Online Procrastination: How to Stop Procrastinating on Digital Devices and the Internet

Online procrastination occurs when people unnecessarily postpone something they should be doing, by instead doing something else on a digital device (e.g., a computer or phone), often while also using the internet. For example, if a student should be doing their homework, but instead browses social media on their smartphone, then that student is engaging in online procrastination.

Online procrastination—and specific forms of it—are referred to using various terms in different contexts, including e-procrastination, digital procrastination, computer procrastinationphone procrastination, internet procrastination, social media procrastination, cyberslacking, and cyberloafing.

Online procrastination can lead to various issues, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about online procrastination, understand what causes it, and see what you can do to avoid it.


Examples of online procrastination

People can engage in online procrastination in many different ways, such as:

  • Browsing social media.
  • Chatting with other people.
  • Shopping online.
  • Playing video games.
  • Reading blogs or news websites.
  • Watching movies or shows.

People can use various digital devices to do this, such as their computer, smartphone, tablet, or TV.

In addition, people can engage in online procrastination while postponing various types of tasks. For example:

Furthermore, people sometimes procrastinate online by doing things that are beneficial, even if they’re not the things that they should be doing at that moment, in which case their behavior is also considered a form of productive procrastination. For example, this can occur if someone replies to emails when they should be working on an urgent and important report.


Online vs. offline procrastination

Offline procrastination occurs when people unnecessarily postpone something they should be doing, by instead doing something else (e.g., napping or cooking), without using a digital device. As such, the difference between offline and online procrastination is that offline procrastination doesn’t involve using digital devices, whereas online procrastination does.

More specifically, for behavior to be considered online procrastination, it should generally involve interaction with a digital device as a key component. Accordingly, behaviors that only involve a digital device in a secondary manner (e.g., using an oven while cooking or taking a picture while partying) would generally be considered as offline procrastination instead.

However, there is substantial similarity in how people procrastinate online and offline. For example, people can procrastinate by reading content and engaging in social activities both online and offline. Furthermore, both online and offline procrastination can be driven by similar causes, such as anxiety and abstract goals, and can lead to similar issues, such as worse academic performance and increased stress.


Dangers of online procrastination

Online procrastination can lead to various issues, including worse academic performance, worse financial status, worse emotional wellbeing, worse mental health, worse physical health, and delay in getting treatment for one’s issues.

The specific issues that procrastination leads to depend on factors such as when and how people engage in this behavior. For example, if someone engages in online procrastination to delay working on academic assignments, then that can lead to issues such as failing a class, whereas if they procrastinate on workplace assignments, then that can lead to issues such as getting fired. Nevertheless, in both cases, the procrastination can also lead to issues such as increased stress.

However, it’s important to note that online procrastination, which is very common, doesn’t necessarily lead to substantial negative outcomes. Rather, its effects can also be minor or inconsequential, for example if someone only procrastinates occasionally and for short periods of time, so they still manage to complete all their tasks on time, without suffering from stress.

Furthermore, just because someone is engaging with digital devices, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily procrastinating, or are necessarily engaging in other problematic behaviors. Rather, people can use digital devices for many positive purposes, for example when they use social media to strengthen relationships, browse educational websites to learn new things, or play video games to relax after a hard day of work. As such, while you should be aware of the dangers of online procrastination, you should also keep in mind that this behavior isn’t always harmful, and that engaging with digital devices isn’t inherently bad.


Causes of online procrastination

Broadly, there are two main reasons why people procrastinate online:

  • Something pushes them to procrastinate in general, and they do it online. For example, this can happen when someone wants to avoid dealing with a task that’s unpleasant, boring, or frustrating, so they turn to digital entertainment instead. Similarly, this can happen when someone wants to improve their mood or escape reality, so they turn to digital entertainment (e.g., watching videos) when they should be doing something else (e.g., getting ready for bed).
  • Something online pushes them to procrastinate. For example, this can happen when a student keeps getting distracted by constant phone notifications, so they delay studying for a test. Similarly, this can happen when someone gets caught up in posting on social media, so they forget to do the work that they should be doing.

Essentially, this means that procrastination can drive people to go online (i.e., engage with digital devices), and that digital devices can also cause people to procrastinate. Different people under different circumstances may be driven to online procrastination by a combination of these two mechanisms, or by just one of them.

In addition, there are several aspects of digital devices and services that make people predisposed to online procrastination:

  • Digital devices are generally constantly available and immediately accessible. For example, many people have a smartphone that they take with them almost everywhere, use constantly throughout the day, and can access immediately.
  • People’s work often involves using digital devices. This gets them in the habit of using digital devices often, and it also means that they’re in close proximity to digital distractions while working. For example, if a student is writing a paper on their computer and needs internet access to do research, this generally means that they’re only a click away from digital distractions such as social media, as is someone who needs to use the internet for their job.
  • Constant engagement with digital services can lead people to form problematic habits. For example, this can happen when people get so used to checking their favorite app, that they automatically do so as soon as they open their phone, even though this does them more harm than good. This issue is particularly likely to occur once people establish a strong association between some cue and an associated action on a digital device, such as opening a website whenever they sit in front of their computer (an external cue) or whenever they feel bored (an internal cue). In extreme cases, people can even develop an addiction to specific digital devices or services, such as their smartphone, the internet, or social media.
  • Digital services are often designed to draw people’s attention and engagement. For example, many apps use notifications, updates, and messages that are intentionally designed to get people to engage with them constantly, even when this is to people’s detriment.
  • Digital devices often offer opportunities to engage with things that are less cognitively demanding than what people should be doing. For example, it’s generally much easier to passively stare at the screen while watching a show than it is to study for a test. This can further make online procrastination more appealing than doing necessary things.

