In action

Procrastination and self-handicapping can be overcome, but part of the battle requires people to admit to their tendency to put things off and accept they have a pretty poor idea of how long it's going to take them to complete a task. There is, therefore, an element of meta-awareness or meta-cognition, of remaining mindful of one's own deficiencies and monitoring patterns of behaviour. This means that procrastination is also linked to executive function, so it would make sense to implement strategies that help to nurture these higher order skills.

Increase levels of self-control

Fortunately, many of the strategies that aid academic buoyancy also help to raise levels of self-control and encourage delayed rather than immediate gratification. These strategies include the setting of goals and the reduction of anxiety. However, there are also a few other strategies we might consider, including:

Keep temptation out of sight and reduce distractions

If people keep snacks in a drawer rather than on their desk, they are much less likely to give in to temptation. A sparse desk is, therefore, more conducive to self-control; phones, fidget-spinners and even felt tip pens and highlighters can distract. Indeed, a couple of studies have found that classroom displays can have a negative impact on attention (Fisher, Godwin & Seltman, 2014; Hanley et al., 2017). However, before you rush to your classroom and tear down all those wonderful displays, bear in mind that this is a very new area of research and has, so far, only been investigated using young children.

Set bright lines

As discussed previously, a bright line is a clearly defined rule or standard. They are unambiguous and give us very little room for manoeuvre. If, for example, your goal is to drink less alcohol, you can set a bright line as 7 will only have two alcoholic drinks per day'. You could expand this to, 'if I have already had two drinks and someone offers me another, then I will ask for an orange juice'. If you're hoping to curtail your Internet use, you could declare, 7 will only go on social media between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m'.

Bright lines empower people, especially if they deal with behaviours they feel are controlling them. A teacher, for example, might feel that they are at the mercy of their inbox, constantly checking to see if their boss has sent them a task to do. By insisting that our teacher only checks emails between, say, 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., they are taking control and actively deciding what to do and when. Students, too, can use bright lines to help nurture self-control and reduce procrastination and self-handicapping. For example, one student of mine would use situational cues to help her keep on top of homework by setting the bright line, 'if 1 have homework to complete, 1 will spend my free periods in the library completing it' (where there are fewer distractions than the study room).

Take two minutes

Deciding to dedicate an hour to a task can often appear daunting. If motivation is low and the task is unappealing we are much more likely to delay. However, by deciding to spend a shorter period of time on the task we can actually raise our levels of motivation. Say we want to increase the number of books we read but we're not sure if we could sit down and remain focussed for an hour. If we dedicated two minutes to reading a few pages the task becomes more manageable and, chances are, we'll find that two minutes turn into four and six and so on. Getting started on a task is often the most difficult part, but once we do begin, there is a greater likelihood that we'll continue.

Imagine you've given your class ten mathematical equations to complete for homework and the deadline is five days away. Suggesting that they might like to do two questions a day provides a more manageable way of dealing with the possibility that they will delay doing all ten questions. Once they begin, many will do more than the suggested two, while some will complete all ten.

Prioritising tasks

We can also decrease procrastination and self-handicapping by prioritising the tasks that need completing.

Put some things off until later

This might sound contradictory; after all, isn't this exactly what we're trying to prevent? The difference is in what we are delaying until later. Perhaps it's a piece of chocolate cake or checking our emails. These are things that can provide instant feedback and gratification yet do little to help us move towards our goals - getting used to waiting helps to increase our self-control by telling ourselves, 'I'll have the cake after I've finished my work'. A student may well have commitments other than schoolwork, such as meeting up with friends. Identifying those that can be delayed (the latest episode of that television show can be viewed later) and what can't be postponed (football practice) is a useful habit to develop. In the classroom, where the what and the when is more closely controlled, teachers can use their discretion to prioritise tasks and restrict choice when necessary.

Decide if the task really needs doing at all

There is a tendency to prioritise the tasks we need to do, but the way we do this can often betray our tendency to procrastinate. In other words, we often place the task that will instantly gratify higher up on the list even if they are less important. More tellingly, perhaps, we may even include tasks that don't really need doing at all. Being faced with a long to do list can reduce motivation, so get rid of the things that really don't need to be there, things that don't get us any closer to achieving our goal.

 
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