College students have a lot of freedom but not a lot of organization. This can be detrimental to habitual procrastinators. Studies have shown that at least half of college students procrastinate to a level that is potentially detrimental to their education.
But this may not be the only negative consequence of putting things off until later. 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 about health problems.
However, these studies – by the nature of their design – cannot tell us about the direction of the relationship. Does procrastination lead to poor physical and mental health because, for example, people put off starting a new exercise regimen or seeing a doctor about a health problem?
Or vice versa? Does poor physical health, for example, lead people to procrastinate because they don’t have the energy to do the job right now?
To try to solve this conundrum, we conducted a longitudinal study — that is, a study that followed people for a period of time, taking measurements at different 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 Network is open, aims to investigate whether students who procrastinate are more likely to have poor mental and physical health. Of the 3,525 students we recruited, 2,587 answered a follow-up questionnaire nine months later, during which several health outcomes were measured.
To understand how procrastination relates to later health outcomes, students with a greater propensity to procrastinate (as scored on a procrastination scale) at the start of the study were compared with students with a lower propensity to procrastinate.
The results showed that higher levels of procrastination were associated with somewhat higher symptoms depressionAnxiety and stress nine months later.
Students with higher levels of procrastination were more likely to report crippling pain in the shoulders or arms (or both), worse sleep quality, more feelings of loneliness, and more financial difficulties.
These associations remained even when we considered other factors that could influence association, such as age, gender, parental education level, and previous physical and psychological diagnoses.
Although there is no specific health outcome strongly associated with procrastination, the findings suggest that procrastination may be significant for a wide range of health outcomes, including mental health problems, crippling pain, and an unhealthy lifestyle.
As mentioned earlier, in previous studies, participants were only assessed one at a time, making it difficult to know which of the conditions came first: procrastination or ill health. By having students answer questionnaires at several points in time, we can confirm that there are high levels of procrastination before measuring their correctness.
But it is still possible that other factors that were not accounted for in our analysis could explain the association between procrastination and subsequent poor health outcomes. Our results are not proof of cause and effect, but they do suggest them more strongly than previous ‘cross-sectional’ studies.
It can be cured
There is good news for habitual procrastinators. Clinical trials (the gold standard in medical research) Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in reducing procrastination.
Therapy helps the person overcome procrastination by breaking down long-term goals into short-term goals, managing distractions (such as turning off cell phones), and focusing on a task despite feeling negative emotions.
This takes some effort, so it’s not something anyone can do while trying to meet a set deadline. But even small changes can have a big impact. You can try it yourself. Why not start the day by leaving your cell phone in another room when you need to stay focused on a task?
Eva SkillgateAssociate Professor, Epidemiology, Karolinska Institutet; Alexander Rosenthalassistant researcher, Karolinska InstitutetAnd Fred JohanssonPhD candidate in mental health Sophiahemt University
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