Procrastination is a leading cause of poor academic outcomes at all levels, from elementary all the way up to graduate school.  All of us are guilty of it at some level — research indicates that as many as 20% of people are chronic procrastinators (Harriot & Ferrari, 1996).  The fact is, procrastination feels good in the moment. 

Procrastination describes a self-regulation failure in which individuals give in to distracting, short-term temptations (Meier et al., 2016), such as reading their Instagram feed, in place of procrastinated tasks (…writing a dissertation??).  The distracting task typically provides a sense of immediate relief or gratification, while the procrastinated task is viewed as stressful, boring, or frustrating (Pychyl et al., 2000).

Online learners are particularly prone to procrastination (Deimann & Bastiaens, 2010; Tani, 2017), which may be due to a lack of external accountability forces.  According to Hall and Ferris (2011), accountability describes the perception that our actions will be judged by others and result in rewards or sanctions.  When individuals are accountable, “they are held answerable for their behaviors” (Hall et al., 2017).  We’re typically held accountable for our actions by others (bosses, professors, parents, etc.), who impose sanctions or rewards based on our behaviors or performance. In an effort to avoid sanctions and to gain the approval of others, we are more likely to perform tasks we don’t necessarily want to do. 

And so, with outside accountability, we are less likely to procrastinate.

Imagine you’re attending a brick-and-mortar school and your professor assigns a mind-numbingly boring article, which will be discussed during the next class meeting.  Despite your complete disinterest in this article, you get through it, highlighting passages and making notes, because you want to be prepared for class.  You’re being held accountable by your instructor and your classmates.  You know if you’re called on and you’re not prepared, you’ll look like a slacker and that will subject you to negative evaluations by your instructor and classmates.  In addition, failure to complete the reading assignment could result in sanctions (a poor grade) by your instructor.  Thus, despite the allure of distractions, you stay focused and complete your assignment.

But what happens if you’re an online learner?  While poor preparation (for example, failure to complete an assignment) may still result in sanctions (getting a zero on the assignment), social accountability is far less present. 

When you’re an online learner, you’re more prone to procrastination because external sources of accountability, whether real or perceived, are lower.

As Ucar and Bozkurt (2019) explained, online learners are more vulnerable to procrastination because they’re more responsible for their progress than learners in face-to-face settings.  For this reason, online learners must engage in more self-regulation than those in traditional settings.  As Meier et al. (2016) explained,

Procrastination is particularly prevalent among university students who typically face complex tasks in self-directed learning settings that leave a lot of leeway for “slacking” and irrational delay. (p. 67)

The bigger and more distant a goal is, the more likely we are to procrastinate.  Individuals working toward long-term goals, such as completing a dissertation, are more likely to procrastinate because progress may not provide immediate, short-term gratification. 

While procrastination produces momentary satisfaction, it not only moves us further from our goals, but can also undermine our self-esteem and overall well-being.  Procrastination often leads to feelings of guilt, anxiety, rumination, and negative self-evaluations (Kim et al., 2015; Sirois & Kitner, 2015).  As if we didn’t already have enough on our plates!

But there’s good news…

Despite the mountain of evidence that online learners struggle with procrastination, there’s also plenty of research indicating we can teach ourselves to overcome these behaviors (Eckert et al., 2016; Otermin-Cristeta & Hautzinger, 2018; Visser et al., 2017).  Procrastination is an issue of self-control, and because these behaviors can become very habitual and ingrained, we need to implement intentional strategies to retrain our brains.

A metaanalysis by van Eerde and Klingsieck (2018) revealed four main categories of procrastination interventions: (a) self-regulation, (b) cognitive behavioral therapy, (c) paradoxical interventions, coherence, therapy, and acceptance therapy, and (d) strategies that focus on individuals’ strengths.  Because I want to arm you with some immediate strategies that you can implement today, on your own, this article focuses on self-regulation strategies and those that celebrate your strengths.

Self-regulation strategies focus on managing internal and external resources, such as your emotions, volitions, motivation, social support, and time.  You can improve your self-regulation through self-reflection, monitoring your own activities, controlling or eliminating outside distractions, motivating yourself, engaging in time-management, and regulating your emotions.  Time-management is a self-regulation strategy that can be particularly effective for addressing procrastination, but you may need to also address any emotional issues that are a root cause of the behaviors (such as anxiety or fear of failure). 

To select targeted self-regulation strategies, you must first identify areas where you struggle.  Think about your procrastinating behaviors — what are they, and how are they triggered?  Do you tend to procrastinate by scrolling through Facebook, or do you just jump from one project to the next when you get bored?  Are you an emotional eater who mindlessly goes to the kitchen for snacks when you feel bored, stressed, or overwhelmed by tasks in front of you?  Do you procrastinate by preparing and eating food?  Do you struggle to establish boundaries with others so that they can’t become distractions? Get honest with yourself — nobody else has to know these things, but in order for you to overcome procrastination, you must understand what triggers your procrastination and what off-task behaviors you most often engage in.

Here are some great self-regulation strategies that you can employ to overcome procrastination:

The second group of strategies I want to mention are rising in popularity; these are interventions that focus on procrastinators’ strengths.  Traditionally, researchers use deficit-based approaches when developing interventions, focusing on weaknesses that contribute to problems and then coming up with strategies to overcome those weaknesses.  A strengths-based approach, however, focuses on the things you’re already great at!  Rather than looking at deficits (such as poor focus or self-regulation) that contribute to procrastination, you’d take stock of your personal strengths and leverage them to overcome procrastination behaviors.  Maybe you’re great at breaking down big tasks into smaller ones, creating schedules for yourself, or finding ways to reward yourself for progress toward your goals.  When self-regulation and strengths-based strategies are combined, you can kick procrastination to the curb.

As with anything related to retraining the way you think or behave, consistency is the key.  After you develop a plan of action, you must consistently implement it until the new, on-task behaviors effortlessly replace old behaviors of procrastination.  If you still need some help or outside accountability, check out the Dissertation Angels coaching program 🙂


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