Various other issues can cause people to procrastinate online, such as the fear of missing out, which can prompt them to obsessively check social media when they should be doing other things. Furthermore, many issues that cause procrastination in general, such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD, can also lead people to procrastinate online.

Because of all these issues, even though online procrastination can involve some short-term gratification, it often feels like a guilty pleasure, in the sense that people enjoy it but feel bad about it at the same time. Furthermore, the negative emotions that are sometimes associated with online procrastination, such as guilt and shame, can be more powerful overall than any positive emotions that the procrastination leads to. Nevertheless, the issues that cause online procrastination can lead people to continue engaging in this behavior even though they don’t really enjoy it, and even though they would rather stop procrastinating.

Finally, all these issues can also lead people to form problematic procrastination cycles. For example, this can happen when procrastinating online on a task makes them feel bad about it, which causes them to keep procrastinating online as a way to avoid dealing with the task, which makes them feel worse about the task, which causes them to keep procrastinating.

In summary, people engage in online procrastination because they’re driven to procrastination and something causes them to do it online, or because something online causes them to procrastinate. There are various aspects of digital devices and services that can make people predisposed to procrastination, including that they’re often constantly available, immediately accessible, and designed to draw people’s attention. In addition, various other types of issues can cause people to procrastinate online, including problematic habits, the fear of missing out, ADHD, and depression.


Solutions to online procrastination

To stop procrastinating online, you should first figure out when and how you engage in this behavior, and what’s causing you to do so. Once you understand the nature of your procrastination problem, you can move on to identifying and using the most relevant anti-procrastination techniques in your particular situation, such as the following:

  • Limit access to digital distractions. For example, you can block your access to distracting apps and websites using dedicated tools, turn off the internet access on your computer, leave your phone in a different room than the one you’re working in, or go somewhere where you can’t access the distractions (e.g., the library if you’re trying to avoid your TV).
  • Minimize the cues that prompt you to go online. For example, you can put your phone on mute so you won’t hear new notifications, or disable notifications entirely. Similarly, you can put the icons to your favorite apps in a hidden folder, so you won’t see them each time you open your phone.
  • Make it harder to engage with digital distractions. For example, you can log out of your favorite app or website each time you use it, so that if you want to engage with it you have to go through the trouble of logging back in.
  • Add a time delay before you procrastinate. If you can’t avoid procrastinating entirely, try committing to having a time delay before you indulge your impulse to do so. For example, this can involve counting to 10 before you’re allowed to open a new tab on the social media website that you usually use to procrastinate.

In addition, you can also use other anti-procrastination techniques, which can help with procrastination in general, and which might therefore also help with online procrastination:

  • Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on the project”, set a concrete goal, such as “work on the project today between 7–8 and finish the outline”.
  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as writing a research paper, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, finding relevant resources, and writing the introduction.
  • Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to writing only a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft.
  • Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and can’t make progress, switch to a different task until you’re ready to go back to the first one.
  • Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
  • Improve your social-support network. For example, you can find a role model to imitate or an authority figure to hold you accountable, or you can associate with people who motivate you to make progress while minimizing your contact with people who make you feel stressed. Note that if you’re trying to avoid spending too much time online and on social media, then it can be particularly beneficial to focus on building a social-support network that’s available offline.
  • Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest might reduce your productivity in the short term, it will generally be much better for you in the long term, in terms of both your productivity and wellbeing.
  • Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re worried about getting negative feedback from someone who isn’t really important, you can tell yourself that their feedback doesn’t matter.
  • Deal with underlying issues. If your procrastination is the result of a serious underlying issue, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD, deal with that issue, using professional help if necessary. This will help you both with procrastination, as well as with the underlying issue itself.
  • Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.
  • Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassionself-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.

When figuring out which anti-procrastination techniques to use and how to use them, you might benefit from considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation, since doing so can often help see things more clearly than when considering directly what’s best for yourself.

In addition, you might benefit from writing things down, for example when it comes to your goals, tasks, or plan of action. Doing this can help you think through the situation more clearly, remember your reasoning, and make everything that you decide feel more concrete, all of which can be beneficial in reducing procrastination.

Finally, note that you can use a similar approach to help someone else deal with their procrastination. For example, if you’re a parent looking to help your child, you can sit with them to figure out what’s causing them to procrastinate, and then help them pick and implement relevant anti-procrastination techniques.

In summary, to deal with online procrastination, you should first figure out when and how you engage in it, and why you do so. Then, you should identify and use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as limiting your access to digital distractions, minimizing the cues that prompt you to go online, breaking your work into manageable steps, and setting concrete goals.