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  • Writer's pictureEllie Rentoul, Corporate Coach

Why is procrastination bad for your health

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Why do we put things off? Do you ever find yourselves saying any of the following when you know you should be working on an important task (e.g. preparing a family budget, writing your company’s business plan, starting an exercise programme, working on tax paperwork, menu-planning and shopping for healthy meals, working on a difficult work project etc)?

1. This is just too hard...

2. I don’t have time right now - I’ll deal with it tomorrow, next week, next month...

3. This task is unpleasant/boring/tedious/messy

4. I’m not in the mood right now

5. I simply don’t have all the information/components/ingredients I need to do it

6. I’m simply overwhelmed - please leave me alone!

7. I’m not really clear what I should be doing

8. I’m just not that interested..

9. I’m interrupted too often by my colleagues/children/spouse/friends/neighbours

10. I don’t have the energy now

11. I’m not organised enough - but will be very soon and then...

12. It isn’t actually due for a while...

Let’s face it: most of us procrastinate sometimes. Heck, I have days when I KNOW I should be working an important project (like writing this blog, for example!) - but instead I’m either “choosing” to clean the house or, worse, spend time on social media or online shopping. When it becomes a frequent habit, however, procrastination will get in the way of our productivity, goal fulfilment, and the maintenance and enhancement of our reputation, to say nothing of our relationships! Therefore, it makes sense to develop the skill of standing back from yourself and HONESTLY acknowledging when we are procrastinating – and then figuring out why. And that, my friends, we all know is NOT always easy as we are biologically programmed to reduce ‘dissonance’ by looking at a more favourable explanation of why we haven’t achieved results or completed our task (see the 12 possible explanations above). So, how DO we look at ourselves in a more constructive way?

First, it is helpful to identify the activities that you prefer to do INSTEAD of the tasks that you KNOW you should be doing and are avoiding:

1. What ARE the activities we choose when we procrastinate?

2. Are there certain “favourite” activities that repeatedly see you put off your important tasks?

For example, some people (including myself) say that they will just check their emails before they start on their A task. But there are several notifications from the social media sites on which they are active, and by the time they read and respond to all the new posts, the leftover bits of time AND your energy for the important project are seriously compromised. Perhaps you are just going to “tidy up the office” (yep - me again!) before beginning – and you get caught up in complicated re-arranging.

Or maybe you think you will think better after a run? Of course, going for a daily run is a great thing to do for your health and fitness. But why not chose to go for a run when you are taking a break from your project?

Perhaps you are one of those people who are motivated by urgency (remember cramming all your studies JUST before the exams or writing your company’s business plan the night before it is due - until 4am?). Some people feel like they do their best work under pressure, so they wait until the last possible moment – when the task is at emergency level – and then they put in a heroic effort to get across the line on time! There is bad news and good news about procrastination.

1. Why is habitual procrastination (or procrastination as a personality trait) bad for our health?

Now the first bad news about habitual procrastination is that it is actually bad for our physical and psychological health. Researches led by psychologist F. M. Sirois from Bishop’s University in Quebec, Canada, have found that habitual procrastination can lead to heart problems, headaches, digestive issues, colds and flus, and insomnia (Crew, 2015). Unfortunately, Sirois’s study didn’t attempt to uncover a reason WHY procrastination and heart disease may be linked, but there are some obvious possibilities (offered by science journalist Melissa Dahl). People who are habitual procrastinators may be likely to put off dreary chores like exercising or eating healthily, and the avoidance of these can of course lead to chronic health issues, like heart disease. And, as anyone who’s ever procrastinated on anything knows, people who put undesirable tasks off still, eventually, have to ACTUALLY DO THESE TASKS - and when they do, they’ll be under more stress than necessary, because they’ve allowed themselves less time to get the thing done. Stress, and its main culprit’s Cortisol detrimental effect on the body’s inflammatory responses, is well known to contribute to heart disease, digestive and reduction in the function of the immune system (i.e. stressed people get sick easier and take longer to recover)

2. Procrastinating is also not great for your career progression

The second, less dangerous, outcome of habitual procrastination is that people are not often recognised or promoted for putting on a heroic last minute effort to meet a deadline or to put out fires; they stay at their current professional level because there will always be fires to put out! Employees who can avoid or solve the problems that caused the fires are more likely to be promoted. For families with a stay-at-home parent who is a procrastinator the list of potential problems is endless: from kids not having the right uniform/stationery/equipment in time for school to families eating frozen ‘tv-dinners’ five nights per week or bills not paid on time - resulting in fines and extra charges.

Procrastination’s good news

If you find that you are procrastinate regularly, don’t despair! The good news is that taking control back from procrastination is NOT IMPOSSIBLE! .

1. The Number One rule to heal procrastination pain is to work on avoided tasks FIRST THING IN THE MORNING (many of my clients know about this mantra of mine J). If morning is not your best time (due to shift work or other committments) - chose the time when you feel it is YOUR “power hour” (the time of the day you are most productive). Most people have more energy then as your glucose levels are high and you have recharged after a good night’s sleep. It is scientifically proven that most people can focus better and make better decisions earlier in the day (before the glucose level drop by about 1pm) and then again 20-30min after a meal. So: DON’T put out the “urgent but not important” fires first! Do your “difficult but important” tasks first thing in the morning (Zeigler, 2005)! See Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix in Fig 1. Below.

2. Break up major projects into smaller tasks, which can be individually scheduled. Once you get going on some, momentum will tend to build to carry you through to completion (Tracy, 2010).

3. Program your subconscious mind to help. Now this may sound like some ‘hippy nonsense’ - but it works!! Repeat with energy and enthusiasm – as often as necessary – “Do it now, do it now, do it now!” Remind yourself of the importance of the project, the need to stay on your schedule, and the appeal of the rewards you have planned to give yourself for doing this. Eventually your subconscious mind will get the message and gather up the energy for you to complete the project: on time.

4. Stop being an adrenalin junkie. The point is not to discourage you from hard work. Rather, it is to urge you to plan and schedule in the needed tasks in a timely fashion rather than intentionally working under pressure. Even if you feel you are brilliant in adversity, the fact that you created the adversity through procrastinating may not go down well with those around you (or worse, above you!) (Zeigler, 2005).

The Eisenhower Decision-Making Model - to help you decide WHAT you should be working on right now

The Eisenhower principle describes how President Dwight D. Eisenhower organised his workload. Eisenhower’s insight was that you should throw away all those to-do lists that you laboriously update each day and instead concentrate on doing what is important to you. By definition, only work that helps you achieve your objectives/goals is important. Bearing in mind that he masterminded Operation Overload (D-Day), he probably knew what he was talking about!

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