The worst procrastinators probably won’t be able to read this story. It reminds them of what they’re trying to avoid, says psychologist Piers Steele.
Maybe they shuffled to the gym. Maybe they haven’t finished their New Year’s resolutions yet. Maybe they just need to wait another day to prepare for the test.
Procrastination is “putting off until later what you know you should be doing now,” even if it would be worse for you, says Steele of the University of Calgary in Canada. But all those tasks that have been pushed until tomorrow seem to be on the mind’s eye – and it could be taking a toll on people’s health.
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In a study of thousands of college students, scientists linked procrastination to a range of adverse outcomes, including depression, anxiety and even disabling arm pain. “When I saw that, I was surprised,” says Fred Johnson, a clinical psychologist at Sofia Hemmert University in Stockholm.His team on January 4 at JAMA Network Open.
The study is one of the largest to date addressing the relationship between procrastination and health. Its results echo findings from earlier studies that have been largely ignored, says Fuschia Sirois, a behavioral scientist at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He was not involved in the new study.
For years, she said, scientists didn’t seem to think that procrastination was a serious thing. This new study may change that. “The buzz … gets people’s attention,” Sirois said. “I hope it raises awareness of the effects of procrastination on physical health.”
Procrastination can be harmful to the mind and body
Whether procrastination is a health hazard seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem.
Johnson said it’s hard to tell whether certain health conditions make it easier to procrastinate — or vice versa. (Probably both.) Controlled experiments on procrastination aren’t easy: You can’t just tell study participants to become procrastinators and wait to see if their health changes, he says.
Many previous studies have relied on self-report surveys conducted at one point in time. But someone’s snapshot makes it tricky to untangle cause and effect. Instead, in the new study, about 3,500 students were followed for nine months so the researchers could track whether students who procrastinated later developed health problems.
On average, these students tended to perform worse over time than their cue-faster peers. Johansson and colleagues found slight increases in stress, anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation. “People who initially scored higher on procrastination … were at greater risk for later physical and psychological problems,” said Alexander Rosenthal, a clinical psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden and a co-author of the study. There is a relationship between the delay at a certain point in time and these negative outcomes later on.”
The study was observational, so the team can’t say with certainty that procrastination leads to poor health. But results from other researchers seem to point in that direction as well. A 2021 study linked bedtime procrastination to depression. A 2015 study from Sirois’ lab linked procrastination to poor heart health.
Data from Sirois’ lab and other studies suggest that stress may be to blame for procrastination. She argues that the effects of chronic procrastination accumulate over time. While procrastination itself may not cause disease, it could be “an additional factor that can turn things around,” Sirois said.
No, Procrastinators Are Not Lazy
It is estimated that approximately 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. Everyone can put off a task or two, but chronic procrastinators make it their way of life, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago who has studied procrastination for decades. “They do it at home, at school, at work and in their relationships.” These people “you know they’re going to be late to respond,” he said.
While procrastinators may think they perform better under pressure, Ferrari reports the opposite. His experiments showed that they actually worked slower and made more mistakes than non-procrastinators. Steel’s team last year at Frontiers in Psychology.
For years, researchers have focused on the personality traits of people who procrastinate. Findings vary, but some scientists suggest that procrastinators may be impulsive, anxious and have trouble regulating their emotions. Ferrari stresses that the one thing procrastinators don’t have is laziness. They’re actually “very busy doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said.
In fact, Rozental adds, most research today shows that procrastination is a behavioral pattern.
If procrastination is a behavior, it means you can change it, whether you’re impulsive or not, he said.
Why Procrastinators Should Be Kind to Themselves
When people put off a difficult task, they feel good — right in the moment.
Procrastination is a way to avoid negative emotions associated with a task, Sirois said. “We are wired to avoid anything painful or difficult,” she says. “When you procrastinate, you get immediate relief.” The context of a stressful environment — say, a global pandemic — can weaken people’s ability to cope, making it easier to procrastinate. But the relief it provided was only temporary, and many people found ways to stop the dilatory.
Researchers have experimented with procrastination therapy on everything from logistical to psychological. What works best is still being researched. Several scientists have reported success with time management interventions. But the evidence for this is “all over the place,” Sirois said. That’s because “poor time management is a symptom, not a cause of procrastination,” she adds.
For some procrastinators, seemingly obvious prompts may do the trick. In his clinical practice, Rozental advises students to put down their smartphones. Silent notifications or studying in the library instead of at home can eliminate distractions and keep people on task. But that’s not enough for many people, he said.
Stubborn procrastinators may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy. In a 2018 review of procrastination treatments, Rozental found that treatments that involved managing thoughts and emotions and attempting to change behavior seemed to be the most helpful. Still, not many studies have examined treatments, and there is room for improvement, he said.
Sirois also favors an emotion-focused approach. Procrastinators can get sucked into a shame spiral where they get upset about a task, put it off, feel ashamed for putting it off, and then feel worse than they started. People need to short that circuit, she said. Self-forgiveness may help, scientists suggested in a 2020 study. Mindfulness training can work too.
Mindfulness training eight times a week reduced procrastination in a small trial of college students, Sirois and colleagues reported in January Learning and Individual Differences. Students practice mindfulness of the body, meditate on unpleasant activities, and discuss the best ways to take care of themselves. A little self-compassion might get people out of trouble, Sirois said.
“You made a mistake and procrastinated. It’s not the end of the world,” she said. “What can you do to move forward?”