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Beating the Instant Gratification Trap

Procrastination is a familiar topic on our blog page. It affects almost every student over the age of eight, becoming progressively more powerful through a student’s adolescent and college years. But why? Why does procrastination swell in potency as a student grows older? And why does procrastination seem to harm this generation of students more than students born a decade or two earlier? The answer is delayed gratification.

Modern students face a world with little resemblance to the late 90s and early 2000s. While those kiddos had some primitive video games to contend with and a growing array of digital communication tools, technology wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it is today. Please don’t confuse my doomsday description of technological invocation with Luddite sympathies. Rather, I am simply documenting the technological evolution as a change in quantity rather than quality – in some ways, a change in kind rather than a change in degree.

Today, many students use their cell phones as an alarm, then they check social media. They pick up their cell phone out of boredom in the car, then they check social media. During class, they use laptops and tablets for schoolwork, where they can check social media, email, or another similar app. After school, after another car ride, they check social media. Each time they open the app, they get a sudden buzz of dopamine either in anticipation as the pinwheel spins and the feed refreshes or from the virtual currency in the form of likes and comments.

Social media and other technologies supply instant gratification: dopamine on demand in a compact rectangle that fits in your pocket. Contrast this instant gratification with the laborious tasks of high school homework. As a student’s tolerance for boredom, for gratification-less effort, decreases, the likelihood of procrastination increases. This phenomenon is particularly true with high school and college students, who receive long-term essays and projects with more frequency than their lower school counterparts.

Instant gratification-induced procrastination is a common challenge. It often results in decreased productivity, increased stress, and lower academic performance. So, how can students (or their parents) help prevent instant gratification from turning into procrastination? Here are a few ideas:

Set SMART Goals

Setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals can be a powerful strategy for combating procrastination. Students can break down their larger academic tasks or projects into smaller, manageable goals and set clear deadlines for each of them. This can create a sense of urgency and accountability, reducing the tendency to procrastinate. Moreover, procrastination helps counteract the instant gratification trap by creating short-term ‘wins’ for the student.

Create a Productive Study Environment

The study environment plays a significant role in a student’s ability to focus and concentrate. Thus, the environment plays a huge role in preventing procrastination. The most interesting thing in the room (the thing that offers the most instant dopamine) often wins the day. To keep a student from spiraling down the procrastination rabbit hole, manipulate the study environment such that good decision making is easy. High school students can optimize their study space by minimizing distractions, organizing their materials, and creating a conducive learning environment.

Practice Time Management Techniques

Effective time management is essential for counteracting instant gratification’s effects in a similar way to SMART goals.. High school students can use techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique, time blocking, or creating a to-do list to manage their time efficiently. These techniques can help them prioritize tasks, allocate dedicated time for focused work where students can make sure they are productive instead of just busy. Likewise, effective time management helps prevent the never-ending project dread that instigates most procrastination. It makes the task achievable and therefore promotes action.

Cultivate Self-Motivation

Developing intrinsic motivation is a key factor in overcoming procrastination. High school students can work on cultivating a growth mindset, setting meaningful goals, and finding purpose in their academic pursuits. This can fuel their motivation and drive, reducing the tendency to procrastinate. Although developing intrinsic motivation is much easier said than done. Helping students find a ‘why’, recognize intermediate success, and build emotional awareness is a great start.

Seek Support and Accountability

Having a support system in place can be beneficial for overcoming procrastination. High school students can seek support from teachers, parents, or peers who can provide encouragement, guidance, and accountability. That’s why our flagship one-on-one academic support system is so effective; it solves many common problems that high school students face by giving them someone in their corner.

For more information on procrastination and other executive function topics, please check out our other resources. If you want to learn more about our flagship academic coaching and tutoring program, reach out today!

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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