‘I’ll do it when this happens.’ ‘I’ll do it once so-and-so has done this.’ ‘I need to sort this out before I do it.’
We’ve all done it. We’ve all put off doing something for the best reasons in the world, or at least so they seem at the time- giving up smoking, exercising more, trying something new to name the obvious few. Armed with top quality justifications finely honed at the rock face of excuses, we put it off. We hold onto our ‘not untils’ for dear life.
It’s inaction driven by fear. Fear that change is coming. It’s uncertainty about how it might work out. Fundamentally, it’s knowing that we need to do something and only we can do it. We need to draw on ourselves and summon up the strength, courage and willpower to do whatever it is. It’s all about us, the spotlight is on. And we’re scared of internally falling short, not making the grade. We’re afraid that the spotlight will show us and potentially everyone else our deepest fears about ourselves.
So we start to look outside ourselves for reasons why not to do it. We deflect attention away from our sense of vulnerability, of frailty and focus on everyone and everything else- the circumstances, the people, anything but ourselves. So it turns into ‘not until Neil does this’ or ‘I can’t until the sun shines green, the grass is purple and Uncle Joe orbits the earth in his motorised wheelchair’. It’s not about us; we’ll redirect the spotlight, thank you very much.
And by redirecting the light, the attention, we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the results of our inaction. It is life, the universe, whatever, conspiring against us. We cede control. We let fear hold us back and dictate our futures. All under the guise of bad timing or bad circumstances.
Procrastination in teens
And just as we as adults can do this in very minor or major ways, so too can teens. Procrastination is a common feature of teenhood. A teen’s inner and outer life is in constant flux as they are in the process of forming their identities, their place in the world as a near-adult, navigating through complex relationships where most of the people they are in contact with are going through the exact same thing. Add in hormones and you have people who are not very sure of themselves and feeling vulnerable, even if their outward behaviour seems to tell the opposite story. It can be quite an emotionally scary and unsettling place to be.
So to embark on a new project or task, to change something or do something radically different than before can be a dangerous prospect for them. The strength to change or to contemplate change requires an inner strength that they often don’t believe they possess. This is particularly so when the change involves an examination of their behaviour, or involves a measurement of who they are (at least as far as they see it). The end result can often be procrastination while they work out whether they can do it, whether it is worth the risk or until something comes along and forces their hand.
In many ways this seems to fly in the face of the idea of teens being fearless. Yes, they can be fearless but you’ll probably find its on things that don’t throw up any obvious personal questions, or with things where the need for a thrill override any doubts- like attempting a skateboarding trick off the top of a garage, or driving a car at breakneck speed. But when it comes to having to do things or change things where the stakes are perceived as high, or the personal soul-searching is great, and there is no immediate obvious thrill to be had, the procrastination rather than fearlessness will often kick in.
For your average teen think revising for important exams: high stakes– college or no college; thrill– this is revising you are talking about, you must be joking.
For your troubled teen think contemplating something like aggressive drunken behaviour: high stakes– if you don’t sort it you know there’s a young offender institute at the end of the road; personal soul-searching– you know that addressing the causes of your over-drinking is going to open some painful memories and you really don’t know if you are strong enough to make it; thrill– the road to change seems so long that any potential thrill to be gained from making the change seems so far off that it might as well be on Mars. Result? Maybe the status quo isn’t so bad. Oh hell, let’s avoid this. Can’t do this until…. I’ll stop drinking when.. Where’s the nearest pile of sand? I’m shoving my head in it.
And so the procrastination kicks in. It can make itself known in several ways. For some it’s failure to turn up for sessions, meetings, anything where they feel they are in the spotlight. For some it’s turning up but refusing to participate. For some it’s giving lip-service with no intention of change, they’re just wasting time by fooling you around. For others it’s the explicit use of ‘not until’, ‘I’ll do it when’s’; they do want to change or would like to entertain the idea, but they don’t want to do it right now.
With the most troubled teens there are usually multiple factors feeding their procrastination that need to be addressed before they will be able to move from avoidance to contemplation to action. You might have a clear idea or remit as to what you are supposed to achieve with them e.g. reduce sexually risky behaviour, address anger issues, reduce offending, but until you address any procrastination issues they might have, success will be limited. If you have not mitigated the factors that make them unlikely to change first, then any program you might deliver might as well be delivered by a donkey speaking Klingon. You have to do the procrastination-popping preparatory work, there’s no shortcut.
So what are some of the factors that can feed their procrastination?
They have often learned avoidance from significant others. Like the father who has avoided addressing his anger issues by refusing to show for probation appointments. He’d rather go down for breaching his order than face himself. But he dresses it up in machismo, ‘I’m my own man and I go my own way.’
The people around them are afraid of the impact of the teen’s potential changes on themselves so they deliberately seek to sabotage any interventions. Like the parent who poo-poos the idea of seeking help from others because deep down he/she is scared that in their child seeking help they might have to do some soul-searching of their own. Or the group of friends who collectively belittle any organisation trying to help some of them because that has implications for the cohesion and sense of family of their group. The ‘we’re in it together’ comes under threat.
False beliefs about themselves, playing on loop in their heads, amounting to a core belief that they don’t have the capacity for change. This is their lot. They know they can’t change so they won’t even try. So they’ll avoid and put off addressing the issue because they don’t see the point.
This is often fuelled by:
Significant others have and continue to tell them that they are not capable of change for the better. ‘You’re rotten to the core’. ‘No good can come from you’.
Lack of belief that they deserve any better. Again, often instilled by others- ‘This is our lot. You’ve just got to accept it’. When trying to improve situation being beaten back down with comments like, ‘Who do you think you are?’, ‘What a swat. Do you think you’re going to be a doctor or something? [laughter]’.
