Procrastination and poor health

One of the first studies to emerge from Sweden in the new year has linked procrastination with a range of negative health outcomes – just as many Australians get ready to head back to work for 2023.

Procrastination was associated with worse subsequent mental health (depression, anxiety, and stress symptom levels), having disabling pain in the upper extremities, unhealthy lifestyle behaviours (poor sleep quality and physical inactivity), and worse levels of psychosocial health factors, such as greater loneliness and more economic difficulties.

However, the team found no clear associations between procrastination and subsequent disabling pain in other body regions (neck and/or upper back, lower back, or lower extremities), other unhealthy lifestyle behaviours (alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis use and breakfast skipping), or general health.

Lead author Mr Fred Johansson M.A., from Sophiahemmet University in Stockholm, explained that procrastination is defined as voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off because of the delay and is common, especially among younger people.

“It is estimated that at least half of university students engage in consistent and problematic procrastination, such as postponing studying for examinations or writing papers,” Mr Johansson said.

“Procrastination is described as a form of self-regulatory failure linked to personality traits such as impulsiveness, distractibility, and low conscientiousness, and while an individual’s tendency to procrastinate is relatively stable over time, specific procrastination behaviours are influenced by contextual factors such as task aversiveness.

“For some students, procrastination is occasional and related to specific academic tasks, while for others it is more of a general disposition, potentially affecting academic achievements and health.”

The researchers used data from the Sustainable University Life study, conducted between 19 August 2019 and 15 December 2021, in which university students recruited from eight universities in the greater Stockholm and Örebro areas were followed up at five different points of time over a year.

Specifically, 3,525 students, were assessed to determine whether procrastination was associated with worse health outcomes nine months later – representing one academic year and providing sufficient induction time for procrastination to lead to health problems.

Self-reported procrastination was measured using five items from the Swedish version of the Pure Procrastination Scale, rated on a Likert scale from one (“very rarely or does not represent me”) to five (“very often or always represents me”), and summed to give a total procrastination score ranging from five to 25, with 16 self-reported health outcomes assessed at the 9-month follow-up.

“Gender and age were similar across levels of procrastination, but participants with higher levels of procrastination tended to be more likely to study technical sciences, be single, and have been born outside of Europe,” Mr Johansson said.

“The largest difference between this study and most previous studies is that we controlled for an extensive set of potential confounders – to our knowledge, this is the first study of procrastination and health to adjust for prior levels of the outcomes.”

By adjusting for pre-baseline levels of the outcome variables, the team reduced the risk of reverse causality, and all outcome variables showed higher prevalence or mean levels at pre-baseline among participants who also had higher procrastination levels at baseline.

“However, our estimates indicate that the associations between procrastination and subsequent health outcomes are weak. For instance, a 1-SD increase in procrastination was associated with a mean increase in subsequent depression symptoms of only 0.13 SDs, and many of the associations were weaker than this,” Mr Johansson said.

“Still, even though the associations are not strong, procrastination could have associations with many distinct aspects of health, including mental health, physical pain, lifestyle behaviours, and psychosocial health factors.

“It is possible, however, that these estimates would be stronger for a longer follow-up because the potential negative associations of procrastination with health outcomes could accumulate over time, and considering that procrastination is prevalent among university students, these findings may be of importance to enhance the understanding of students’ health.”