Working with procrastinators for over 48 years has been very telling. Some procrastinators are simply over scheduled and lack time-management strategies. A good number of procrastinators put off hard things. They will avoid those tasks that take more mental energy, while others hold deeply rooted secrets that interfere with the ability to complete tasks on time or prepare for tests.
Many of my former procrastinators were highly gifted students. Some struggled with procrastination for most of the school years, until we found the secret hidden in their subconscious beliefs.
The secret is that they feel like imposters. They are told they are smart or brilliant, but they often do not feel that way. Examining their meaning of ‘smart’ or ‘brilliant’ is very enlightening. They will often define smartness as things being easy for them.
Asking when and why they decided they weren’t smart points to a secret belief that blocks them. Most procrastinators will point to a time when they knew they were not as smart as their parents and teachers told them they were. It is surprising to discover they formed their beliefs at very young ages. Some were as young as three years old and a few were even younger than that.
Holding such a belief will lead them to developing coping mechanisms to cover their imposter truth. Some will act out, while others will avoid doing assignments. They don’t believe those who espouse their brilliance. They can be shown aptitude tests and will discount them as being lucky guesses. Hard evidence will not change their deeply seeded belief.
One way to cover up their truth is to delay doing projects and homework. If they get a poor grade, being late will be the cause, and not that they weren’t smart enough. There is so much pressure on them to get “A’s” in everything because they are smart, that they would rather get an “F” for not doing the project or on the test rather than a “C” if they did it. They are truly afraid of revealing the truth about the secret they hold, “I am not smart.”
Guilt won’t work with those who hold this subconscious belief. They can be constantly reminded that they are so smart and should be able to get the work done and meet deadlines, but their belief is so deeply rooted that even they don’t know why they are putting off the work.
How do we help them uncover their belief?
The following are questions I have asked in the past that were eye opening for procrastinators.
We have to help these student tap into the real reason they are procrastinating. Because the secret of many of the procrastinators view smartness in similar ways, I generally ask them a simple questions, “What does being smart or gifted mean to you?” Followed by, “When did you get the feeling you weren’t smart?”
Helping students view smartness is important to help reverse their beliefs. The following questions will lead them to a belief shift:
Since all procrastinators are not always late on projects, I ask, “What activities or projects do find you are able to get done easily and on time.” Most students can name one subject they complete on time.
Point out that they seem to see themselves smart in areas that come easily. Point out that hard does not mean they are not smart. It means they need skills or a way of being taught that is different from the way they were being taught. It has nothing to do with their IQ. Some of the most brilliant scientists couldn’t write a paragraph.
Help them tap into the feelings connected to assignments that they have avoided:
They following is the questioning I use with students. “Close your eyes and think back to receiving a project or assignment you have avoided recently. What feelings do you get when you look at it? What about the project or assignment makes you feel uncomfortable? What thoughts are entering your mind as your look at it? Is there anything in that project that you do not know how to do? Read it now and determine what is stopping you. It could be something you do not know how to do. With Covid you may not have been taught the skills necessary to complete it. It has nothing to do with not being smart. It’s just indicates that you need more information. “
One student was very clear that he knew the exact day and what was happening at the time the day he knew the truth. “It was the first day of preschool. I think I was 2.5 or 3 and the teacher asked me to write my name on the paper. I didn’t know how, but all the other children did. I knew at that moment my parents and grandparents were lying to me.”
Another very tall boy replied, “I was in kindergarten and I couldn’t write my name like Alison. The teacher commented that hers was perfect and that I needed to work harder on mine. Smart children can do things well. I couldn’t.” He grew to be 6’5. When he realized he was working with puppy dog paws and that writing for Alison was using muscle that he would not develop until 7th or 8th grade, he began to flourish.
A now successful rocket physicist stated at age 8, “I couldn’t remember my addition and subtraction facts like the others in the class. They could get all 100 done in 2 minutes and I barely got the first two rows completed.”
A very young third grader shared, “I knew I wasn’t as smart as the teacher said because I never got 100% on my spelling tests.”
Then I ask, “What subject makes you feel smart?”
Generally speaking, most students formed a negative belief about their abilities and whether they were smart or not by comparing themselves to others. When it is pointed out that the fact they did this type of observation indicates they are using higher level thinking skills to do so. They have never looked at peers who are also struggling to say to themselves, “I’m not the only one.” They are looking at those who are experiencing success and comparing themselves to what they believe is an indicator of smartness. A teacher complimenting another student does not indicate that student is any smarter than they are. It is the bright child that compares themselves. I like to share the ridiculous, so I share, “Dumb people don’t know they are dumb. It is the bright children who form negative opinions opinions about themselves.”
Once we discover when and where they formed the subconscious belief, we can point out how that has possibly resulted in procrastination. They will be more likely to apply the strategies they are taught after this discovery.
Avoiding assignments is often due to a difficulty with the task or a lack of skills necessary to complete the assignments. The subconscious belief tells them that If it appears hard, it must reflect a lack of intelligence. We need to clear up the misunderstanding that smart does not mean easy.
Since Covid learning I have worked with several teens who suddenly began avoiding assignments or projects, while performing poorly in subjects they once excelled. The core of every students challenge was the belief that smart meant easy. The minute things got hard, they began to change their self-image of themselves. The once persister became the resister.
Helping these students recognize that they have been through a horrible time for students. On-line learning was challenging to the best students. It crushed many high achievers. Coming back into a classroom can be even more daunting if the teacher is trying to resume business as usual.
We need to help these students recognize that there will be times when things are harder than they ever experienced, and there is no better time to ask for support from teachers. The struggling student who brings the challenges to the teacher’s attention can make it easier on the entire class. Students who experienced success easily in the past didn’t have to ask for the support, so it is more difficult to do it now, especially if their belief about their smartness is based on things being easy.
The following has helped a few dozen of my students to see the value the challenge of Covid learning has offered them. Share it with your children:
Covid learning created a lot of gaps in learning that are not apparent to teachers unless the students let them know. If you don’t know how to do something connected to an assignment or project, it is not a reflection of your ability to complete them. It is possibly because there are concepts necessary to complete them that you never learned. Maybe one teacher in fourth grade taught it to his students, while another fourth grade teacher taught different concepts to her class. The only way the current teacher will know what you don’t know is by letting him/her know. It is more important at this time in education for you to identify what part of the assignment or project you don’t understand and share that with the teacher. The teachers don’t know what you don’t know unless you tell them what you don’t know. It is the bright student who can identify what is unclear and that will help the entire class.”
Clarify that intelligence is not what makes one successful, but tenacity is. Working through the hard stuff is the secret to success. Uncovering the blocking belief will lead them there.
If they fear asking the teacher questions, please check out my ebook Essential 21st Century Skill-The Question which is FREE in the month of October. Backwards Planning will provide the strategies that empower students to become effective time managers.