Procrastination is one of the most common problems I talk about with students. Online learners tend to have very busy schedules because they manage multiple roles (i.e. parents, students, employees), which is usually why they choose online coursework in the first place. If anything, many online learners are excellent at self-management – they work throughout the day, prepare dinner for the family, and still manage to write 5-7 page paper before they go to bed. It is not uncommon, however, to encounter a number of students who need help with overcoming the habit of putting things off for tomorrow (Latin roots: pro = “forward” + crastinus = “tomorrow”)

So what does procrastination look like? Procrastination may take the following forms:

– Distraction           – Indecision                – Misjudgment          – Fear/Anxiety

– “Busyness”            – Confusion                 – Avoidance              – Apathy/Hopelessness

When students are distracted, they get derailed into spending time on other things. They can be perpetually busy yet unproductive because they don’t prioritize tasks. Perhaps they are indecisive about where to start first or they are confused about what to do. Students who are fearful or anxious of certain tasks (e.g. presentations, tests, writing) may learn to cope with such feelings by spending time on pleasurable activities instead, avoiding the task at hand. Misjudgments regarding the length of time required to complete an assignment can also lead one to procrastinate. If apathy is the culprit, perhaps there are more serious matters in one’s life that make school look unimportant or the student does not have the confidence to succeed and is therefore feeling hopeless.

Clarry Lay, professor Emeritus at York University, specializes in counseling procrastinators. He reinforces the basic premise that “Nothing beats the timely pursuit of one’s intentions. It is the measure of success in life” (Lay, 2004, p. 43).

“Nothing beats the timely pursuit of one’s intentions. It is the measure of success in life.”
Lay believes the timely pursuit of one’s intentions is the most important indicator of success; more so than performance, prestige, and even grades. These are all secondary to one’s commitment to prompt action.

Those who achieve good grades despite their procrastination may find this idea a bit threatening because they are thus far, by definition, unsuccessful regardless of other measures of success. On the other hand, some procrastinators find this idea encouraging because success is defined in such a simple and achievable way. That the most basic sense of achievement is the timely pursuit of one’s intentions offers hope because it frames the problem of procrastination in way that can be changed readily.

Lay’s (2004) fundamental tenet gets students thinking about their sense of obligation to pursue their intentions. Procrastinators tend to pursue their wants instead of their needs; they demonstrate a discrepancy between their intentions to get things done and their actual behavior, especially when tasks are complex. For this reason, complex tasks may be best thought of as a series of simpler activities, which can (a) help students avoid feeling overwhelmed; and (b) break down activities into “doable” actions. Therefore, conversations regarding procrastination should be about outlining specific actions that will fulfill one’s intentions. The more detailed the plan (what, where, when, and how), the better.

Lay offers some basic reminders to help students beat procrastination

  • Intentions should override your temporary mood
  • Don’t overestimate the unpleasantness of a task
  • Work on the task at any level, but try to start with the simplest level first
  • Focus on one task at a time

Oftentimes, procrastination affects more than just academics, touching multiple areas of one’s life. Recognizing procrastination as a personal pattern can help students move forward in other areas of life. Walker (2004) proposed the following styles of procrastination:

  1. The Perfectionist
  2. The Postponer
  3. The Politician
  4. The Punisher

The Perfectionist constantly worries about performing at the highest level. Virtually every task is a reflection of their identity and so they may feel dissatisfied even when they are, by all conventional standards, successful. They tell themselves they should  be capable of more and they tend to be fearful of failure or they doubt their own ability to achieve something if it is anything less than perfect. Advisors can help perfectionists by challenging their irrational thinking.

The Postponer manages time poorly because these types live in the here and now, often choosing fun over responsibility. Avoiding difficulty is also important in maintaining their sense of achievement. Self-direction and self-responsibility are not qualities inherent to the Postponer and therefore, this type of student benefits from more direction, guidance, and accountability. Putting a structure in place to help the Postponer stay on track is vital to success.

The Politician is a people pleaser who is concerned with maintaining social relationships. This type of procrastinator tends to be overly concerned with the opinions of others, which makes him/her particularly sensitive to feedback, criticism, and any form of disapproval. Consequently, they are more concerned about others’ time and not their own. They are afraid to say no to invitations to social events and have difficulty setting appropriate boundaries because they don’t want to let others down. Exploring strategies to achieve balance can be useful for the Politician.

The Punisher is self-critical and low on confidence, often accentuating past failures while minimizing the hope of future success. As the “negative-nelly” of the group, punishers tend to have an external locus of control and do not believe they can influence outcomes. Their tendency to beat themselves up leads to a sense of apathy or hopelessness that can be difficult to remedy. Bolstering confidence is vital to helping this type of procrastinator.

Understanding procrastination is important to helping students make positive changes in their academic lifestyle. Advisors can facilitate change by recognizing the styles of procrastination students exhibit and co-creating an action plan to help students stay on track.

“In delay there lies no plenty” – Shakespeare



Lay, C. H. (2004). Some basic elements in counseling procrastinators. In Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (Eds.) Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (pp. 43-58). Washington DC: American Psychological Association

Walker, L. J. S. (2004). Overcoming the patterns of powerlessness that lead to procrastination. In Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (Eds.) Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (pp. 75-90). Washington DC: American Psychological Association