I’ll Get To It Tomorrow: Procrastination In Online Learning

Procrastination In Online Learning
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Summary: We all procrastinate...but procrastinating in an online course can spell failure. Mary Burns discusses procrastination—what it is, why we do it and what can be done to help online learners overcome a tendency to procrastinate and successfully complete an online course.

Procrastination In Online Learning

If you have ever watched Gone with the Wind, you know Scarlett O’Hara, the film’s protagonist, as a woman of many traits—passionate, strong-willed, selfish, beautiful…and a serious procrastinator. When confronted with some of the most difficult events of her life (like—spoiler alert—Rhett Butler walking out on her), her famous response (well, besides, “Fiddle-dee-dee”) was typically, “I won’t think about now, I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Scarlett’s many transgressions (murder, adultery, deceit, stealing her sister’s fiancé, usury, cruelty) are not common to most people, thankfully. But her procrastination is. Indeed, all of us, in many aspects of our lives, are procrastinators, like Scarlett, putting off tasks until “tomorrow” (or “this weekend”). In psychology research, procrastination is defined as “the voluntary delay of an intended action despite knowing that one will probably be worse off for the delay” (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013, p. 4).

There are actually two types of procrastination. The first is “structured procrastination”—doing less important or urgent tasks instead of urgent or important ones (for example, organizing our sock drawer instead of completing our online course). The second is plain old, garden-variety procrastination—doing more pleasurable activities instead of less pleasurable ones.

Many times procrastination does not have serious consequences, but in online learning it almost always does. The biggest factor in successful online course completion is “self-regulation.” This is the ability to independently self-organize and complete tasks without external pressure. Procrastination represents a breakdown in self-regulation and it is one of the biggest drivers of failing to complete an online course. We put off the course work, it builds up, we fall further behind, it becomes too hard or unpleasant to catch up, and we fall further behind. The result of procrastination can be seen in the “product”—failing to complete a course—and “process”—feelings of anxiety, anger, self-doubt, shame—of online course participation.

 Tomorrow Never Comes

Why do we procrastinate? Well, for some of the reasons listed below:

  • Difficulty
    Learning a new thing or doing something you would rather not do can be stressful. This can cause anxiety at first. This activates the area associated with pain in the brain.
  • Poor time management
    We are just not good at scheduling and/or managing time to complete our course.
  • Pleasure
    Our brain likes pleasurable feelings so we switch our attention to something else more pleasant. (And hey, Mary, since you’ve mentioned Gone with the Wind, I've realized that I’ve never seen that movie, and I can spend 3 hours and 45 minutes watching it instead of doing my online course!)
  • Time-consumption
    The task will take large blocks of time, and large blocks of time are unavailable until the weekend.
  • The human tendency to value short-term over long-term
    As human beings, we’re almost neurologically hard-wired to value the primacy of immediate mood over longer-term goals and rewards, and to value the immediate gratification over long-term needs (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013).

While the above reasons may be true, there is an increasing body of knowledge that suggests that procrastination is more a way of “coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks—boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, and self-doubt” (Lieberman, 2019). These feelings occur most often when we are faced with a task that we view as “aversive” (i.e. boring, frustrating, lacking meaning and/or structure), and, therefore, leads to unpleasant feelings or a negative mood (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013, p. 4). These negative moods drive procrastination.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I Love You Tomorrow

Because procrastination is a “course killer” (as I like to call it), and because we always have procrastinators in our online courses, it is worth exploring some of the more course-related, dominant negative “moods” that drive procrastination.

  • Fear
    Learners may be unsure of the task. They may lack confidence that they can do a job well. They may not know how to start.
  • Perfectionism
    Unrealistically high expectations or standards (feeling overwhelmed by the amount of energy it will take to excel).
  • Anger/Hostility
    Learners are annoyed that they have been given a task, so they delay in doing the task.
  • Self-doubt
    Learners may minimize their skillset because they think they won’t do a good enough job so they keep putting off the task. They begin to believe they really can’t do it.
  • Low frustration tolerance
    Learners are overwhelmed by circumstances and they find the situation unfair and intolerable and can't get past these negative emotions.
  • Shame/Guilt
    Learners may feel so bad about not working that they end up marinating in this guilt instead of getting to work, further exacerbating this sense of guilt or shame.

Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow

Since procrastination is an intrinsic human characteristic and a predictor of dropping out or failing to complete an online course, it is important that we address procrastination in how we design our courses and how we prepare instructors to teach these courses. It's also critical that we make students aware of how to overcome the tendency to procrastinate. The remainder of this post spells out how we might do so.

