How Chronic Procrastination Can Impact Your Health

You may often hear procrastination being associated with college students who pull all-nighters to cram for last-minute exams, but according to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 5 American adults are believed to engage in chronic procrastination, meaning that 20% of people ages 18 or older regularly put things off to the detriment of other domains of their lives. Areas of life that can be negatively impacted by chronic procrastination include relationships, success in school, career progress, financial stability, and ultimately health.

The problem of chronic procrastination doesn't just exist in the United States. A 2023 study published in JAMA Network Open followed over 3,500 university-level students in Sweden with the intent to determine if the students who regularly procrastinated experienced adverse health effects, both in terms of physical health and mental well-being. Researchers involved in the study observed participants through the lens of the procrastination-health model, which indicates that being prone to procrastination is correlated with negative impacts on health. The study concluded that 16 impacts on health were commonly noted among the group of study participants who chronically procrastinated. Some people put things off due to symptoms of pre-existing conditions while others willingly delayed completing assignments or tasks. 

We've all put something off until the last minute or dragged our feet with completing a project, but when procrastination becomes a chronic habit then you could be jeopardizing your health in addition to your deadline. Here's what you should know about chronic procrastination and the habit's health effects.

Chronic procrastination can create harmful cycles

U.S. News & World Report states that given the rate of adults who engage in chronic procrastination, a percentage of about 20% of the population, procrastination is more common than depression and phobias. While chronic procrastination is more frequent than depression, a symptom of habitual procrastination can be depression, along with anxiety and the effects of persistent stress from repeatedly putting off deadlines or essential tasks. In the long run, the effects of chronic procrastination can snowball and the result may be a cycle of negative health outcomes that ultimately exacerbate one another, such as anxiety over performance on an assignment leading to procrastinating on the assignment and the subsequent pressure or consequences of procrastination instigating more anxiety. As anxiety, stress, and depression continue, the likelihood of developing physical health conditions like hypertension (otherwise known as high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease is increased.

To know if your participation in procrastination is merely occasional and situational or if your tendency to put things off constitutes chronic procrastination, there are a handful of habits and symptoms shared among people who chronically leave things until the last minute (via Choosing Therapy). The hallmarks of chronic procrastination include putting the most important tasks on your to-do list last, avoiding personal accountability for missing deadlines, convincing yourself that fulfilling only a small portion of an assignment's requirements is satisfactory, engaging in enjoyable distractions over completing necessary work, and constant excuse-making for why tasks haven't been completed.

Chronic procrastination affects physical health, too

Just like any other bad habit, such as smoking cigarettes or eating a diet heavy in fried foods, chronic procrastination comes with risks to your physical health. In addition to an increased risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, researchers of the 2023 study published in JAMA Network Open discovered that people who regularly procrastinate often report physical pain in the neck, extremities, and back, along with common use of alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis. Chronic procrastinators also have a tendency to experience frequent sleep disturbances and the inability to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, which is made worse by substance use.

CNN reports that not sticking to the same timeframe of sleep, referencing the time you go to bed at night and the time you wake up in the morning, can further increase the risk of developing heart disease. Even more damaging, the use of afternoon or evening stimulants such as coffee or other sources of caffeine can disrupt sleep hygiene and make it difficult to maintain sleep consistency. For people who regularly put tasks off until the last minute, caffeine and stimulants may be used to push for an all-nighter, worsening negative cyclical effects on health by disrupting sleep and increasing the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. People who chronically procrastinate are prone to self-report regular lack of exercise due to distractions, which may consequently worsen existing physical pain through a sedentary lifestyle and further raise the risk of heart disease.

Practicing these steps helps eliminate procrastination

Whether you've forgotten a deadline due to a one-time situation or you're prone to chronic procrastination, the first step to overcoming the pressure and guilt that can come with procrastinating on a task is to practice self-compassion, per Choosing Therapy

Regardless of why someone procrastinates, there are ways to eliminate the habit so that both mental and physical health can be protected. When you find yourself dreading a deadline, write down the thoughts of your experience in the present moment and include things like your triggers, self-doubt, fears, and the frequency of how often you push tasks farther down your to-do list. Next, say goodbye to your false narratives and limiting beliefs that are holding you back. For example, if you find yourself procrastinating because you don't think you have the skill to complete a project, shift your attention to your strengths and develop a mantra to remind yourself of why you're capable of tackling the assignment. Try the Pomodoro Technique, which involves breaking tasks down into bite-sized steps and working on each one in 25-minute time intervals followed by breaks between each time period. Finding healthy outlets for managing stress is imperative as well.

Some people may chronically procrastinate due to underlying conditions such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (via Choosing Therapy). For people experiencing procrastination as a side effect of another diagnosis, working with your doctor or mental health practitioner to find individualized modifications is the best place to start.