In a world that values high achievement and accomplishment while viewing procrastination as a character flaw, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not attempt a goal in the first place. For students, these feelings are often compounded with the instant feedback they get from teachers and peers about the timeliness, quality, and even the appearance of assignments that are turned in. Every classroom contains at least one student who is accruing zeros by not turning in assignments. While there are some students who have missing assignments because they missed hearing the directions or chose not to complete the assignment, many are missing assignments because of an inability to initiate the task. Below are tips to help push past that barrier of getting started.
Goals Don’t Have to Be Large
Students can make a large project more manageable by identifying smaller steps that lead in the right direction. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by a book report that is due three weeks out, consider what one thing the student could do today, such as selecting a book or if one has been assigned to them already, just typing up the cover page of the report. By focusing on only one item, the task suddenly becomes more doable and getting started becomes far less daunting.
Breaking large projects into smaller, more manageable chunks is an essential skill to be a successful student, yet it’s not often explicitly taught. While this comes naturally for some, others really struggle with understanding how smaller pieces fit into a whole and can benefit from a teacher or tutor who actively models this step. Having outside support ensures that the project is broken into appropriate pieces, because many students with good intentions still define tasks that are much larger than they can accomplish in a single session. Not only can the teacher or tutor help define what is realistic, they are also available to encourage the student and monitor progress at each step rather than waiting until the deadline is looming.
Parents can also help students develop this skill by framing household directions to include both the large big-picture view of the project, and a small step that will help the student get started. “Clean your room,” can also define a task that can initiate the project, such as “pick up all clothes from the floor,” or “gather all dishes and bring them to the kitchen.” The key is to name a very concrete starting point for a larger project, because once the first step is complete, the child will have a better idea of a next step.
Prioritize Process Over Product
Carol Dweck emphasizes how true learning happens when students are willing to take risks in her book, Mindset. She contrasts a “fixed mindset,” where students are fixated on getting the right answers and view intelligence as something you are born with, with a “growth mindset,” in which students make mistakes but learn from those mistakes. Those with a growth mindset recognize that intelligence is something you develop and build over time. As you might suspect, her research reveals that the students in the growth mindset group as well as those who have teachers who encourage them to stick with the process rather than focusing on the final product actually end up with the better final product and fare better than their fixed mindset peers. Students in the growth mindset groups also report less stress and exhibit an enthusiasm and energy to take on greater and greater challenges, leading to a deeper understanding of material and more acutely-developed problem-solving skills.
Dweck’s research can help motivate students of all ages to push a little outside of their comfort zone. The very first step, and in some cases the hardest, is to let go of all of the pressure and anxiety about what the ending will be and simply start the project.
Practice and Revisions Improve the Final Outcome
A starting point is just that, the first draft. By starting early enough to allow for revisions or additional practice before the final performance, there is no question that the end result will be an improvement, regardless of where the starting point was. For students who struggle with perfectionism, allowing enough time to make some adjustments can both alleviate anxiety and ensure that a first draft does get completed.
If a student frequently needs additional prompting to work independently in school or to initiate homework assignments, coaching them on a failsafe “first step,” which can be as simple as putting the heading on their paper, will ensure that they do have a concrete action to take towards a first draft. Then the teacher or parent can check back in a few minutes later to help with revisions, reinforcing that the final product will always improve the starting draft so the student is best served to dive in and begin work on the first pass as soon as possible.
A Mentor Can Help
For many, it is much easier to be accountable to another person than to yourself. When a mentor is routinely checking in with the student, the due dates become more real and getting started suddenly becomes a concrete next step rather than a task that can be pushed into the future.
Whether working with a formal mentor or a caring adult willing to coach the student, mentors can help students to remain engaged, focused, and motivated to complete assignments. Studies show that students who work with a mentor exhibit higher attendance, a greater chance of moving on to higher education, and better attitudes towards school. The relief that comes from knowing that someone else is available to help remember details, remind when impending deadlines approach, and encourage each step of the way helps many students to muster the energy to persevere through complex school content and extended projects.
Just Do It
Nike’s tag line applies to many more fields beyond sports. While there are strategies and tools to help with motivation or to clarify the first step, in the end, the only way to get started is to make a conscious decision to get started and do it. Finding a way to be comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing all the answers creates a great opportunity for growth for students at every stage.