College students have a lot of freedom but little structure. This can be bad for habitual procrastinators. Studies have shown that as many as half of college students procrastinate to a degree that is potentially harmful to their education.
But that may not be the only negative result of putting things off until a later date. Studies have found a link between procrastination and poor health. It’s associated with higher levels of stress, unhealthy lifestyles, and delays in seeing a doctor for health concerns.
However, these studies – by the nature of their design – cannot tell us the direction of the relationship. Does procrastination cause poor physical and mental health because people, for example, put off starting a new exercise regimen or see a doctor about a health problem? Or is it the other way around? Does poor physical health, shall we say, lead people to procrastinate because they don’t have the energy to do the task now?
To try to solve this conundrum, we conducted a longitudinal study, which is a study that followed people over a period of time, taking measurements at various points in the study. We recruited 3,525 students from eight universities in and around Stockholm and asked them to fill out questionnaires every three months for one year.
Our study, published in JAMA Network Open, aimed to investigate whether students who procrastinate are at a higher risk of poor mental and physical health. Of the 3,525 students we recruited, 2,587 answered the follow-up questionnaire nine months later, where different health outcomes were measured.
To understand how procrastination relates to later health outcomes, students with a higher tendency to procrastinate (as rated on a procrastination scale) at study entry were compared with students with a lower tendency. The results showed that higher levels of procrastination were associated with slightly higher symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress nine months later.
Students with higher levels of procrastination were also more likely to report disabling shoulder or arm pain (or both), poorer sleep quality, more loneliness, and greater financial hardship. These associations remained even when we took into account other factors that might influence the association, such as age, gender, parental education level, and prior physical and psychiatric diagnoses.
While no specific health outcomes were strongly associated with procrastination, the findings suggest that procrastination may be important for a broad range of health outcomes, including mental health problems, disabling pain, and an unhealthy lifestyle.
As mentioned above, in previous studies, participants were only assessed at a certain point in time, making it difficult to know which of the conditions came first: procrastination or poor health. By having students answer questionnaires at different times, we could be sure that high levels of procrastination were present before measuring their health.
But it’s still possible that other factors not accounted for in our analysis could explain the associations between procrastination and subsequent poor health outcomes. Our results are not proof of cause and effect, but suggest this more strongly than previous “cross-sectional” studies.
It can be treated
There is good news for habitual procrastinators. Clinical trials (the gold standard of medical research) have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in reducing procrastination.
Treatment helps the person overcome procrastination by breaking down long-term goals into short-term goals, managing distractions (such as turning off cell phones), and staying focused on a task despite experiencing negative emotions.
This takes some effort, so it’s not something a person can do while trying to meet a specific deadline. But even small changes can have a big effect. You can try it yourself. Why not start today by leaving your mobile phone in another room when you need to stay focused on a task.