been told at the time. Ask the procrastinator why he didn’t own up right away and the usual answer is consideration for her feelings. “I didn’t want to get her upset. That’s why I waited.” He makes it sound like he was sparing her, when he was really sparing himself her anger or anguish in response. Of course, the partner on the receiving end of this delay can feel doubly upset – first about what occurred and second about being deliberately kept ignorant and misled for so long. “You’ve hurt me and lied to me!” Now procrastination creates betrayal and sews distrust.
In young adulthood, procrastination can be used to avoid owning up to an interpersonal offense with one’s dearest.
So where does this discussion tend? Because procrastination can become a troubling self-management habit not only in adolescence but also when carried into young adulthood, I believe it is generally well for parents to encourage their teenager to cope with the press of work, and confronting problems of hard reality, in a timely fashion. Despite the bargain procrastination may offer (present freedom for the price of future obligation), 'Now' is generally a less expensive and more efficient time to get things done than 'Later.' Promptness proves a surer path to freedom than procrastination.
Or as Charles Dickens, through the character of Wilkins Micawber (in “David Copperfield”) put it: “My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!”
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Information Availability