Worst procrastinators probably won’t be able to read this story. It reminds us of what we are trying to avoid, says psychologist Piers Steel.
Maybe drag your feet to the gym. Maybe they didn’t reach their New Year’s resolutions. Maybe they have to wait one more day to study for that test.
Procrastination is “postponing something you know you’re going to do now,” says Steele, of the University of Calgary in Canada. But all those works pushed to the morrow seem to rush into the mind – and to endanger the safety of people.
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In a study of thousands of university students, scientists found procrastination was associated with an array of poor outcomes, including depression, anxiety and even disabling pain. “I was amazed when I saw one,” says Fred Johansson, a clinical psychologist at Sophiahemmet University in Stockholm. The team announced the results on January 4 JAMA Open Network.
Studying one of the biggest yet procrastinating bonds to health can be tackled. The results echo findings from previous studies that have been largely ignored, says Fuschia Sirois, a human scientist at the University of Durham in England, who was not involved with the new research.
For years, procrastination by scientists was not seen as something serious, he said. A new study could change that. “That’s the kind of great coaching that’s going to keep working,” Sirois says. “I hope it will raise awareness of the physical health consequences of procrastination.”
Procrastination of the evil of mind and body
Whether procrastination is detrimental to health can be seen as a chicken-and-egg situation.
It’s hard to say if certain health problems make it easier for people to procrastinate — or vice versa, says Johansson. (Maybe a bit of both.) And controlled experiments on procrastination aren’t easy to do: You can’t tell a study participant to become a procrastinator and wait and see if their health changes, he says.
Many previous studies have relied on self-reported surveys at a single time point. But a snapshot of something does cause and effect encoding. But in the new study, about 3,500 students were followed over nine months, so the researchers were able to investigate whether the students who procrastinated later developed healthy outcomes.
On average, these students spent more time studying than their peers. They were slightly more stressed, anxious, sad, and sleep-deprived, among other issues, Johansson and colleagues found. “People who start out with higher procrastination … are at greater risk of developing physical and psychological problems later,” says author Alexander Rozental, a clinical psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. “There is a relationship between procrastination at one point in time and having these negative outcomes later on.”
It was an observational study, so it cannot be said for sure that procrastination causes health problems. But other researchers also seem to point in this direction. A 2021 study linked procrastination to depression. And a 2015 study from the Sirois lab linked procrastination to poor heart health.
Stress may be to blame for the ill effects of procrastination, data from the Sirois lab and other studies suggest. He thinks the effects of procrastination can add up over time. And although procrastination alone does not cause the disease, says Sirois, “there is one extra factor that can keep the balance.”
No, procrastinators are not lazy
Some 20 percent of adults are estimated to be chronic procrastinators. Everyone can put off a task or two, but chronic procrastinators make it their lifestyle, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago who has studied procrastination for decades. “They do that at home, at school, at work and in their relationships.” These are the ones, he says, who “know it’s too late to RSVP.”
Although procrastinators think they perform better with compulsiveness, Ferrari reported the opposite. They worked more slowly and made more errors than non-procrastinators, his experiments showed. And when deadlines are slippery, procrastinators tend to let the work slip, a hardware company reported last year. Frontiers in Psychology.
For years, researchers have identified the personalities of people who procrastinate. Findings vary, but some scientists suggest that procrastinators have impulses, anxiety and trouble controlling their emotions. One thing procrastinators aren’t, Ferrari emphasizes, is lazy people. Also, “you’re doing other things than what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said.
In fact, Rozental adds, most research today suggests procrastination is a behavioral pattern.
And if procrastination is a behavior, he says, that’s something you can change, whether you’re impulsive.
Why should procrastinators forgive themselves?
When a difficult task is put off, they feel good – in the moment.
Procrastination is a way to avoid the negative emotions associated with work, Sirois says. “We’re kind of inclined to avoid anything painful or difficult,” he says. “When you procrastinate, you get instant relief.” The release of stressful circumstances – say a global pandemic – can focus on people’s ability to resist, making it easier to procrastinate. But the comfort it provides is temporary, and many seek ways to make it worse.
Researchers have tested procrastination treatments that run the gamut from logistical to psychological. What works best still remains to be seen. Some scientists have reported success with time management interventions. But the argument is “the whole board,” says Sirois. He adds that “poor time management is not a reason for procrastination.”
For some procrastinators, there are obvious tips that can work. In his clinical practice, Rozental advises students to put down their smartphones only. Silencing notifications or studying in the library rather than at home can cancel distractions and keep people on task. But that is not enough for many, he says.
Hard-core procrastinators can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy. In a 2018 review of procrastination treatments, Rozental found that this type of therapy, which involves managing thoughts and emotions and trying to change behavior, seemed to be the most helpful. However, not many studies have examined the treatment, and there is room for improvement, he says.
Sirois’ emotional approach also helps. Procrastinators can fall into a vicious spiral where they feel overwhelmed by the task, procrastinate, feel ashamed of procrastinating, and then end up feeling even worse than when they started. People need a short distance loop, he said. Self-indulgence may help, scientists suggested in one 2020 study. So could the discipline of the mind.
In a small trial of university students, eight weekly recording sessions reduced procrastination, Sirois and colleagues reported in January. Learning and individual differences. The students were engaged in physical activity, meditating on the unpleasant activity and taking good care of themselves. A little of his compassion is breaking people out of the spiral, Sirois said.
“You make mistakes and procrastinate. It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “What do you do moving forward?”
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