For Course Designers

  • Include a unit on procrastination
    I’ve recently begun to build in information for online learners in courses I design in order to make learners aware of what it is, why they procrastinate and the challenge procrastination poses to success in online learning. For those so inclined, and more skilled in this area than I, part of such a unit could include mindfulness activities—adaptive, present-focused, time orientation activities to reduce negative feelings associated with the coursework.
  • Design shorter timelines and tasks with sub-components
    Online courses that are too open (with few deadlines and big, monolithic assignments) invite procrastination because the sheer ambition of assignments, coupled with the lack of structure almost drives learners to fall behind. As course designers, we can set shorter timelines and break up big projects into sub-tasks to provide the learner with more structure and make activities less overwhelming. However, as online instructors, we have to keep to these deadlines. If learners see there is no consequence for turning in a late assignment, many will again procrastinate.
  • Design projects
    We tend to procrastinate when faced with tasks we consider boring or lacking relevance. Thus, courses could include a real-world project conducted on and offline that taps into learners’ professional aspirations or interests. We could easily sacrifice a few readings, online quizzes or animations to a well-designed, interesting project.
  • Design more pair-and group-activities
    Procrastination is amplified by online learners working alone. Course activities should organize online learners into teams or pairs, with defined roles and responsibilities so that team members need one another to complete tasks so that they are interacting on a regular basis. We may be less likely to procrastinate if we think we would be disappointing our online colleagues.

For Course Instructors

  • Offer praise and encouragement
    Online instructors should point out the good work of learners. This encouragement can incentivize learners to complete online activities on time and it helps to build self-confidence and self-efficacy.
  • Offer reassurance
    Many online learners, especially those new to online courses, may suffer from the anxiety that comes with working alone, working at a distance, and working via technology. It is important as an instructor to communicate confidence and reassurance to students and a belief in their efficacy.
  • Offer weekly online office hours
    Offer weekly office hours via chat, VoIP, video or phone calls. In doing so learners know they are not alone and that there is a mechanism for getting help when needed.
  • Check in on non-performing students
    It’s important to stop procrastination before online learners dig themselves into such a deep hole that they'll never escape.

For Online Learners

  • Realize that we are procrastinating and why we’re doing it
    Recognize we are delaying something unnecessarily and think through the motivations for failure to act. We need to discover the real reasons we are procrastinating so we can address these negative feelings and begin our course-related task.
  • Use positive self-talk
    Tell yourself, “This isn't so hard, it won't take long, and I am sure that I know how to do it, or that I can learn while I'm doing it.” Procrastination is often fear of doing a poor job, so telling ourselves that what we do is good enough makes the tasks look small and easy in our mind.
  • Just start
    Once we start, the task gets so much easier. Researchers discovered that not long after people start actually working out what they didn’t like, that neuro-discomfort disappeared.
  • Modify our environment
    If we can’t work at home, find a place where we can work (“a room of one’s own”), like a café, our offices after work, or home after everyone has gone to bed.
  • Focus on improving our time management skills
    Read here for 13 ways to do this.
  • Make our distractions harder to access
    Turn off the internet for parts of the course, leave your phone at home, work in a library versus a café.
  • Deal with anger/resentment
    We may be angry that we’ve been given a hard assignment, but if we don’t do it, this will hurt us. So, let’s not hurt ourselves—let’s get started!
  • Keep working
    Research also shows that the better we get at something, the more enjoyable it can become.
  • Get help from colleagues who help us develop a schedule, feel confident, etc. Use our online or offline “classmates” as a support/study partner.
  • Use time-management techniques
    Set a timer for 15 minutes, so that you work in 15-minute increments. After each set of increments, give yourself a break or reward. The "Pomodoro Technique" (Cocorillo, n.d.) offers the following 6 steps for task completion.

The Pomodoro Technique

  1. Decide on the task to be done.
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes). Work on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down so you can attend to it later, but immediately get back on task.
  3. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  4. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 1 and repeat.
  5. After four Pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step one.
  6. Continue as long as you have time available (Cocorillo, n.d.).

After All, Tomorrow Is Another Day

We cannot eliminate the tendency to procrastinate but we can design courses to minimize it. We can prepare online instructors to recognize and address procrastination. Most importantly, we can help online learners recognize that procrastination is a common and pervasive human characteristic that they can manage with cognitive and behavioral strategies and social supports. And once they finish that online course, they’ll have lots of time to catch up on those old movies!

The section headings are taken verbatim from (in order): Benjamin Franklin, the musical “Annie,” "Macbeth," and “Gone with the Wind.”


  • Cocirillo, F. (n.d.). Do More and Have Fun with Time Management. Retrieved from https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique
  • Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2HWzAg2
  • Sirois, F., & Pychyl, T. (2013) Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7 (2). 115 - 127. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12011