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I'll Look After My Health Later: The Costs of Procrastination

I'll look after my health later

Every procrastinator knows the stress associated with that needless delay. The question is, does this relate to increased illness as well? In fact, it's not just the stress associated with procrastination that may affect your health. Treatment delay and fewer wellness behaviors have been implicated in the procrastination-illness relationship.

There's little doubt about it. Procrastination is a behavioral style that may increase vulnerability to illness and various negative health outcomes. These are the conclusions of my colleague Dr. Fuschia Sirois of the University of Windsor. Dr. Sirois is a graduate of Carleton University, and given these results about treatment delay, it won't surprise you that she spent some time thinking about procrastination with me while she was completing her doctoral dissertation on the concept of health locus of control. I was very happy she did, as Dr. Sirois is another of those amazing students with whom I've had the pleasure to work. Now an associate professor of psychology, her research contributes to our understanding of health and well-being.

"I'll look after my health later" is part of the title of two of her publications. The first, done at Carleton while she was completing her doctoral studies, was based on a large student sample. The second publication replicated and extended the earlier results with a community sample of adults. This was an important replication given the differences between a relatively healthy population of young adults vs. the older community sample. In each sample, she found similar results, but the effects of stress and the role of treatment delay and wellness behaviors varied.

Based on the research on personality and health, Dr. Sirois hypothesized that the poor health of procrastinators may be explained DIRECTLY by the stress resulting from procrastination, and INDIRECTLY by the tendency to put off important health behaviors. So, the direct route by which procrastination affects health is stress and its associated psychophysiological reactivity that leads to changes in immune function that can adversely affect health. The indirect route involves our delay of health-protective behaviors (e.g., healthy eating, exercise) and the promotion of unhealthy behaviors and treatment delay (e.g., fewer check-ups, delay in making necessary appointments).

Her research methods for both studies consisted of a battery of questionnaires that included measures of procrastination, stress, health behaviors, treatment delay and health (e.g., acute physical health problems). She used different approaches to test the relations among these variables, including Structural Equation Modeling (for those of you with an interest in this sort of thing). Her findings were relatively consistent across the samples.

Procrastination was associated with higher stress, a greater number of acute health problems, the practice of fewer wellness behaviors, and less frequent dental and medical check-ups. Stress was associated with poor health and less frequent wellness and health-care behaviors, which in turn were related to poor health.

Overall with the community sample, the test of her whole model revealed that stress, but not health behaviors, fully mediated the relationship between procrastination and health. This is statistical language to say that once we take into account stress, the relation between procrastination and illness disappears. Procrastination is related to illness through stress. Only when she omitted stress in the model did health behaviors mediate the effects of procrastination on health. This is contrast to her undergraduate sample where stress only partially mediated the effects of procrastination on health. As Sirois notes, "This may be in part due to the younger and healthier students . . . who may have been less vulnerable to the negative effects of stress than the adult [sample]." She even found a relation between procrastination and fewer household safety behaviors such as checking and replacing the batteries in smoke detectors (behaviors with potentially devastating consequences). I'll leave the details of this research to another time.

Taken together, this research clearly shows that trait procrastination (our tendency to procrastinate in most areas of our lives quite chronically) is linked with poor health in adults, and that this association is best explained by the direct effects of stress. In addition, the indirect effects of health behaviors on the health of procrastinators is an important contribution to our understanding of how personality plays a role in our understanding of health.

This research demonstrates the far-reaching effects of procrastination in our lives. We don't just suffer the inconvenience or pressure of the "all-nighter" and last-minute-effort, we may actually delay engaging in health-promoting behaviors and treatment seeking, all to the detriment of our health. As Dr. Sirois concludes her paper, "By hindering health-care check-ups and the practice of wellness behaviors, procrastination may confer additional risk for increased stress and subsequently more health problems."


Blogger's note: We'll come back to some of Dr. Sirois' other research in the area of health as well as her research on procrastination and counterfactual thinking.

Sirois, F. M. (2007). Procrastination and motivations for household safety behaviors: An expectancy-value theory perspective. In L. V. Brown (Ed.) Psychology of Motivation, Nova Science Publishers, pp. 153-165.

Sirois, F. M. (2007). "I'll look after my health, later": A replication and extension of the procrastination-health model with community-dwelling adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 43 (1), 15-26.

Sirois, F. M., Melia-Gordon, M.L., & Pychyl, T. A. (2003). "I'll look after my health, later": An investigation of procrastination and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 35 (5),1167-1184.