They believe they have no control over their lives. Life is something that has always been done to them. They are an object to be used, not a person. Abused, moved around from pillar to post by social services, moved from school to school, manipulated by ‘friends’ etc. So what’s the point in doing anything differently? Circumstances and people will just conspire to stuff it up.
They have tried before and failed and feel they don’t have the mental strength to try again.
How can you mitigate these factors?
Most importantly, be aware that these factors may exist. When you first meet with a teen you won’t have the full picture, even if you do have a massive file in front of you. Constantly be on the lookout for the above factors and explore more fully whenever the opportunity presents itself in conversation. It’s a bit like being an archaeologist, a lot of scraping but often there are major discoveries!
Acknowledge their fear, their doubts. It’s hellishly difficult for them and just someone acknowledging that can provide them with the opportunity to share their worries and for you to help them overcome them and realign their thinking about themselves and their futures. Teens often think that to have fears and doubts is weak and that they should hide this (and this is a learned response from significant others). Show them that the reverse is true and that by facing your fears you make yourself stronger, not weaker and that there is little to be gained from staying right where they are.
Help them to focus on the outcome they would want from the change as a means of motivating them to start and to get through the tough bits. Help them to believe they can get there, they might trip, but they can get there. Help them to really visualise it in detail, how it would feel, how life would be. Write it down, make a poster, write a poem, a rap, anything as long as it is goalsetting and believing in technicolour.
Help them to learn to listen to themselves rather than the negativity of others. Make it clear to them from the start that others may try and sabotage them improving themselves and their lives. Explore with them who they think that might be and what they might say. Then jointly come up with some pushback statements that they can repeat to themselves when this happens. The better they feel about themselves and the less bothered they are by the negativity of others, the less likely they are to procrastinate.
If you can find a big open space (generally with no-one else around works best) I find a bit of yelling can liven this up. You say the negative, they yell back the positive pushback. So you go from “Everything you do is rubbish” to “I can do a rock and roll on my skateboard. That is not rubbish”. Although the pushbacks might seem trivial sometimes, the important thing is that you are teaching the idea that you don’t have to own what other people say about you and that you can mentally pushback. Yelling seems a bit crazy at first, but it really does stick with them. And get them to write the pushbacks down (and it’s best if it’s in their writing, helps with ownership of the ideas), so that they can read them when they are in the midst of a negativity barrage.
Where appropriate you can also deal with the negativity at source and encourage those around them to be less negative, explaining the effect it has on the teen. Where possible mediate a discussion between the teen and the other person as it tends to have far greater impact on the perpetrator because often they don’t realise the impact of their words until they see the emotion right in front of them. Sometimes these sessions lead to a massive reveal of how generation after generation in a family have drowned each other in the negativity that they have learned from the previous generation. When out there to see, this realisation on all concerned can be hugely powerful.
Teach them to think more positively. Linked to the above, negativity often permeates their thinking. So everytime they say something unnecessarily negative, help them to turn their thinking round by highlighting the positive. It’s amazing how addictive this can be for them. Everyone likes to be around a realistically positive person don’t they? Same goes for them, particularly when they are emotionally starved of positivity. And before long their attitude becomes more positive- it really is contagious.
Motivate them with stories, films, news clips of how other people have faced their fears and made a big change in their lives. If they can meet with such a person then even better! It can be a change that on the face of it appears far greater than the one they are being asked to consider, because in their minds that then makes theirs seem all the more do-able.
Create opportunities for them to demonstrate that they are in control of their lives, that nothing will change unless they decide to change. Yes, they could wait for Uncle Joe to finish his orbit, but what do they gain from waiting? What would happen if they just got on with it now? Yes, sometimes there are genuinely good reasons for waiting, but more often than not there really aren’t. Also make it clear that if you are constantly waiting for the right set of circumstances then your life will just pass you by. People who get their lives sorted are the ones that do it no matter what else is going on.
Build up tolerance for appropriate self-building risk-taking. They may be well-versed in destructive risk-taking behaviour but get them comfortable with putting their real-selves out there. This way they will see that pushing themselves out of their comfort zone can be massively rewarding. Often just opening up to you is the first major risk they will take, and they will hopefully feel better for it. Then maybe getting them talking in a group context or involved in a service user-group. The more they practice positively pushing themselves, the more likely they will be to decide to face rather than hide from the challenge of dealing with their issues.
This is where sport and practical activities can come into their own. Often getting them involved in anything constructive can seem an impossible task because they are so afraid of making a fool of themselves, of taking the risk. Once they do, though, they invariably end up buzzing and hungry to push themselves out of their comfort ‘status-quo’ zones more and more. The procrastination diminishes.
Teach them that there is no shame in trying and failing. The pride is in the trying and knowing that you are trying to make life better. Everyone makes mistakes, no one is perfect. Often when we set out on new challenges we try and fail, so we get back up again, and try again, sometimes trying something different. There is no prescribed method to achieve success, other than that you just have to keep on trying and always seek to learn from your mistakes.
This can be easily demonstrated with an activity like trying to drop an egg from a height without breaking it. You scramble loads of eggs and modify how you do it each time, learn from the last smash and hopefully, even if you don’t manage not to break it, you’ll end up with a less smashed egg by your last try. You can then draw the parallels between the exercise and life.
These are just some ways of dealing with the issues around procrastination. Do you have any thoughts or ideas you’d like to share? Come on, don’t put it off- please comment below!
Helping teens to release themselves from the extraordinarily sticky web of procrastination can be the first step in liberating them from a whole host of other things. They often have never learned the wonderful feeling that can be gained from quitting procrastinating, believing they have the internal resources to do it and just getting on with whatever they need to do. I know I need to constantly remind myself of this as an adult, and they surely do too.