Academic Procrastination and Low Frustration Tolerance

Dr Michael E. Bernard

Founder, You Can Do It! Education

Emeritus Professor, California State University, Long Beach
Former Professor, Melbourne Graduate School for Education, Melbourne University
Doctorate of Educational Psychology

Academic procrastination is a major obstacle to student success at school and really prevents young people from achieving their personal best.

Hard Yakka endurance training

While everyone procrastinates, I think you’ll agree that it is one of the nuttiest human behaviours. It is nutty for the following reason found in its definition:

Procrastination involves deciding that it is in your best interest to do something and delaying it even though you see the disadvantages of the delay.

We humans shoot ourselves in the foot when we procrastinate!

The good news is that procrastination is not a mental health disorder in and of itself. However, it contributes to people performing below their potential and suffering the consequences. It also means that procrastinators’ homes and workplaces can be disorganised, chaotic, and, consequently, stressful.

Academic Procrastination

Academic procrastination is a significant obstacle to student success at school and really prevents young people from achieving their personal best.

Academic procrastination refers to the tendency of students to delay or postpone completing academic tasks, such as studying for an exam, doing homework, or writing an essay, even though they know they should perform these actions and have a specific deadline for completion.

Academic procrastination leads to a decline in students’ wellbeing. It is associated with poor academic performance, emotional distress (stress, anxiety, and depression) and physical health deterioration.

While social media is often implicated as the cause of students spending less time studying and, by implication, procrastinating, the fact is that procrastination is a complex, poorly understood behaviour. It is understood to be a failure of self-regulation, an avoidance behaviour toward unpleasant tasks due to fear of failure or success, an expression of poor behaviour control, and it has been consistently associated with low self-efficacy.

Students Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT)

There is a critical moment in a student’s learning experience that fundamentally determines whether they will procrastinate.

When students start a learning task or are already engaged in a task, they can feel frustrated and uncomfortable due to its difficulty or the time it takes to complete it. Their ability to manage this frustration and discomfort determines whether they will continue the task.

Students who dodge and avoid the frustration and discomfort bring with them a way of thinking and self-talk that disrupts and interferes with their capacity to manage and triggers procrastination: 

I can’t stand this. School is stupid. I am stupid. I’ll never understand or finish this. I shouldn’t have to do schoolwork that isn’t fun or interesting”.

Students who experience learning frustration but do not dodge, avoid, or procrastinate have what can be called high frustration tolerance (HFT). They have a different way of thinking and self-talk: 

“I’d like schoolwork to be fun and interesting, but I know it won’t always be. I haven’t learned this yet. I can try to do this differently, return later, or ask for help. I can handle this.”

For different reasons, too many students today are delayed in their ability to tolerate and regulate learning frustration and discomfort and, therefore, academically procrastinate.

A colleague of mine, Bill Knaus, has written about LFT:

Children exhibiting low frustration tolerance and weak frustration management skills may go through life inconsistently, responding to challenges, having problems organising, demonstrating impatience, inhibiting competencies, giving up easily, procrastinating and agitating themselves about their frustration… Most children are adaptable and improve their frustration management skills as they age. Others display a marked aversion to frustrating circumstances and either try to shelter themselves or expediently remove the source of tension. Chronically frustrated youngsters are often labelled troubled, behaviour problems, inhibited or burnt-out.

Welcome Students to the World of Hard Yakka

Australia’s 22nd Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, said in 1971, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” This prophetic homily has always resonated with me as a rational reminder about how life sometimes is so that I don’t insist things shouldn’t be how they are.

I incorporated the phrase hard yakka into our social-emotional learning programs to help young people accept that their lives, including schoolwork, won’t always be fun and exciting. Hard yakka means ‘hard work’ and ‘work hard’. The word ‘yakka’ – which first appeared in the 1840s – derives from the word for work (yaga). It comes from Yagara, an Indigenous language in Australia.

School-wide Celebration of Hard Yakka

My experience has been that students respond positively to the concept of hard yakka. During the start of the school year and term, I recommend that a school leader emphasise to all students at a school-wide assembly the importance of developing their strength to do hard yakka to succeed at school. Of course, you can use a substitute phrase for hard yakka, like work tough. The communication could cover the following:

“At school, our teachers do their very best to ensure that lessons are fun and interesting to help you learn the required subjects. However, there are times that you will find things frustrating, difficult and hard to learn. It will be important when this happens not to think: “School is stupid. I am stupid. This is not fun, but it should be. I won’t do it.” Instead, we want everyone to have a working tough attitude and to think: “I like it when school is fun and exciting, but it won’t always be. To be successful, I have to do things that seem boring or hard. When I do, I will do my best – even if it takes time.”

Hard Yakka in the Classroom

To reinforce the message to students that to be successful, they need to, when faced with schoolwork that is difficult (hard yakka), persevere and not procrastinate, classroom teachers can present the following activity:

Communicate Behaviour-Specific Feedback

As you get to know what each of your students finds to be hard yakka, when you ‘catch them in the act’ of not procrastinating but instead persisting in completing their work that they find frustrating, say:

“That’s great. Your persistence will pay off.”

“I can see the effort you are putting in.”

“Doing this hard yakka will help you to do your personal best.”

“Doesn’t it feel good when you don’t procrastinate?”

Model and Role-Play Self-Talk that Builds High Frustration Tolerance

It will be instructive for all staff to first role play about a piece of work students find hard yakka. Demonstrate how students typically think about this challenging task, leading to low frustration tolerance, procrastination, and giving up.

“School is stupid. I am stupid. I can’t stand this. I’ll never understand or finish this. There’s nothing I can do. I shouldn’t have to do schoolwork that isn’t fun or interesting.”

Then, staff should role play by thinking aloud, the self-talk that develops high frustration tolerance, which helps eliminate academic procrastination and leads to successfully completing the task:

“I’d like schoolwork to be fun and interesting, but I know I won’t always be. I haven’t learned this yet. I can try to do this differently, return later, or ask for help. I can handle this.”

One or more students can be asked to volunteer to role play thinking aloud both types of self-talk. Then, the whole class can practice self-talk to develop high frustration tolerance by thinking aloud and then quietly to themselves. Remind students to use this self-talk when they next find schoolwork challenging or boring or when they find themselves procrastinating.

Closing Summary

Everyone needs to be more aware of the pernicious effects of low frustration tolerance (LFT) on young people’s procrastination, achievement and wellbeing today.

I am totally convinced that it is vitally important to make students aware of the self-defeating impact of procrastination and how they can, on their own initiative, overcome this blocker to their academic success.

We should warn all students from an early age to be aware of their procrastination and teach them strategies, including time management, goal setting, emotional regulation, confidence, and persistence, to help them self-manage their learning and avoid getting very frustrated and procrastinating.

How do I know this? Over my years as a school psychologist, I helped numerous students re-engage with schoolwork after they experienced hard yakka endurance training.

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