Like most people there are some things I don’t like doing, there are jobs I put off whether it is at home or at work. I know I have to do them at some point, but I will get round to them in my time (not yours). This is an oft spoken phrase at home (less so at work) though I am thinking about it (a lot) whilst engaging in conversation.

The received opinion from psychologists is that 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators whilst 80-90% of children ‘suffer this affliction’. In a recent article for the publication ‘School Notices’, Dr. Trevor Richards, a fellow headteacher wrote:

“Whilst we need to help our children overcome procrastination to develop their study skills, it is also helpful to understand why some pupils are more likely to procrastinate than others and how we can support them overcome this impediment”.

I take issue with the first and last sentence, rather than ‘overcome procrastination’ or ‘support them to overcome their impediment’, I think it should be recognised and then embraced.

Of course, I am not saying that a child should be left endlessly to while away their hours without any productivity, but it is at what cost. It is difficult to look at a cost/benefit analysis in the world of secondary education, as we know it; the short lessons and the constant moving from room to room, from teacher to teacher, in fact allows the child freedom to idle away their existence. In the primary setting the opposite is probably true and teachers are on top of the children for almost every minute of the time they are with them. Here children are less likely to be able to ‘let their mind wander’; this is detrimental, I believe, to the final outcome in some children.

The psychologist, Adam Grant, has tested the hypothesis of procrastination versus productivity in a large pizza chain, identifying store managers who are known procrastinators and measuring their performance against their more ‘organised’ counterparts. He found, as he did with 100 companies in India, that productivity was greater with leaders who were procrastinators.

Whilst theories expound the importance of avoiding procrastination, Valerie Brown and Andrea Jackson agree with me in embracing it. Although they use different nomenclature (passive vs active as opposed to accidental vs deliberate, respectively) the principles are the same. In the active/deliberate procrastination the task is still there in the mind of the individual and they spend their time ruminating on how to start the work; they are waiting for the catalyst. The catalyst will come in their time and not yours, which is why parents get so frustrated because they feel their child is not applying themselves to the task, in the way that they would. Da Vinci was a procrastinator, whilst he was painting the Mona Lisa he was also drawing pictures of helicopters and all manner of other ideas!

The important difference between the two perspectives is not laziness, as parents may choose to describe it, but a difficulty in “finding that one piece in the supersonic jigsaw puzzle they have just started”, (Andrea Jackson). This is one area where I agree with Dr. Richards, he says, “Sometimes the bareness of a blank piece of paper at the start of an assignment can be an obstacle in itself.”

Whilst I am advocating procrastination as a tool for good we must not let it mask other issues we may see with children: low self-esteem, fear of failure, rebellion, a handy excuse to hide behind… and the way we do this is to introduce what Tim Urban calls the ‘panic monster’, the deadline to you and me! Using the neuro-psychological approach, like Prof. Steve Peters, Urban goes back to basics. The human brain has a rational brain and an instant gratification brain (which they call, the monkey). The latter is very strong and can overcome the former readily and so it is easy to procrastinate; why wouldn’t you want to research the episodes of Pingu for the number of times the seal popped out of the hole in the ice, when Mr Bouckley’s long division is calling?

It is at this stage that the panic monster needs to be unleashed: set a deadline and the chimp slowly moves into the background. And, as the deadline draws close, their creativity comes to the fore and the child becomes much more productive in completing the work. Phrases such as ‘pull the rabbit out of the hat at the last minute’ and ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ were made for procrastinators…

As such, I would counter those who frown on the procrastinators of the world and encourage them to allow children the time and space to be both creative and productive; if Google and Pixar see the benefit of putting physical distance between toilets and workspaces to encourage longer breaks and ‘bumping’ spaces along the way to facilitate the ‘water cooler’ conversations, then I am all for it.

So, how do we help the children? Building on the work by Dr. Richards, I would agree with some of his advice and add one or two of my own, but certainly advocate the following:

·        Be aware of it – and relieve the guilt (everyone procrastinates). Share a personal example with your children, so they know it isn’t just them BUT don’t let them off the hook.

·        Understand the difference – between deadline based and open-ended tasks; between your time scales and theirs… and understand that you cannot project your time scale onto them.

·        Metacognition – Learn about learning and then build in wriggle room; plan for distractions and plan for it not going right in the initial tasks but expect it to get better over time. Oh! and give them a short deadline for each part.

·        Scaffold the work – move away from the glaring white sheet of panic and help them get started; cut the big piece of work in to smaller chunks (you can only eat an elephant one bite at a time)!

·        Do the task for just a few minutes – this allows the problem to be ‘fixed’ in their brain’s processing system and even though they may not be working on it, the cogs are turning…

·        Remove temptation – If you can see the children have fallen into the passive phase of procrastination, remove temptations, they are more likely to be distracted by them. Apply the ‘do nothing’ policy where the choice is either get down to work or do nothing: no screens, no books, no snacks – nothing!

Good luck! 

Mr Chris Bouckley – Headmaster