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How Procrastination Affects Your Health

And how to use it positively

Ask a crowd of people to raise their hand if they self-identify as a procrastinator. In most cases, a lot of hands in the room will go up. While some people, for better or worse, seem happy to own their status as a procrastinator, others who admit to procrastination turn red in shame, which is not surprising. In our culture, procrastination has long been a dirty word. Indeed, in America, we tend to celebrate people who know how to put their nose-to-the-grindstone and even venerate workaholics. Procrastination just doesn’t have a place in our culture or economy. But is it really all that bad?

I’ve written elsewhere about the fine line between procrastination and being “pressure prompted.” If you’re like me and pressure prompted, you are someone who often does your best work when faced with a looming deadline. While being pressure prompted may entail a bit of procrastination, it is procrastination within acceptable limits. In other words, it is a set of conditions that offers just enough pressure to ensure you’re at the top of your game without divulging into chaos or most importantly, impacting other members of your team by preventing them from delivering their best work in a timely manner.

But what about people who aren’t just pressure prompted but true procrastinators? To be clear, I’m not talking about someone who leaves prep for a keynote until a few days before they are scheduled to walk on to stage at a major conference but rather about that person who scribbles a few notes on a napkin only 20 minutes before they are scheduled to deliver a keynote. If you recognize this person when you look in the mirror (or care about someone who matches this profile), it is time to consider just how dire the impacts of procrastination can be if left unmanaged.

Procrastination’s Negative Impacts

Procrastination is a condition that has consequences on one’s mental and physical health and performance at school and in the workplace.

In a 2007 study published in the Psychology Bulletin, psychologist Piers Steel defines procrastination as “a self-regulatory failure leading to poor performance and reduced well-being.” Notably, Steel further emphasizes that procrastination is both common (80% to 90% of college-age students suffer from it at least some of the time) and something most people (95%) wish to overcome. In his recent book, The Procrastination Equation, Steel even argues that procrastination may now be on the rise as people increasingly turn to the immediate gratification made possible by information technologies and specifically, social media platforms.

While age and heightened responsibilities (e.g., the need to care for a family) do help most people eventually keep their procrastinating tendencies in check, for a small percentage of people, procrastination isn’t just a temporary or occasional problem but rather something that comes to structure their lives and ultimately limit their potential.

So, how dire is procrastination? Below, I highlight just a few of the many negative impacts procrastination has been shown to have on our mental, physical, and financial wellbeing.

  • Mental Health: A 2010 study, appropriately titled, “I’ll Go to Therapy, Eventually,” found that procrastination and stress are connected. Indeed, the study found that high procrastination is linked to poorer mental health and fewer “mental health behaviors” (e.g., regularly taking time out to relax and recover from stress).

  • Physical Health: In addition to the well-documented link between procrastination and mental health, there is growing evidence that procrastination can impact one’s physical health. In a 2003 study, Fushia M. Sirois and colleagues found that procrastination was “related to poorer health, treatment delay, perceived stress, and fewer wellness behaviors.” While a range of health conditions are impacted by procrastination, Sirois and colleagues have discovered that some conditions may be especially impacted by the behavior. In a 2015 study, she concluded that procrastination is a factor that can lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease (HT/CVD) and further concluded that the “maladaptive coping” associated with procrastination also appears to exasperate the symptoms of HT/CVD.

Increasing Flow to Manage Procrastination

As already demonstrated, procrastination has many and varied negative side effects, but this doesn’t mean that procrastination is impossible to manage.

In a 2008 study, Peter Gröpel & Piers Steel investigated predictors of procrastination in a large Internet-based study that included over 9,000 participants. Their results revealed two important findings. First, their results showed that goal setting reduced procrastination; second, they found that it was strongly associated with lack of energy. This is precisely why I have come to think about flow as essential to managing procrastination whether it is an occasional problem triggered by specific circumstances or a chronic issue.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first reported in 1975, flow is an absorbing experience that makes us feel in control even in the face of stress. When we are in flow, we lose track of time. Our actions appear to be guided by an inner logic. Not surprisingly, then, flow is connected to high performance both at work and in other aspects of life. To understand how flow holds the potential to help even the world’s most chronic procrastinators overcome their procrastination, however, it is important to consider the five steps associated with getting into flow.

  • Preparation: First, if you want to experience flow, preparation is key. Part of preparation entails goal setting. As already noted, goal setting is also one of the practices most likely to reduce procrastinating behaviors.

  • Purposeful Struggle: Procrastinators are typically avoiding some sort of unpleasant task. Learning how to struggle purposefully—for example, to recognize that sometimes those unpleasant moments are also moments of learning and growth—is critical to overcoming procrastination.

  • Release: A key problem with chronic procrastinators is their moderation. Procrastinators are frequently in an on/off mode. Breaking upon one’s work with short breaks is one way to keep motivation at its peak. But periods of release are not moments of procrastination. They are critical times to reset the dial, so to speak, so when you return to your work, you’re running at full capacity.

  • Flow: Throw yourself into whatever it is you’re doing fully, and without any distractions and experience the power of flow.

  • Recovery: As already emphasized, high procrastination is linked to poorer mental health and to fewer “mental health behaviors,” which include regularly taking time out to relax and recover from periods of intense stress. To create more flow in your life, taking time out to fully recover is also necessary.

While it is true that intrinsically motivated people may have an easier time getting into flow, anyone, even a chronic procrastinator, can cultivate flow. The first step is easy—it simply entails coming up with a clear goal. So, if you’re a procrastinator, ask yourself: What do you really want to achieve here and now? The second step is to stop feeling ashamed about your procrastinating tendencies. As multiple studies have shown, most people procrastinate at least some of the time. When properly managed, procrastination doesn’t need to be viewed as a problem. The real problem isn’t procrastination but our failure to keep it in check.

Keep reading to discover more methods to manage your procrastination

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