New Year Resolutions 13.01.17

I hope that all the boys have had an excellent holiday and have returned this week well rested and motivated for the academic challenges ahead, particularly all those embarking on GCSE and A Level Mock examinations.

The New Year is traditionally a time for resolutions and I would like to encourage the boys to start Spring Term with the intention to improve themselves in some way. You can no doubt imagine that I, as Headmaster, often hear from boys that they are determined to ‘turn over a new leaf’ or to ‘work harder than ever before’. Understandably, the success rate in turning these good intentions into positive actions is rather variable. Of course, adults are not necessarily any better at implementing their New Year’s resolutions. Human beings are prone to putting difficult things off – ‘procrastination’ if you like. Our habits, whether working habits, eating habits, sleeping habits, smoking etc., are deeply ingrained and psychological research shows that breaking a habit and creating a new habit takes a huge amount of effort and willpower.

Over the holiday, I read an article in the press about procrastination and I share here an associated short video on the subject. This was the subject of my first assembly of term given to Years 6-10, but the topic is, in some respects, even more important for boys sitting public examinations. Professor Tim Pychyl is a Canadian psychologist who leads the ‘Procrastination Research Group’ has focused particularly on procrastination among students. Interestingly, online study has been identified as a massive risk, because at only the click of a button, an essay can be replaced by a video of a sneezing kitten or by discourse on social media. I think that we all recognise how technology can be a massive distraction for all of us, teachers included. I, as a Modern Languages teacher, use an electronic mark book which means that I have to have my computer on while I am marking exercise books. The electronic mark book is very useful but it can be a huge distraction, especially when the Champions’ League is on that evening, so I have started marking on the same table where my son does his homework. We have both recognised the risk of distraction and so work in the same room in order to shame each other into concentrating properly!

Professor Pychyl has made it clear that many students’ obsession with technology makes procrastination a bigger problem than ever before. This is one of the reasons why we have introduced this term new school rules on the use of mobile devices. iPads and smart phones are wonderful educational resources when used well and boys do use them well at times. However, it is also clearly true that they use them to procrastinate. Writing an essay is hard and requires considerable concentration. Watching a video or playing a computer game allows them to switch off and put off the difficult thought that they require. Professor Pychyl describes this as a desire for instant gratification. We procrastinate by looking for something that provides reward (in the form of enjoyment) for little effort.

So what advice can we give our sons to help them avoid procrastination? Here are the three simplest pieces of advice from Professor Pychyl’s research:

  • Break down tasks into clear, manageable steps. This is excellent advice for any piece of work. If we look at an essay or project in its entirety, it can look frightening. Professor Pychyl adapts the Nike slogan to “just start it”. If you are able to start a task and spend 10 minutes on it, the chances are that you’ll be able to maintain your focus. The big problem is not starting at all.
  • Be aware that procrastination is a risk and that you must minimise distractions. Always do your school work in the same room at the same table or desk, with all of the equipment you require around you. If you have to leave your seat to find a textbook or eraser, the chances are that you will be distracted by something else before sitting down again. In particular, mobile devices must be kept away, preferably in another room. Have a glass of water to hand, as nobody can concentrate effectively when dehydrated. Make sure that the work room is well-lit and the right temperature.
  • Look after your health and wellbeing. Separate research shows that technology delays children’s bedtimes and that the blue light of mobile devices disrupts sleep patterns. It’s very easy to spend the end of the evening surfing the internet addictively instead of acquiring the beauty sleep needed to be properly rested. Boys must be well rested, well fed and well hydrated if we expect them to perform, academically or in any other field, and if we want them to be stress-free. In addition, we can’t ignore that boys use physical exertion as a means of mental relaxation and we must ensure that exercise isn’t neglected as examinations draw near, if we want them to be healthy mentally.

All adults want to manage our time effectively as work and family responsibilities leave us so little time for ourselves. We need to be efficient if we want to leave time for our partners and for our leisure pursuits. We need to help train our sons to be effective time managers through the avoidance of procrastination. Parents sometimes tell me that their son needs to focus 100% on his academic work and so therefore can’t commit to school sport or music. I think that this is misguided. On the average Saturday or Sunday, your son will be awake for 15-16 hours. He can’t possibly work all day! Boys who cut down on their hobbies as exams approach usually don’t spend the time saved fruitfully. Nobody can spend every waking hour revising. He’s likely to spend the extra time aimlessly looking at YouTube highlights of Leicester City’s Premier League winning season or of youngsters falling off skateboards and hurting themselves. If he uses his time effectively, he can work hard and play hard, and his mental wellbeing will benefit from the variety in his life.

We can help our sons by repeatedly returning to these three mantras:

  • Just start it
  • Get rid of distractions
  • Look after yourself


If you’d like to watch Professor Pychyl’s full lecture on procrastination, click here.