College students have a lot of freedom but little structure. This can be bad for habitual procrastinators. Studies have shown that at least half of college students procrastinate to a level that is potentially harmful to their education.
But this may not be the only negative result of putting things off to a later date. Studies have found a link between procrastination and poor health. It is associated with higher levels of stress, unhealthy lifestyles, and delays in seeing a doctor for health problems.
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 seeing a doctor for a health problem?
Or is it the other way around? Does poor physical health, say, lead people to procrastinate because they don’t have the energy to do homework right now?
To try to solve this puzzle, we carried out a longitudinal study, that 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 complete questionnaires every three months for one year.
Our studypublished in JAMA Open Network, aimed to investigate whether students who procrastinate are at increased risk of poor mental and physical health. Of the 3,525 students we recruited, 2,587 responded to the follow-up questionnaire nine months later, where various health outcomes were measured.
To understand how procrastination is related to later health outcomes, students with a higher tendency to procrastinate (as scored on a procrastination scale) at the start of the study were compared with students with a lower tendency.
The results showed that higher levels of procrastination were associated with somewhat higher symptoms of depressionanxiety and stress nine months later.
Students with higher levels of procrastination were also more likely to report disabling pain in the shoulders or arms (or both), poorer sleep quality, more loneliness, and more financial hardship.
These associations held even when we took into account other factors that might affect the association, such as age, gender, parental education level, and previous physical and psychiatric diagnoses.
Although no specific health outcome was strongly associated with procrastination, the results suggest that procrastination may be important for a wide range of health outcomes, including mental health problems, disabling pain, and unhealthy lifestyle.
As mentioned above, in previous studies, participants were only assessed at one point in time, making it difficult to know which condition arose first: procrastination or poor health. By having the students answer questionnaires at various times, we could be sure that there were high levels of procrastination before measuring their health.
But it is still possible that other factors not accounted for in our analysis may explain the associations between procrastination and poorer health outcomes later. Our results are not proof of cause and effect, but they suggest it more strongly than previous ‘cross-sectional’ studies.
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 long-term goals into short-term ones, managing distractions (such as turning off cell phones), and concentrating on a task despite experiencing negative emotions.
This requires 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 focus on a task?
Eva SkillgateAssociate Professor, Epidemiology, Karolinska Institute; Alejandro RosentalAssociate Investigator, Karolinska InstituteY fred johanssondoctoral candidate, mental health, Sophiahemmet University