When we voluntarily put off making a decision, or we avoid taking some form of necessary action, that process is called procrastination — and to varying degrees, we all engage in it. However, there may be health implications associated with chronic procrastination.
How many people, I wonder, avoid seeing their doctor or dentist only to discover the delay has resulted in complications? The health implications of chronic procrastination are varied but research indicates that they can include higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, (1) and a range of stress-related problems such as headaches, digestive issues, insomnia and depression.
The relationship between depression and procrastination is well known; the more depressed a person is, the more likely he or she is to procrastinate. But it’s also something of a chicken-and-egg situation. For while depression increases the likelihood of procrastination, so procrastination increases stress, which in turn can lead to depression.
So what exactly is happening with procrastination?
Procrastination is negative coping
Procrastination is a form of avoidance, and as such can be viewed as a way of coping — but one with negative effects. We all acquire our own ways of coping with difficult situations over time, but the sorts of situations we’re trying to cope with can be quite varied. We procrastinate due to lack of experience, lack of time management skills, underestimating the complexity of tasks, aversion to pain, lack of interest, and fear of failure.(2) While evading decisions or actions can provide some short-term relief, the cumulative effects can be psychologically damaging. Other negative coping strategies include substance abuse, alcohol, and even working too much — but often on issues that skirt around important decisions or actions.
Alternatives to negative coping
The teaching profession is generally recognized as being rewarding but stressful. Teachers identified as procrastinators express themselves through irritation, impulsive behaviors, nervousness, tension, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness and despair (3). By contrast, the benefits of proactive behavior are marked. Proactive behavior is associated with a decrease in the negative aspects of stress, including depression and burnout, and especially emotional exhaustion, cynicism and anger.
The first step in overcoming procrastination is awareness. This means figuring out your thoughts and habits. Of course, if you’re already depressed, this can be quite a challenge, so it may be helpful to consult a therapist to help you work through the issues.
- Changing your outlook is vital. There’s a good chance you’ve been procrastinating because the decision or tasks ahead of you seem daunting. These need to be broken down into smaller tasks with more realistic and achievable goals that you can commit to.
- Try to avoid situations that provide easy distractions or that disrupt your thinking or productivity. If you need to study, for example, schedule time in an appropriate environment, away from friends and noise.
- Break off habits you enjoy but that are distracting. An example might be a teacher listening to great music while he or she is supposed to be marking papers. Instead, use the music as a reward for task accomplishment.
- If you’re depressed and you know you’d benefit from help, arrange something — today. The “I’ll see about treatment tomorrow” approach is pure procrastination. Get past that barrier, and you’ve taken the first vital step towards recovery.
Lastly, if you’re at all concerned about your own level of procrastination, you might be interested in this free procrastination test from MindTools.
(1) Sirois, F. M. (2015). Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension of the procrastination–health model. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1-12. doi: 10.1007/s10865-015-9629-2
(2) Nuttall. J. (2013). _Time Management. Overcoming Procrastination and Stress Management. _[online publication]. Available at : http://www.merton.ox.ac.uk/currentstudents/section_specific/TimeManagement.pdf
(3) Veresova. M. (2013) Procrastination, Stress and coping among primary school teachers. 4th international conference on new horizons in education. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Science 106. 2013-2138
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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.