We’re all guilty of putting off boring but important tasks… but daily procrastination may be a problem, researchers suggest.
There’s nothing like a boring bit of life admin to get the procrastination mill churning. Rather than just doing your tax return/budgets/*insert own hated task*, we waste time on Instagram or some other platform. If that sounds familiar, we’ve got bad news for you: a new study has linked procrastination with poor health.
Previous research found that putting off important tasks was associated with higher levels of stress, unhealthier lifestyles and delays in seeing GPs about health problems. Up until now, however, scientists couldn’t determine cause and effect: does procrastinating cause health issues or do health issues make it harder to act promptly?
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But this new study, published in JAMA Network Open, has been looking at the effect procrastination has on students’ physical and mental health. Researchers looked at the habits of 2,587 students, comparing the outcomes of those who had a higher tendency to procrastinate (as scored on a procrastination scale) with those who had a lower tendency.
They found that those students who tended to procrastinate more frequently were associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress nine months later.
Those students were also more likely to experience physical symptoms like shoulder and/or arm pain and poor sleep, as well as increased financial difficulties and loneliness – even when other factors were taken into consideration, including age, background and previous mental health diagnosis.
Writing for The Conversation, the study’s co-authors conclude: “The results suggest that procrastination may be of importance for a wide range of health outcomes, including mental health problems, disabling pain and an unhealthy lifestyle.”
They assessed students multiple times over the nine-month period to see what came first: procrastinating or poor health. And while the results aren’t cast iron proof of cause and effect, the researchers say their results “suggest it more strongly than earlier ‘cross-sectional’ studies”.
Why should procrastination lead to poor health outcomes?
It seems entirely logical that procrastination might reduce your life quality, especially when you think about what important life tasks could be delayed, such as making a dental appointment or flagging health concerns to your GP. Perhaps severe procrastinators are less likely to follow through on social plans – or make them in the first place, which could lead to an increased risk of isolation.
Maybe they’re less likely to get up and move from their laptops – which would result in more RSI injuries. If you continually put off work tasks, you could end up fired or on probation… which inevitably means increased stress.
And it’s easy to see how constantly deferring tasks, such as sorting out bills, for example, may contribute to chronic anxiety and stress.
How to stop procrastinating
First off, not all procrastination is problematic. Lots of creative people say that their best ideas come from doing nothing. But we’re talking about delaying stuff to the point that it’s starting to affect your wellbeing.
The study’s researchers suggest that cognitive behavioural therapy is an effective way of reducing procrastination because it helps people to break up big tasks into more manageable short-term goals. It can also help you to recognise what gets in your way, like having your phone next to you at all times.
In the meantime, why not give these very simple tips a go:
Log out of WhatsApp Web – and delete the page from your web history: it’ll reduce the temptation to chat while you’re in deep work mode.
Keep your phone in a different room or a drawer, with notifications turned off: reduce the pings and BBC alert flashes.
Get up every 30 minutes for a quick walk: if you’re easily distracted, getting the blood flowing regularly might help you feel more refreshed while also allowing you to concentrate in small chunks. A new study has found that just 21-minutes of exercise is enough to boost concentration.
Try concentration music: the BBC has hours-long playlists designed for deep focus.
Put your most-dreaded tasks at the top of your to-do list: hate Excel? Make your to-do list work for you by putting your most hated task up top. Keep putting off calling your GP? Carve out 20 minutes tomorrow morning to sit in the queue for an appointment.
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