Procrastination: How Adolescents Encourage Stress

By delaying work, adolescents put the pressure on themselves.

Posted Jun 21, 2009

By the end of high school, one common behavior that leads teenagers into a lot of stress is procrastination - the act of putting off schoolwork, college or job applications, or other demands as long as possible.

It's conduct honestly come by since most of them first learn to do it as part of early adolescence, and with continued practice mature it into a costly habit in the years that follow. There are two types of procrastination. Type one is resistant procrastination when delay results in putting a task off until the last minute before finally getting it done. Type two is refusal procrastination when delay results in the task being put on permanent hold and it never gets done. It is type one procrastination that most people struggle with, and it is expensive.

Why is procrastination costly? Because as delay shortens time to get a project done, deadline pressure induces stress to get it done. Graduating from high school, many of these young people take the habit with them to college, making that demanding experience more stressful too. For example, stoked with stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or high energy drinks to stay awake, they pull an all night stand to get a paper done, stagger to class to turn it in, quickly leaving class to go and get a good day's sleep, missing lecture content they will be tested on next week.

Procrastination is partly rooted in early adolescence when active and passive resistance to parental authority empowers young people to begin the separation from childhood somewhere around ages 9 to 13 (see blog entry about Early Adolescence.) What parents typically experience with their young person during this time is more argument (active resistance) and more delay (passive resistance) in response to what they want. "Not right now," "Can't it wait?" "I'll do it in a minute!" To their frustration, parents discover that the early adolescent "minute" can last for hours, while the young person learns that the great strategy for escaping what one dislikes doing now is promising others (or even oneself) to do it "later."

The goal of procrastination is escape the immediate necessity of demand, obligation, or work. The trap of procrastination is adding pressure to ordinary demands and making them take much longer with delay. At worst, young people can get into 'catastrophic functioning,' using avoidance and delay to create last minute "do or die" crises to motivate the accomplishment of what must be done -- be it work or study or some other pressing need.

Procrastination requires both delay and denial. Delay is the ‘putting off until later' part; denial is the ‘putting out of mind' part - being able to pretend for the moment that later will never come. Of course, if one puts off what one dreads, worrying about it only makes delay feel worse, as it did for the teenager who feared what his parents would say when he finally broke the news to them about the pregnancy. In this case, procrastination created more torment than relief.

The relationship between procrastination and stress is a complicated one. It creates stress by increasing time pressure to get work done. The ultimate time stress is the "deadline" - a line in time somebody draws after which the project is supposedly "dead," you are "dead," or you're both "dead." The closer you get to the deadline with work unaccomplished, the more stress you are supposed to feel. Deadlines are urgency motivators and in the vast majority of cases they are not as absolute as they pretend to be since work submitted after deadline, even with a penalty, is still alive and okay (as are you), as many procrastinating students discover in high school. "Deadlines are made to be broken," is the lesson learned. They are mostly effective because they are extortionate, not because they are realistic.

Procrastination also creates stress to enable accomplishment. In the words of one dedicated student procrastinator: "The problem with doing work early is that it takes longer because there's no pressure to get it done. But wait until the last minute and I rush right through it because I have to." "How do you feel after the crisis?" I asked. "Blown out," he replied. "But that's just the price I pay. I work best under pressure." (By which he meant that without self-induced pressure from stress he couldn't get work done.)

The "price" he pays, however, if this becomes his constant operating style, can be the progression of emotional and physical costs of stress itemized in the preceding blog entry: fatigue, discomfort, burnout, even breakdown.

Then there are the two major "games" of procrastination that serious young practitioners seem to enjoy playing. There is the exciting "put it off/pull it off" game in which the player tests how late he can wait before getting it done just "under the wire." And there is the productive "put it off/put it in" game in which the player tests how much other work she can get done during the delay before having to address the task she is avoiding. In this game, procrastination causes people to get a lot of "other stuff" accomplished.

Come the last stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 - 13), procrastination can really hamper the efforts of college age young people on their own behalf. One young man explained the frustration of it this way. "I've got all this work to do and nobody to make me do it but myself.  So I get caught up in this conflict between telling myself what I need to do and then resisting what I have just been told -- by me! It's like instead of rebelling against parental authority, like I did all those years, now I'm rebelling against my own authority. The result is I get paralysed by procrastination. Either it takes forever to make myself do what I've told myself to do and refuse to do, or I don't get it done at al!!" .

The problem is that a confirmed procrastination habit by the end of adolescence can lay the foundation for adult lifestyle stress. Now people seem to have become dependent on stress to get motivated, to get started, to keep going, to get things done, to feel challenged, to feel excited, to feel busy, to feel important, to find meaning, to feel validated by being in constant over demand. In all cases of adult lifestyle stress that I have seen, procrastination is the essential support.

How to help your adolescent stop procrastinating, if that is something he or she wants to do? The answer is, don't recommend cutting it off abruptly or out entirely. Instead, suggest a gradual approach. Each time the young person is inclined to procrastinate in the face of some unwanted demand, just start it a little earlier than he or she otherwise might. Don't fight the habit. Still procrastinate, but try doing it a little less by slightly moving up the staring time. Bit by bit, as the old habit is worn away, the young person is able to make a more timely response to demands. And as they do, ask them to reflect on all the stress that they are missing.

In the most severe cases of procrastination that I have seen, those that become seriously disabling because "nothing important gets done," I have sometimes advised viewing this persistently self-defeating behavior as similar to an addiction. Having done so, I suggest attending a recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous, treating procrastination as one's drug of choice. Or, identify the activity into which one usually escapes (like playing video games or seeking computer entertainment, for example) and honestly declare that you feel powerless over this compulsive activity and that your life has become unmanageable -- the first of the twelve steps of recovery -- and go from there. 

In the end, the antidote to procrastination is determination because when motivation becomes committed and effort is consistent, the engine of accomplishment is hard to stop.

For more information parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

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