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Procrastination Is Literally Killing You

“I’ll just read this article a little later.”

Procrastination Is Literally Killing You
[Top Photo: Westend61/Getty Images]

It’s bad enough that procrastination can ruin your work day—an earful from the boss for blowing a deadline, say, or just a later evening at the office than you planned. But the effects of habitual delay can infect you at the physical level as well as the professional. Procrastination has been linked with headaches, digestive trouble, and colds or the flu, and a new study adds something far worse to the mix: heart disease.

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Psychologist Fuschia Sirois of Bishop’s University reports a significant connection between the trait procrastination and hypertension and cardiovascular disease among a sample of nearly 800 people in Canada and the United States. The finding held true even controlling for factors such as age, ethnicity, and key personality traits. One likely reason for the link, she argues, is that procrastinators cope with the stress of heart illness in especially damaging ways.

“This study is the first to test and find that trait procrastination may be a vulnerability factor for those living with a chronic and life-threatening health condition,” she concludes in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

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If you’re just joining this topic from some other task you’re supposed to be doing, a quick refresher on “trait procrastination” is in order. We all goof off now and then and call it procrastination, but psychologists believe that the occasional poor use of time differs strikingly from the type of habitual, unnecessary, and harmful delay that approaches a personality trait. This type of chronic procrastination might afflict up to 20% of the population.

Previous research by Sirois and others has suggested two primary ways for trait procrastination to impact a person’s health. One possibility is that chronic procrastinators avoid taking care of themselves as much as they should—from going to the doctor to exercising to eating right. An even more immediate route is that the stress of unnecessary delay takes a psychophysiological toll on the body and leaves a person vulnerable to illness.

The ways that trait procrastinators tend to cope with the stress of delay might also play a role in their poor health outcomes. Sirois has identified two particularly harmful coping methods: behavioral disengagement (whereby procrastinators respond to a problem by avoiding it) and self-blame (where they become intensely self-critical and potentially increase their stress load even more). But strong evidence for this link in a severe condition like heart disease has been lacking.

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That’s where the current study represents a clear step forward. Sirois drew from a sample of healthy individuals as well as a group who’d been medically diagnosed with hypertension or cardiovascular disease. All study participants then responded to surveys measuring procrastination levels, personality factors, coping strategies, general stress, and other health behaviors.

Sirois reports that procrastination scores in the heart disease group were significantly higher than those in the healthy group. The links between procrastination and both harmful coping styles—behavioral disengagement and self-blame—were also stronger in people with hypertension or cardiovascular disease (HT/CVD). The evidence also suggests these coping strategies ultimately led to increased stress for this group.

“The results of the moderation analyses suggest that procrastination promotes a tendency to cope with stress by engaging in negative, self-blaming thinking, and disengaging from taking constructive action,” writes Sirois, “tendencies that are more pronounced in the context of HT/CVD.”

Though the analysis couldn’t prove a causal link between procrastination and poor health outcomes, the latest evidence is still deeply concerning. Sirois does suggest some strategies to reduce harmful coping styles: when it comes to self-blame, for instance, forgiving yourself for procrastinating might be a good place to start. Preferably as soon as possible.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).

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