News Procrastination can be a sign of serious health problems, study finds: ScienceAlert

College students have a lot of freedom, but not a lot of structure. This can be bad for habitual procrastinators. Research shows that at least half of college students procrastinate to a point where it is potentially harmful to their education.

But that might not be the only negative outcome of putting things off until later. Studies have found a link between procrastination and poor health. It’s been linked to higher levels of stress, unhealthier lifestyles, and delays in seeing a doctor for health problems.

However, these studies – by their design nature – cannot tell us the direction of the relationship. Does procrastination lead to poor physical and mental health because people delay starting a new exercise program or delay seeing a doctor for a health problem?

Or is there some other way around? For example, does poor health cause people to procrastinate because they don’t have the energy to complete tasks right now?

To try to unravel this mystery, we conducted a longitudinal study—that is, a study that follows people over 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 a questionnaire every three months for a year.

Our research is published in JAMA Network Open, to investigate whether students who procrastinate are at higher risk of poor mental and physical health. Of the 3,525 students we recruited, 2,587 responded to a follow-up questionnaire nine months later that measured multiple health outcomes.

To see how procrastination is related to later health outcomes, we compared students who had a greater propensity to procrastinate (as scored on the Procrastination Scale) at the start of the study with students who had a lower propensity to procrastinate.

The results showed that after nine months, the higher the procrastination, the more symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.

Students who procrastinated more were also more likely to report disabling pain in the shoulder or arm (or both), poorer sleep quality, loneliness and financial hardship.

These associations remained even when we accounted for other factors that might have influenced the association, such as age, sex, parental education level, and previous physical and mental diagnoses.

While 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 lifestyles.

As noted above, in earlier studies, participants were assessed at only one point in time, so it was difficult to know which came first: procrastination or poor health. By having students answer questionnaires at several time points, we can determine that there are high levels of procrastination before we measure their fitness.

But it is still possible that other factors not considered in our analysis explain the association between procrastination and subsequent adverse health outcomes. Our results do not prove causality, but they are more telling than earlier ‘cross-sectional’ studies.

can be treated

This is good news for chronic procrastinators. Clinical trials (the gold standard in medical research) have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in reducing procrastination.

The therapy helps people overcome procrastination by breaking down long-term goals into short-term ones, controlling distractions such as turning off their phones, and staying focused on a task while experiencing negative emotions.

It takes some effort, so it’s not something a person can do when they’re trying to meet a certain deadline. But even small changes can have a big impact. You can try it yourself. When you need to focus on one task, why not leave your phone in another room today?

Eva Skillgate, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Karolinska Institutet; Alexander Rozental, Adjunct Researcher, Karolinska Institutet; and Fred Johansson, PhD Student in Mental Health, Sophiahemmet University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original text.

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