The effects of procrastination on one’s health are well known to anybody who hesitates when asked whether they would rather complete a task they have been putting off or have a colonoscopy.
A certified clinical social worker from California named Victoria Smith, LCSW, defines procrastination as an avoidant activity that includes putting off doing a given job – frequently because we find it uncomfortable, burdensome, dull, or negatively associated with the task. “By putting off dealing with these unpleasant memories, we can avoid the discomfort they cause.”
Poor work quality, high levels of stress, and unfavorable health effects are only some of the possible results of this practice. Curiosity, rather than judgment, is the key to unlocking the information you need to escape the cycle of procrastination and turn it to your benefit by learning more about your unique procrastination style.
The Root of Your Procrastination
According to Taish Malone, Ph.D., a certified professional counselor with Mindpath Health, “As with many behaviors, the psyche isn’t to blame as much as the brain.” The article states, “The limbic system and the prefrontal cortex have been seen as the areas responsible for procrastination.”
The prefrontal cortex functions as our executive assistant, overseeing things like planning, organizing, and impulse control. The limbic system controls our behavioral and emotional reactions (motivation, reward, receptivity, and habits).
A little research published in August 2018 in Psychological Science found that procrastinators had a bigger amygdala (the region of the limbic system renowned for fight-or-flight) than non-procrastinators.
This shows that the amygdala overrides the prefrontal brain and commands you to flee the bad feelings you feel when confronted with a distasteful activity or a barrage of novel tasks. This calls for delay.
According to Dave Rabin, MD, Ph.D., board-certified psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and founder of Apollo Neurosciences, “If we are in a situation where we already have a lot on our plate and are perpetually overwhelmed, the brain and body are primed to resist change and newness.”
When we put off doing what we need to do until later, our brains misinterpret that moment of relaxation as a reward, and so we procrastinate. When you delay doing anything, your brain rewards you with serotonin and dopamine, and you reinforce the idea that avoiding unpleasant experiences is a healthy way to handle them.
This cycle has the potential to become chronic and devastating over time.
Procrastination might be motivated by a desire to avoid unpleasant emotions like boredom or worry associated with doing the work. However, ignoring negative emotions allows them to build up inside you, like interest, making the situation much more difficult.
- Bad feelings, like being much more anxious about what you’re putting off.
- Consequences of the situation; things don’t go as well as they could have with the mission
1. The cycle of procrastination can perpetuate itself
Negative associations with tasks are strengthened when emotions of inadequacy, anxiety, and sadness accompany avoidance. If a colonoscopy seems intriguing because of anything else on your list, you are more inclined to put it off until later.
“This long-term procrastination cycle becomes greater and more encompassing than merely the behavior itself,” explains Malone.
The issue isn’t procrastination per se, but rather the self-condemnation that often follows (often in the form of lectures like “suck it up” or “just do it”), which serves to increase the procrastination cycle.
2. It might be harmful to your physical health
The cumulative effect of the ongoing stress may be bad once procrastination becomes a habit.
Procrastination has been linked to increased levels of stress, sadness, and anxiety, as well as “reduced satisfaction across life domains, especially regarding work and income,” according to research published in PLOS One in February 2016 that surveyed over 4,000 Germans (ranging in age from 14 to 95). In other words, putting things off hurts one’s career, mental health, and bank account.
And it can cause short-term health problems like sleeplessness and long-term health problems like digestive troubles. According to a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in March 2016, it is also a “vulnerability factor” with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. One possible explanation for these results is that procrastinators are less likely to prioritize their health and to get frequent exams.
Another study tracked Swedish college students over a year, using a series of web-based surveys to probe for links between procrastination and unfavorable health outcomes. According to the findings published in JAMA Network Open on this day in 2023, “higher levels of procrastination were associated with worse subsequent mental health.” The research also found that procrastination is linked to worse quality sleep, less physical activity, discomfort in the upper limbs, and increased feelings of isolation.
Purposeful Postponement vs. Procrastination
According to a 2005 article in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers hypothesized that there are two types of procrastination: passive (putting off work despite knowing it will cause negative consequences) and active (putting off work on purpose because you work better under pressure).
However, putting off work till later is not the same as procrastinating: Procrastination is a self-control issue since it involves putting off work while knowing it will cause negative consequences.
“Procrastination isn’t positive for most because it’s not a decision that inherently comes from a place of empowerment, self-control, or joy,” Loo explains.
If you put anything off till the last minute and it works out, you probably feel more relief than pride or happiness. The result is that every time we have a major task, we go through the same cognitive process, reinforcing our negative attitudes about ourselves and our skills.
Procrastination is a self-fulfilling prophecy because “your identity can begin to build around the idea that you’re a procrastinator who never gets things done on time and is always stressed out by deadlines,” Smith says.
On the other hand, putting off work is seen as an example of proactive and considered self-regulation.
Loo explains that the difference between the two behaviors is that the former stems from a sense of independence and deliberate decision. At the same time, the latter is more akin to procrastination.
According to a January 2018 paper in Personality and Individual Differences, the deliberate or purposeful delay is not motivated by an innate desire to put off work in favor of other pursuits but rather by external environmental variables forcing you to make reasonable judgments about how best to allocate your time in light of those demands.
“When you don’t need a whole week to do something and put it off until later, or decide to call it quits early to clear your mind and reset, yes, you’re technically delaying tasks, but it’s not motivated by avoidance at all,” Loo explains. “It’s just a method you’ve found to be effective for you and helpful to the process as a whole.”
Let’s pretend you’re stuck on a creative endeavor and have resorted to a thorough house cleaning as a distraction. Do you avoid working on your assignment because thinking about it makes you anxious? Then you are most likely putting things off. Or do you find cleaning your go-to when you need to give an idea time to percolate? That’s a deliberate pause in the present.
How Serious Is the Problem of Putting Things Off?
Putting off necessary actions out of avoidance and adopting a “cope-by-not-coping” mindset can devastate your quality of life and health in the long run.
Your natural inclination to put things off isn’t malicious; rather, it’s an attempt by your brain to shield you from the unpleasant feelings you’ve associated with doing specific activities or completing certain projects, such as boredom, perfectionism, or overload.
Remembering this the next time you feel the need to put off taking action will help you face and overcome the feelings of resistance head-on.
Learning how you procrastinate may help you avoid the pitfalls you tend to fall into and turn procrastination into a strategic tool.
The real enemy isn’t procrastination but rather our failure to investigate its roots. So, why do you need to put things off till later?