Category Archives: Procrastination

August calendar with blank to do list

Hack Your To-Do Lists with EF Strategies

Do you create to-do lists with the intention of organizing your tasks and relieving stress? According to research and interviews(link opens in new tab/window) , it turns out that to-do lists can actually make us more stressed because they don’t account for how long tasks take. There are tips for making the lists in planners more effective–as Michael Greschler, director of SMARTS, says, we should use planners as planners and not just as due daters

While brain dumps or listing out all our tasks are good first steps in organizing ourselves and our schedules, it is important to take time to prioritize tasks, break down tasks into steps, and estimate how long they will take.

Step 1: Prioritize

After a brain dump, take time to categorize your list into obligations (have to’s), aspirations (want to’s), and negotiations. Sorting tasks and activities in this way helps make it clear where to begin. Once you know your starting point, you can move on to step 2.

Step 2: Break Down Tasks

It is easy to create to-do lists without considering that each task could contain multiple sub-tasks. When tasks go unfinished, it can create unneeded stress and pressure. According to the Zeigarnik Effect(link opens in new tab/window) , unfinished tasks tend to linger in our minds and interfere with our ability to move forward. One way to counteract the Zeigarnik Effect is to break down each task into parts and schedule each sub-task into a planner or calendar.

Step 3: Estimate

When scheduling sub-tasks into a planner, remember to estimate how long they will take. This is a step that is often missed when using a planner as a due dater. Estimating the time pays off—we are more likely to complete a task if we know exactly when we will start and how long it will take. 

While setting up to-do lists with executive function strategies may take time upfront, you will reduce stress and save time in the long run. For more information about these lessons, check out the SMARTS Curriculum

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

Stressed student reads while surrounded by books

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 (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:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development: