Procrastination Is Linked to Poor Mental and Physical Health

Summary: Procrastination is linked to increased anxiety, stress, pain, unhealthier lifestyles, and delays in seeking assistance for general health problems.

Source: The Conversation

University students have a lot of freedom but not much structure. This can be bad for habitual procrastinators. Studies have shown that at least half of university students procrastinate to a level that is potentially harmful to their education.

But this may not be the only negative result of putting things off until a later date. Studies have found a link between procrastination and poor health. It is associated with higher levels of stress, unhealthier lifestyles and delays in seeing a doctor about health problems.

However, these studies – by the nature of their design – cannot tell us the direction of the relationship. Does procrastination cause poor physical and mental health because people, say, put off starting a new exercise regime or seeing a doctor about a health problem? Or is it the other way around? Does poor physical health, say, lead people to procrastinate because they don’t have the energy to do the task now?

To try to solve this riddle, we conducted a longitudinal study – that is, a study that followed people for a period of time, taking measurements at various points in the study. We recruited 3,525 students from eight universities in and around Stockholm and asked them to complete questionnaires every three months for one year.

Our study, published in JAMA Network Open, aimed to investigate if students who procrastinate have a higher risk of poor mental and physical health. Of the 3,525 students we recruited, 2,587 answered the follow-up questionnaire nine months later, where several health outcomes were measured.

To understand how procrastination relates to later health outcomes, students with a greater tendency to procrastinate (as scored on a procrastination scale) at the start of the study were compared with students with a lower tendency. The results showed that higher levels of procrastination were associated with somewhat higher symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress nine months later.

Students with higher levels of procrastination were also more likely to report disabling pain in the shoulders or arms (or both), worse sleep quality, more loneliness and more financial difficulties. These associations remained even when we took other factors that could affect the association into consideration, such as age, gender, parents’ level of education, and previous physical and psychiatric diagnoses.

Although no specific health outcome was strongly associated with procrastination, the results suggest that procrastination may be of importance for a wide range of health outcomes, including mental health problems, disabling pain and an unhealthy lifestyle.

This shows a man fixated on a pin board
Does procrastination cause poor physical and mental health because people, say, put off starting a new exercise regime or seeing a doctor about a health problem? Or is it the other way around? Image is in the public domain

As mentioned above, in earlier studies, participants were only assessed at one point in time, making it hard to know which of the conditions came first: procrastination or poor health. By getting students to answer questionnaires at several time points, we could be sure that high procrastination levels were present before we measured their health.

But it is still possible that other factors not accounted for in our analysis could explain the associations between procrastination and subsequent poor health outcomes. Our results are not proof of cause and effect, but they suggest it more strongly than earlier “cross-sectional” studies.

It can be treated

There is good news for habitual procrastinators. Clinical trials (the gold standard of medical research) have shown that cognitive behavioural therapy is effective at reducing procrastination.

The treatment helps the person overcome procrastination by breaking up long-term goals into short-term goals, managing distractions (such as turning off mobile phones), and staying focused on a task despite experiencing negative emotions.

This requires some effort, so it is not something a person can do while trying to meet a specific deadline. But even small changes can have a large effect. You can try it yourself. Why not start today by leaving your mobile phone in another room when you need to stay focused on a task.

About this procrastination and mental health research news

Author: Eva Skillgate, Alexander Rozental, and Fred Johansson
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Eva Skillgate, Alexander Rozental, and Fred Johansson – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Associations Between Procrastination and Subsequent Health Outcomes Among University Students in Sweden” by Fred Johansson et al. JAMA Network Open


Associations Between Procrastination and Subsequent Health Outcomes Among University Students in Sweden


Procrastination is prevalent among university students and is hypothesized to lead to adverse health outcomes. Previous cross-sectional research suggests that procrastination is associated with mental and physical health outcomes, but longitudinal evidence is currently scarce.


To evaluate the association between procrastination and subsequent health outcomes among university students in Sweden.

Design, Setting, and Participants  

This cohort study was based on the Sustainable University Life study, conducted between August 19, 2019, and December 15, 2021, in which university students recruited from 8 universities in the greater Stockholm area and Örebro were followed up at 5 time points over 1 year. The present study used data on 3525 students from 3 time points to assess whether procrastination was associated with worse health outcomes 9 months later.


Self-reported procrastination, measured using 5 items from the Swedish version of the Pure Procrastination Scale rated on a Likert scale from 1 (“very rarely or does not represent me”) to 5 (“very often or always represents me”) and summed to give a total procrastination score ranging from 5 to 25.

Main Outcomes and Measures  

Sixteen self-reported health outcomes were assessed at the 9-month follow-up. These included mental health problems (symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress), disabling pain (neck and/or upper back, lower back, upper extremities, and lower extremities), unhealthy lifestyle behaviors (poor sleep quality, physical inactivity, tobacco use, cannabis use, alcohol use, and breakfast skipping), psychosocial health factors (loneliness and economic difficulties), and general health.


The study included 3525 participants (2229 women [63%]; mean [SD] age, 24.8 [6.2] years), with a follow-up rate of 73% (n = 2587) 9 months later. The mean (SD) procrastination score at baseline was 12.9 (5.4). An increase of 1 SD in procrastination was associated with higher mean symptom levels of depression (β, 0.13; 95% CI, 0.09-0.17), anxiety (β, 0.08; 95% CI, 0.04-0.12), and stress (β, 0.11; 95% CI, 0.08-0.15), and having disabling pain in the upper extremities (risk ratio [RR], 1.27; 95% CI, 1.14-1.42), poor sleep quality (RR, 1.09, 95% CI, 1.05-1.14), physical inactivity (RR, 1.07; 95% CI, 1.04-1.11), loneliness (RR, 1.07; 95% CI, 1.02-1.12), and economic difficulties (RR, 1.15, 95% CI, 1.02-1.30) at the 9-month follow-up, after controlling for a large set of potential confounders.

Conclusions and Relevance  

This cohort study of Swedish university students suggests that procrastination is associated with subsequent mental health problems, disabling pain, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, and worse psychosocial health factors. Considering that procrastination is prevalent among university students, these findings may be of importance to enhance the understanding of students’ health.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.