Residents: Is procrastination hijacking your health? Maybe so, according to research

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published February 27, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • According to JAMA, procrastination among university students is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor sleep quality, physical inactivity, loneliness, and economic stress.   

  • Studies show that people who have a positive affect, ie, "frequent feelings of cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and energy” are less likely to procrastinate and do not seem to need time pressure to spur them to action.

  • Experts say that efforts to enhance emotional regulation skills, including emotional awareness, acceptance of aversive emotions, resilience, and self-support in distressing situations, may reduce the tendency to procrastinate.

As resident physicians, how many times have you waited until the last minute to get an assignment done? Be honest: How often do you skim through the requirements of a big project only to then turn on the TV to binge your favorite shows, or watch cat videos?

We’ve got unfortunate news for you: Not only does procrastination keep you from checking big to-do’s off your list, but it may also be linked to a series of poor health outcomes. In order to prevent procrastination from hijacking your health, residents may want to learn to adopt better emotional regulation skills.

Procrastination and health

Procrastination is common among young people, especially students who have lots of freedom in their schedules. Emerging research, however, points to a possible link between procrastination and adverse health outcomes.

A 2023 study published by JAMA Network Open looked at this link with the help of 3,525 students from eight Swedish universities between August 2019 and December 2021.[] Researchers followed up with the students a total of five times over the course of 1 year.

At baseline, the mean (SD) procrastination score was 12.9 (5.4). The study findings showed that an increase of 1 SD in procrastination was associated with worse mental health, including higher mean symptom levels of depression, stress, and anxiety.

The increase in procrastination score also correlated with lower sleep quality, having disabling pain in the upper extremities, and physical inactivity.

Finally, these same students expressed higher levels of loneliness and economic difficulty when compared with students who did not procrastinate as much.

In sum, mental health, physical well-being, and psychosocial health may all be influenced by procrastination, according to JAMA.

So, what drives students to put off their work?

Positive affect and pressure

A few key factors may explain why some people procrastinate more often than others,  according to a 2022 article published by the Journal of Business and Psychology.[] The investigators specifically looked at: 1) positive affect as a personal factor, and 2) time pressure as a situational factor.

Positive affect, the authors say, is marked by “frequent feelings of cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and energy.” 

Individuals who have higher positive affect, the authors state, are less likely to procrastinate. These people do not seem to need time pressure to prevent procrastination and spur them to action.

For people who have low positive affect, however, time pressure can be particularly important. For example, one study found that when participants with low positive affect were under high day-specific time pressure, they procrastinated less.

The authors of the article stress the importance of these findings.

“For people who experience low positive affect, time pressure helped to overcome procrastination,” they wrote. “Future research may want to investigate long-term changes in time pressure and positive affect and their relationship.”

Regulating emotions

Now you know that procrastinating is associated with poor health. You also know that, if you tend to procrastinate, you may be able to use time pressure to your advantage.

What other strategies can you employ to stop pushing off your work?

According to a 2022 study published by Frontiers in Psychology, building up your emotional regulation skills may be top on the list.[]

The study looked at the effects of a 9-week online emotional regulation (ER) training course on university students’ tendency to procrastinate.

Researchers used the Emotion Regulation Skills Assessment Questionnaire (ERSQ) to assess nine ER skills at baseline and post-training. The nine ER skills consist of awareness, sensations, clarity, understanding, acceptance of aversive emotions, resilience, self-support in distressing situations, readiness to confront distressing situations, and modification.

The results showed that the applied training of general emotional regulation skills led to a significant reduction in procrastination behaviors among those who received it, compared with those who did not.  

Although further research is necessary to substantiate these findings, they indicate that, if you are a procrastinator, you may be able to turn to ER skills to help you avoid putting things off until tomorrow. In this way, you may prevent procrastination from getting in the way of your residency—and your health.

Emerging research shows that procrastination among students may be linked with poor mental and psychosocial health, as well as unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. A closer look at the factors that contribute to the tendency to procrastinate reveals that individuals with low positive affect are more likely to exhibit procrastination. Experts say that in order to beat procrastination, students can cultivate better emotional regulation skills, such as awareness, acceptance of aversive emotions, resilience, and self-support in distressing situations.

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