University students have a lot of freedom but not a lot of structure. This can be bad for habitual procrastinators. Studies have shown that at least half of college students procrastinate to a level potentially detrimental to their education.
But that may not be the only negative result of postponing to a later date. Studies have found a link between procrastination and poor health. It is associated with higher stress levels, unhealthy lifestyles, and delays in seeing a doctor for health issues.
However, these studies – by the nature of their design – cannot tell us the direction of the relationship. Does procrastination harm physical and mental health because people, for example, delay starting a new exercise regimen or seeing a doctor for a health problem? Or is it the other way around? Does poor physical health, for example, cause 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, that is, a study that followed people for a period of time, taking measurements at different times during the study. We recruited 3,525 students from eight universities in and around Stockholm and asked them to complete questionnaires every three months for a year.
Our study, published in JAMA Network Open, aimed to determine whether students who procrastinate have a higher risk of poor mental and physical health. Of the 3,525 students we recruited, 2,587 completed the follow-up questionnaire nine months later, where several health outcomes were measured.
To understand the link between procrastination and later health outcomes, students with a higher tendency to procrastinate (scored on a procrastination scale) at the start of the study were compared to 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 more financial hardship. These associations remained even when we controlled for other factors that may 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 a mode unhealthy life.
As mentioned above, in previous studies, participants were only assessed at one point in time, making it difficult to know which condition came first: procrastination or poor health. By asking students to answer questionnaires at multiple times, we could be sure that high levels of procrastination were present before measuring their health.
But it is still possible that other factors not taken into account in our analysis could explain the associations between procrastination and later poor health outcomes. Our results are not proof of cause and effect, but they suggest it 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 cognitive behavioral therapy to be effective in reducing procrastination.
Treatment helps the person overcome procrastination by breaking long-term goals into short-term ones, managing distractions (like turning off cell phones), and staying focused on a task despite negative emotions.
It 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 cell phone in another room when you need to stay focused on a task.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.