This was supposed to be a Father’s Day column

June 25, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

If you are one of those people – like me, I confess – who live by the motto, “Tomorrow’s another day,” this column is for you.

Growing up, I was told that putting things off was simply laziness. As I grew older and became enmeshed in the work-a-day world, putting things off, or procrastination, was considered more an issue of poor time management skills. Turns out it’s neither, but instead a psychological weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think correctly.

Gee, thanks. I feel much better now.

This column started out to be for Father’s Day. A week beyond that date, and I’m now confronting my demons and reaching out to help other dads who might suffer the same psychological weakness.

Psychologists have studied people like us in great depth. Don’t be ashamed, almost everyone procrastinates now and then. Twenty-six percent of people confess to chronic procrastination.

Researchers have discovered that when given a choice, most people tend to set aside what’s best for them for a later time. If asked if we prefer to have a piece of fruit or slice of cake one week from today, most people will select the fruit. However, when the time comes a week later and we are confronted by the thick slice of chocolate cake or a nice, ripe apple, statistics say we will choose the cake. (Yes, researchers actually conduct these experiments.)

I don’t know about you, but my Netflix queue contains dozens of deep documentaries and thoughtful movies that I’ll watch someday. But tonight, let’s watch Transformers 3.

I really want to see those other films, but they will take some mental muscle, and I’m saving them for a day when I’m more alert, more in the mood, more serious minded, etc. I hope you get the picture.

Scientists sometimes call this “hyperbolic discounting,” the human tendency to prefer smaller payoffs now over larger payoffs later, which leads to largely disregarding the future when it requires sacrifices in the present.

That’s why grocery stores put candy instead of broccoli right next to the checkout.

Procrastination is an impulse; it’s buying candy at the checkout. Procrastination is also hyperbolic discounting, taking the sure thing in the present over the obscure prospect someday far away.

If the problem was only about movies and candy, we could all keep laughing, but procrastination manifests itself everywhere in our lives. It can affect school grades, job prospects, career advancement, relationships and – because this was supposed to be a Father’s day column – parenting.

If your procrastination keeps you from being involved with your kids in a deep and meaningful way, here is your chance to change things.

Let’s talk mostly about school.

Your child needs to hear you say that school is important to success in life. Your involvement gives legs to your words, reinforcing that idea, and helps in deeper ways too.

Studies show that caring, involved dads result in infants with higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and thinking development. Toddlers start school with higher levels of academic readiness. They tend to be more patient and handle the stresses and frustrations of school better. Involved dads’ effect on academic achievement extends into adolescence and the teen years, resulting in better grades as well as better social interactions and a personal sense of well-being.*

According to Dr. Fernando Mederos of the Massachusetts Child & Family Services Fatherhood Project, a father’s involvement makes a difference with kids’ development.

“All the research tells us that with children who don’t have a father in their lives, it really affects them in a negative way,” Mederos said.

Sorry to say, but if you are the kind of dad who puts off time with his kids for any of a dozen reasons, all of which may seem reasonable to you, in your child’s eyes, you are just not there. (Cue that old Harry Chapin song.)

I could cite research and make examples all day, but I’m guessing you get the picture. If you are a procrastinator (it’s OK to admit it) these tips might help get you out of that rut and into some quality time with your children.

  1.  Start
    Just start. Pick something easy, manageable and doable, and do it. That feeling, once you get going, is momentum.
  2. Start anywhere
    Too many choices that you don’t know where to start? Planning can help with this, but planning is also a trap. Too much planning and not enough actual doing is another form of procrastination. Just start anywhere.
  3. Look out for excuses
    They will come. “I’m not in the mood.” “I think we’ll have time later in the week.” “I work better under pressure.” Recognize them for what they are. Call them out as excuses and get on with things.
  4. Ramp up the value
    One big reason for procrastination is we simply don’t appreciate the value of the task we are putting off. If those stats above about involved dads don’t motivate you, what’s it going to take? Think about the cost if you don’t do it. (Can you still hear that Harry Chapin song?) Making time for your kids is important.
  5. Some people are just born procrastinators.
    That’s the truth. But for you easily distracted, low self-control, impulsive types, try changing your environment to eliminate distractions and temptations. Procrastination strikes when we have to stop and think, so get everything you need together first, or go to a place away from potential distractions.
  6. “80 percent of success is showing up.”
    Woody Allen said that. It’s a good point. The tougher a task may be, the more likely we are to procrastinate. And the best way to raise our expectations of success is actually to succeed. But, if we don’t start, we can’t succeed. You have to at least show up.
  7. Good ideas are great; the steps for getting there are better.
    What’s nice about Google Maps is that it gives you step-by-step directions to a destination. They wouldn’t be nearly as popular if they said simply, “It’s a ways off, kind of north by north-east from where you are.”

    When you are starting a task, think in terms of concrete steps rather than abstract ideas.

  8. Don’t rely on memory.
    Sometimes we procrastinate because we just forget things. Write stuff down.
  9. Avoid over-thinking.
    Everyone has doubts, even the most confident people. When you doubt, you procrastinate. Why do we give our doubts so much credit? Don’t waste mental energy with all-or-nothing thinking, impossibly high expectations, or thinking the whole plan will be a disaster. Get on with it.
  10. Don’t beat yourself up.
    If you’ve missed some things with your kids, forgive yourself and make it right now. What’s past doesn’t have to dictate your future. Isn’t time to start referring to yourself as a former procrastinator?

*The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children

Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin

Beat Procrastination: How to Want to Tackle Your To-Do List

Tom Antis has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since January 2008. He and his wife, Julie, have two children, ages 10 and 11, whose childhood won’t be put off till a future date.

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