Procrastination is a trap many learners fall into. How can you offer useful strategies that help them keep on task?

We all know the feeling: faced with a task that seems unpleasant, difficult, or seemingly unachievable, who among us hasn’t found excuses to put it off till later? In some cases, the task can be as trivial as making a phone call to schedule a dentist appointment, or it can be a recurring challenge, like getting in regular exercise. It can even be a life-long goal or a project we are deeply invested in. Yet somehow, big or small, easy or difficult, loathed or loved, procrastination gets in the way.

According to Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” His research indicates that some 20% of adults in the United States are chronic procrastinators. This indicates a much more serious problem than something that can be remedied by simply telling someone to “buckle down and get it done.”

As an educator, learner procrastination will have a direct impact on your success. Learners who struggle with procrastination are more likely to burn out, leave the course incomplete, and not sign up for more. However by offering your learners effective strategies (and structuring your course in a way that encourages them), you can do a lot to help your learners overcome procrastination.

1. Identify the cause.

Procrastinators aren’t lazy. And, contrary to what you might expect, they aren’t even unmotivated. Often, their internal motivation is at war with some other factor, with leads to the characteristic indecision of a procrastinator. A person who misidentifies the reasons behind their procrastination can make the task more difficult, especially if it causes them to feel guilty.

For instance, a procrastinator might be afraid of failure, which is why they’re putting off working on a beloved project. They may be overcome by self-doubt, in which case they need to focus on past successes. Or they may be avoiding a painful decision that may lead to personal sacrifice on their end. Putting a name to the cause can help a procrastinator realize that the thing they’re worried about is not so insurmountable after all, and that they’ve been making a mountain out of a mole hill.

2. Focus on a motivator.

As we said before, procrastination isn’t as simple as a lack of motivation. However, choosing a motivator—or refocusing on the original motivator—can help a learner regain enough energy to start working on their task.

How could you remind a learner of their motivations? For one, you could ask a learner to write down their big motivation at the beginning of a course and then send them an email reminding them of it if they don’t log in for a few days. Or you might send a learner an email suggesting they think about a short-term motivation that they can look forward to as a reward after they finish that day’s tasks.

3. Prioritize tasks.

Sometimes, procrastination takes the form of focusing on inconsequential tasks instead of the larger, more challenging, and more important tasks on hand. This false productivity can leave a learner feeling exhausted yet still unsatisfied, because they biggest task has been left for last.

Help your learners avoid this problem by establishing clear priorities. Keep “extra credit” assignments for after they’ve done the most important work.

4. Reduce the to-do list.

Another procrastination trigger is if a learner is faced with a long to-do list with a lot of tasks that all have to get done, but no single task that jumps out. Helping learners reduce their to-do list can give them the momentum they need to move ahead with their other tasks.

To reduce an overly long to-do list, begin by removing tasks that aren’t urgent. If they’re still important tasks, move them to a list to be handled later. Then, look at the remaining tasks and identify the “easy wins.” These aren’t trivial tasks like we discussed above, but important tasks that can be handled rapidly within a few minutes. With minor tasks out of the way, your learners will have their plates cleared to concentrate on the bigger tasks.

5. Ditch the down-to-the-minute schedule.

Procrastination is usually the result of stress, and unfortunately, additional stress can only exacerbate the problem. Some learners, when stressed, resort to intense scheduling that keeps them occupied down to the last minute. These schedules are almost certain to backfire by causing a learner to feel more panicked about their workload.

Instead, encourage your learners to ditch the overly rigid schedule, and instead plan in flexible time. This will also help them be more reasonable about what they can accomplish.

6. Break the workload into manageable chunks.

Procrastinators sometimes fall victim to a boom and bust cycle, where they become intensely active for a short period of time, then burn out, and then feel resistance in starting their workload again because they’re mentally comparing it to their previous boom cycle.

Help your learners set a more sustainable pace by drip-feeding content. The more a learner becomes used to a consistent and achievable workload, the less they’ll feel tempted to put it off.

7. Take an intentional break.

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes your learners just need a break. The key here is what kind of break they’re taking. Many procrastinators squander their break time by scrolling through Facebook or reading clickbait articles online. The problem is that they aren’t refreshed by this content. Instead, they often leave feeling more discouraged than ever.

Encourage your learners to be thoughtful about their breaks. Have them plan time to get up and take a walk, prepare a meal, or read a book. This focus on sustaining relaxation can help break them out of a rut and help them jump back into work when their break is finished.

8. Ask for help.

Finally, make sure your learners have somewhere to turn if they’re really facing difficulties. Create a thread in your forum where learners can share when they’re struggling and ask for progress check-ins. Let them know you aren’t judging them harshly, and offer resources to help them to keep going. You may find that changing your learner’s mental attitude about procrastination is the key to guiding them past it.

Excess procrastination is the first step toward learner burnout. Support them early, and you can retain them for the long haul.

Putting it bluntly, your course can’t afford to have 20% of enrollees burning out due to chronic procrastination. And that doesn’t even account for the more routine, non-chronic procrastination most of us face every day. The good news is that your learners don’t have to remain helpless in the face of mounting workloads—and you can be there to provide assistance.

And remember: procrastination is probably something you face, too. If you’re struggling to create course materials, set up your marketing initiatives, or respond to learners, it may be time to try some of these tips yourself. 🙂

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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