How early does procrastination emerge and impact children?
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How early does procrastination emerge in children, and what impact does it have?


March 23, 2023
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New research has shown that procrastination emerges in children as early as three years of age, that it becomes more characteristic over time and appears to be linked with other future-thinking behaviours, such as delaying gratification.


Undertaken by the Brock University’s Developing Memory and Cognition Lab, the research shows the difference between task avoidance and procrastination, which boils down to two important factors: a personal need to do something and an intention to do it — eventually.


“Task avoidance for adults may be as simple as staying away from a social event we don’t want to go to,” explained researcher Ege Kamber, a Brock PhD student. “But in procrastination, we know we have to do this task, even if it’s undesirable, but we put it off.”


Because determining intention, especially in children as young as three, can be challenging, the research team was careful to have parents report on tasks children intended on doing or had to do themselves, such as getting out of bed in the morning.


Three and four-year-old children procrastinate in different areas compared to their five and six-year-old peers, Associate Professor Caitlin Mahy explained. 


“The younger children were much more likely to procrastinate on tidying up messes and engaging in bedtime or mealtime routines, whereas the older children were more likely to procrastinate on doing homework or doing chores around the house.”


Mr Kamber, whose PhD research focuses on episodic future thinking, said the connection between procrastination and future-thinking behaviours, such as delaying gratification, has been of particular interest to him.


Delayed gratification is our ability to inhibit our current impulses to focus on greater future outcomes, but with procrastination, we have to inhibit our impulse to not do the undesirable task in order to get it completed,” he explained. 


The connection between procrastination and future-thinking is important, the Associate Professor added, because it involves having empathy for your future self. When you avoid a task in the moment, you get a temporary reward in the present, but you penalise yourself in the future, charging your future self not only with the task, but with the anxiety which comes with having a task incomplete. 


Associate Professor Mahy worked with Mr Kember and other student researchers Taissa Fuke and Melissa Alunni in the research, titled The Emergence of Procrastination in Early Childhood: Relations With Executive Control and Future-Oriented Cognition, which was recently published in Developmental Psychology.


The study was a true collaboration between the Associate Professor and students working on three different degrees. It grew out of a conversation between Mahy, who was supervising then-Honours thesis student Ms Alunni about how a thesis project on procrastination could fit in with the lab’s future-thinking research.


“Melissa was really interested in procrastination, and though I had never really thought about it in terms of our research program about future thinking, once she brought it forward, I could see a strong connection to how children think about the future and remember to do things in the future,” the Associate Professor said. “It was also the middle of the pandemic, so I was at home spending a lot of time with my young children and I was really seeing a lot of procrastination behaviour, specifically around cleaning up messes, going to bed and brushing teeth.”


To access the research in full, please see here




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