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The Perfectionism-Procrastination Paradox

When students hand in assignments close to a deadline, it can be easy to label them as lazy, forgetful, or unmotivated. Surprisingly, research has shown that many procrastinators are perfectionists.

When students hand in assignments close to a deadline, it can be easy to label them as lazy, forgetful, or unmotivated. Surprisingly, research has shown that many procrastinators are perfectionists (link opens in new tab/window). For these students, the desire to get every element just right can be paralyzing and prevent them from getting started, despite their best intentions. Teaching executive function strategies can help “perfectionist-procrastinators” reframe their thinking and develop a realistic understanding of time. 

Hard Habits to Break

Breaking the perfectionism-procrastination cycle can be difficult. If the assignment doesn’t go well, there is a built-in excuse of lack of time: “Oh, I would have done better if I had more time.” If the assignment goes well, there is little incentive for students to change their ways.

All or Nothing

Many perfectionist-procrastinators engage in all-or-nothing thinking patterns. Take, for example, a multi-step project or research paper. Getting started can be daunting when students view the project as an overwhelming whole instead of something that they can break down into actionable parts. By teaching the Purposeful Highlighting strategy (from Unit 3 of SMARTS Elementary), you can help students learn to break down multi-step instructions into a numbered checklist. Purposeful Highlighting is a way for students to break down directions and identify multiple perspectives when reading or taking notes. This strategy helps students highlight effectively and avoid over-highlighting (“yellow page syndrome”).

Reestablish Reasonable Expectations

Perfectionist-procrastinators often struggle to initiate tasks when they are worried about making a mistake. Before students start their work, encourage them to reflect on the root causes of their perfectionism and procrastination tendencies. Fear and negative self-perceptions often go hand-in-hand with perfectionism and procrastination. Encourage self-compassion as students strive to change their studying and learning behaviors. Remind students that they can always revise their work and ideas along the way, so the first attempt doesn’t have to be perfect. 

Understanding Time

Another element that complicates task initiation is a tenuous understanding of time. Students tend to overestimate how long tasks will take, especially undesirable or difficult tasks. When it comes to getting started, encourage students to choose one task and estimate how long they think the task will take. Once students set a timer and get started, they might realize that they can get more done in a shorter period of time than they originally thought. 

What are your best tips for beating procrastination?   

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org

The Institute for Learning and Development: ildlex.org

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