College students who routinely cram in at the last minute could not only see their grades suffer, but their health as well, suggests a new study.
The researchers found that out of more than 3,500 college students they followed up, those who scored high on a procrastination scale were more likely to report certain health problems nine months later. The list included body aches, poor sleep, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Experts said the findings don’t prove that procrastination, by itself, directly caused those problems, for example by delaying a doctor’s visit and allowing an irritating health problem to worsen.
But they reinforce that procrastination, when chronic, is a red flag.
“Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,” said Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago who has been studying the subject since the 1980s.
Foot dragging in doing taxes, or something equally unpleasant, is normal. Chronic procrastination is different, and it’s not just a benign personality quirk, said Ferrari, who was not involved in the new study.
When procrastination is a way of life — rearing your head at work, at home and in relationships — that’s a problem, Ferrari said.
It’s also common: In his research, Ferrari found that about 20 percent of adults qualify as chronic procrastinators, making it more prevalent than mental health disorders like depression and phobias.
And studies have suggested there are long-term health consequences: Chronic procrastination has been linked to higher risks of depression and anxiety, as well as physical conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease.
Ferrari said it may not be due to the procrastination itself, but the persistent stress and worries that come with it. Habitually choosing not to act is a maladaptive way of responding to life’s daily challenges.
The new study, published online Jan. 4 JAMA network open, focused on college students, a group particularly prone to procrastination, based on past research.
According to lead researcher Fred Johansson, of Sophiahemmet University in Stockholm, this could be related to the “freedom” that university students typically have. Their lives are relatively small in structure and deadlines are often far away, which, Johansson said, can leave plenty of room for procrastination.
His team wanted to see if students who ranked high on the procrastination scale were at a higher risk of subsequent mental or physical symptoms than their peers.
The researchers looked at data from 3,525 students at eight Swedish universities who were part of a larger health study. At the outset, the students were evaluated for symptoms of depression and anxiety, unhealthy lifestyle habits, and physical pain.
Three months later, they completed a standard procrastination questionnaire.
Overall, the study found that students at the high end of the procrastination scale were in worse shape nine months later. Compared with their peers who didn’t procrastinate, they reported more problems with depression and anxiety, as well as more upper body pain.
They also rated lower on sleep quality, exercised less and reported more loneliness than other students, the results showed.
Johansson said the links between procrastination and health problems were “pretty weak,” meaning they didn’t indicate a strong effect. But the connections held even when the researchers accounted for the students’ symptoms at the start of the study.
This suggests that this is not a case of ‘reverse causation’, where students with mental or physical health problems tended to put off work.
As for why procrastination would harm people’s health, Johansson agreed that stress could be an important reason. Chronic procrastinators may also fall short of “feel good behaviors,” she noted, such as, in this study, physical activity.
What makes someone a procrastinator? There’s no evidence it’s written in your genes, according to Ferrari. “It’s not, ‘I was born this way. That’s just the way I am,'” he said.
And this is good news. “Because it’s learned, you can also unlearn it,” Ferrari said.
However, change isn’t a simple matter of following a few time management tips, she added. A true chronic procrastinator will always find excuses to put things off.
“You have to change your way of thinking,” Ferrari advised. One of the underlying problems, she noted, is that chronic procrastinators have a self-focused, “me” rather than “we” mentality.
According to Ferrari, a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can help the chronic procrastinator address the roots of the problem.
Johansson agrees, noting that there is clinical evidence to support the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy.
“It takes some effort,” Johansson said, “so it’s not something you can do while trying to meet a specific deadline. But evidence suggests that procrastinators can change their behavior, too.”
Fred Johansson et al, Associations between procrastination and subsequent health outcomes among university students in Sweden, JAMA network open (2023). DOI: 10.1001/jamannetworkopen.2022.49346
Health Day 2023. All rights reserved.
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