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Procrastination in the Age of Online Learning

We’ve all done it before: we see a reasonable deadline, weeks or months into the future, and follow it up with a casual shrug of Oh, I can do that later. Plenty of time. But months become weeks, and weeks become days, and before you know it, time has utterly slipped through your fingers and you’re scrambling to hold on to its vestiges.

To most of us, this scenario is all too familiar, and its unique horror can be summarized by that likewise all-too-familiar word: procrastination. I, for one, am well-acquainted with the dreaded P word. I am a procrastinator, procrastinating; I procrastinated on this, will procrastinate on that. Procrastination. The cause of endless late nights, hasty, sloppy work, 11:59 p.m. submissions, and false promises to myself of Never again. Procrastination. That creeping, subtle evil that I curse and rage against, except I really have no one to blame but myself.

Procrastination in the Age of Online Learning

So Why Do We Procrastinate?

Ah, the age-old question. If only there was a suitably age-old answer — but unfortunately, there is not. The easy explanation seems to be that we’re just lazy, lacking self-control, and so on and so forth — but that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the issue. At the heart of it all, procrastination is simply an unfortunate and unavoidable natural consequence of thousands of years of evolution. Back when survival of the fittest ruled and our prehistoric ancestors were fighting off bears and hunting deer, having long-term goals wasn’t exactly the first priority.

As a species, we’re optimized to think short-term over long-term, so when it comes to writing a term paper due in four months versus reorganizing the bookshelf for the nth time, the immediate gratification of the bookshelf option makes it a lot more appealing. This is the present bias at work; when the “reward” of a task is so far off in the future, or when the things we need to do are too abstract, we naturally feel unmotivated and discouraged. In fact, on the neurological level, research shows that we feel mentally disconnected from our future selves, as though they are a stranger to whom we owe no responsibility, rather than our own selves. In other words, why should Present Me do all this hard work when it’s Future Me who gets to reap all the rewards?

To make things worse, present bias is not the only evolutionary holdover that hinders our attempts to get work done. Our amygdala — the “threat detector” part of our brain — is highly sensitive to our emotional state. When we’re faced with a task that gives us a visceral emotional reaction of anxiety, stress, or insecurity, the amygdala perceives the task as a real threat, and our brain immediately prioritizes removing the “threat” to our person. Even if we’re aware, intellectually, that shutting our textbooks closed and opening YouTube in no way means we have actually removed the threat that is next week’s calculus test, our amygdala is a far more primal part of our brain that is incredibly difficult to argue with.

But while procrastination, up until now, is something we have all learned to deal with — insofar as we’re forced to deal with it, or else face the very real consequences — a new player has entered the game, and a game-changer it is. Thanks to a pandemic and a world in quarantine, students across the world must all simultaneously try to stave off procrastination, now in a very different educational setting: the virtual world of online learning.

Procrastination in the Age of Online Learning

Procrastination, but Bigger and (Not) Better

Although modern technology has been fully capable, for years, of replacing in-person schooling with online schooling, this has not caught on for a very simple reason: no one, from students to professors to administration, enjoys it. Of course, I’m exaggerating a little when I say “no one” — there are exceptions to every rule — but for the most part, online school is something done out of necessity and necessity alone.

This brings us to the present situation, with high schools and universities around the world closing down their lecture halls and opening up their online platforms. We now know the root causes of procrastination — short-term thinking and negative-emotion avoidance. So what will this mean for the procrastinator inside all of us when our education is relegated to a 14-inch screen rather than a campus?

Well, in short… it likely means something very not good.

It’s already difficult enough to force ourselves to think long term, to think rationally about our work and what’s required of us. With in-person school, at least, those abstract goals were paired with instructors you saw every day, who reminded you to do this or to do that. Tests and exams were tangible events we had to look forward to, and report cards and graduation diplomas were real pieces of paper. Now, instructors, tests, and report cards are all just pixels on a screen. There are very few ways to get more abstract than that.

Rewards, too, feel further away than they’ve ever been. Where is the reward in attending Zoom lecture after Zoom lecture and watching pre-recorded video after video? No longer can you receive a returned assignment with that euphoric 100% in red pen, or an essay with Excellent work! scrawled on the front. There is even less incentive than there was before for our present selves to toil away, reading and studying, when the rewards for our future selves feel so pathetically meagre.

As for negative emotions, our current environment — online learning, paired with over half a year of pandemic-induced lockdown, to the backdrop of a historic and deadly pandemic — is just about the perfect breeding ground for every upsetting emotion under the sun. Where to begin? School is already a mentally-exacting burden, but now, it’s compounded by added anxieties surrounding COVID-19, the health of friends and family, the alarming headlines every day on the news, and worries over personal finances. Additionally, we’re deprived of the social life and human contact that is the backbone of the classic positive student experience.

Online school can also be overwhelming. There are so many online platforms out there, and there seems to be no coordination between classes and professors. Here in Canada, we have Zoom, MS Teams, WebEx, Echo360, MindTap, PeerWise, and so, so many more to keep track of. Is that group assignment posted on MS Teams, or MindTap? Was it Chemistry that has quizzes due at 6 p.m. Thursday, or was that Psychology?

And when our amygdala, in the face of all this, decides to say nope —well, skipping class is now as simple as clicking a little red X, and whether you’re doing readings, watching lectures, or writing assignments and papers, distractions are always only a tab away. The entirety of the Internet is just a stray thought away. Self-discipline is so much harder, and the boundary between home life and relaxation — versus school and work — suddenly feels so much thinner, both aspects of life being forced together until the “work-life balance” no longer exists. With online learning, we’re now playing on procrastination’s home ground — and that’s a very scary thought.

Procrastination in the Age of Online Learning

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This article may seem all doom and gloom, almost like an additional blow to one’s academic motivation — but I promise that this was not the intent of this article! In writing about how online learning can exacerbate habits of procrastination, I wanted to shed light on not just procrastination itself — a misunderstood, perennial affliction of far more impact than it’s given credit for — but also on how it is at the core of this offshoot plight plaguing online learners across the world. In a broader sense, issues like these show that the true extent of the pandemic’s repercussions are far, far more manifold than anyone could have ever predicted.

If I ever step foot back on campus again, I think I’ll appreciate those dreary lecture halls a lot more now.

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Procrastination in the Age of Online Learning