Proof that procrastinating is bad for your health

BY: Susan Fowler

PUBLISHED: January 25, 2023

Initially posted on SmartBrief, January 25, 2023

Procrastination is more than a symptom of bad time management. You might not be surprised that procrastination is linked to depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness and reduced life satisfaction. But a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) online network in January 2023 relates procrastinating with severe mental health problems, disabling pain, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, worse psychosocial health factors — and even cardiovascular disease.

The bad news is that procrastination is bad for your health. The other bad news is how lifestyle experts jump in with tactics to help you overcome it, creating a vicious circle of pressure to perform that perpetuates procrastination.
I am among those “experts.” I authored a bestselling CD back when that was a thing. Overcoming Procrastination included solid recommendations based on effective time-management and goal-setting principles. Decades later, I updated my approach with, what I thought, was a well-conceived article revealing the (real) secret to overcoming procrastination.
But after reading an article mentioned on a national news program in response to the new JAMA study, I’m compelled to tackle the topic from a different angle. The author suggested techniques for overcoming procrastination based on your personality type. For example, if you’re a perfectionist, lower your standards. I wholeheartedly support awareness of your patterns of behavior (personality type). But this approach suffers the same problem as most solutions to procrastination, including mine.
To solve a procrastination problem, you need to understand the foundational psychological reasons you procrastinate — no matter your personality type.

Why you procrastinate

First, let’s agree that if you’re suffering from the list of ailments in the first paragraph, they could be why you procrastinate! The JAMA study acknowledges that negative health symptoms and procrastination could be bidirectional. So, saying you procrastinate because you’re unhealthy or that you’re unhealthy because you procrastinate could both be true. However, I’m addressing the latter perspective since reputable studies show that psychological treatments for procrastination reduce mental and physical health issues. 

Let’s assume you’re an average Joe who procrastinates more than he wants to. Take me as an average Jane. I have procrastinated invoicing a client for work I did last October. Yes, I need the money. Of course, I think it’s unprofessional. Yes, I’ve moved it week-to-week from one to-do list to another for four months. Yes, I enjoy checking items off my to-do lists. Indeed, I feel guilty and stressed for not getting it done. Yet, it remains undone. 

We can rationalize our procrastination, hoping to find the energy from somewhere. We can bribe ourselves with a reward and gather our willpower. We can call on discipline. But research shows that none of these work — even in the face of fear, threats, or reprisal. If, by chance, one of these tactics does help push you into action, you still pay the price of ill-being that affects your mental and physical health.

As I write this to you, I am saying this to myself, too: Time to practice what I teach about mastering motivation.

As I write this to you, I am saying this to myself, too: Time to practice what I teach about mastering motivation.

Applying motivation science gets to the heart of why we procrastinate

We procrastinate on a task or goal because it fails to fulfill one of the three psychological needs required for optimal motivation. Without optimal motivation, you can’t generate the vitality needed to take action. 

Try this. Take a task or goal you’re procrastinating on and ask yourself:

  • Is my need for choice eroded? Do I have to achieve the goal or do the task — do I feel I have no options? Do I feel imposed by the pressure to perform? Am I afraid of what might happen if I don’t do it? Do I resent having to do it?
  • Is my need for connection thwarted? Am I struggling to align the goal or task with a meaningful value or a sense of purpose? Do I feel alone or alienated? Am I fearful of disappointing someone important in my life? Have I put undue pressure on myself to live up to someone else’s expectations — or my own?
  • Is my need for competence undermined? Are my skills inadequate to accomplish the goal or task? Does my lack of skill require more time than I have, or do I think it’s not worth the time to learn? Do I have nothing to learn by achieving this goal or doing this task?

Answering “Yes” to any of these questions can reflect suboptimal motivation — explaining your lack of energy for the goal or task. The underlying cause of your procrastination is an eroded sense of choice, a thwarted sense of connection, or an undermined sense of competence — or all three! 

When you understand the root cause of procrastination, you can deal with it through psychological sense: the skill to proactively create choice, connection and competence. 

Understanding the root cause of procrastination leads you to the solution

I’ve written extensively on mastering your motivation by creating choice, connection and competence. Now I’m going to put my work to work. Remember that invoice I’ve procrastinated on submitting for four months?  I’ll answer the questions in real-time.

  • I have choice. I don’t have to get paid for the work I did. I’m sure my client can find a way to use the unpaid fees. 
  • I have connection. As the CEO of a startup I’m passionate about, money has a meaningful role in subsidizing the work and people in our enterprise.
  • Aha. I don’t feel I have competence. The new invoicing process mystifies me. I don’t even remember my login or password. Thinking about jumping through all the hoops of learning to submit one invoice undermines any sense of competence.

The remarkable thing about the skill of motivation? Taking the time to understand the underlying reason for my procrastination reinforced my psychological need for choice and connection — generating the vitality I need to deal with my feelings of incompetence. My motivation just shifted from suboptimal to optimal. So, excuse me; I’m taking a break to submit my invoice.

Hello. I’m back. It took me a bit longer than I anticipated. But something remarkable happened. I got stuck in the process and called a colleague for help. Brent walked me through the invoicing process — teaching me as we went along. I hadn’t talked to Brent in months. He told me he missed me and how much he valued our friendship. He was honored I’d reached out to him! My lack of competence enhanced his sense of competence — and deepened our connection. I’ll appreciate receiving payment for my work, but experiencing choice, connection and competence to overcome my procrastination is a meaningful and healthy bonus.

Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing” Her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard.

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