Why Procrastination Is a Health Risk and How to Stop

If you delayed making any New Year’s resolutions this year, it’s not too late to set one important goal for yourself for the coming year: Stop procrastinating.

When life gets busy, it can be so tempting to push off those boring or difficult tasks and take a few minutes to browse Facebook or watch some TV.

But, researchers have found that when those Facebook or TV moments add up, they can affect your health in unexpected ways. Constant procrastination can make you more likely to get sick and bring you down. Not to mention, of course, that you have work to finish that isn’t getting done.

Here are some of the unanticipated side effects of constant procrastination, and some recommendations from experts to beat the urge to put off unpleasant tasks.

Procrastination, stress

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Getting sick

Constant procrastination causes us a lot of stress, says Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago and author of the book, “Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done.” It makes us uptight and tense, worrying about whether we can get our work done. Even if we might think we work better under the pressure of an approaching deadline, Ferrari said it is likely that waiting until the last minute just stresses us out.

That anxiety can wear down our immune system, Ferrari says. And, during these cold winter months, that makes us even more likely to get sick. “We’re finding nothing positive with this lifestyle.”

Sneezing, cold, flu, sick

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Putting off healthy behaviors

When procrastination becomes a way of life, it can make us delay sleeping, exercising or eating well, says Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, who has researched procrastination extensively. We might put off going to the doctor if we’re not feeling well, or paying our bills, or changing smoke detector batteries.

Relationships suffer

We can let down friends, family, and coworkers when we procrastinate, Pychyl said. If we don’t get all of our work done in the office, we have to take it home, which gives us less time to spend with our friends or family. Or, we might miss deadlines and cause trouble for our bosses.

All of this adds up to make us feel bad about ourselves and drive us crazy. Or, as Pychyl says, “Procrastination brings us down.”

How to stop

For many of us, ending procrastination is not as easy as simply deciding to get our work done. Ferrari estimates that about one-fourth of the population are chronic procrastinators, meaning procrastination is a way of life. And even those who are not chronic procrastinators occasionally delay completing tasks.

Luckily, Ferrari and Pychyl have recommended some tips to help you get started on your work early.

Procrastinate, work, stress, health

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Recognize our “inner six-year-old”

Often, people procrastinate because the temptation to do what makes us happy right now overrides the knowledge that getting our work done will make us happier in the long term. Our “inner six-year-old” is running the show, says Pychyl.

We won’t feel differently about the task at hand tomorrow. In fact, we will probably feel worse about it. So Pychyl recommends we focus on how our future selves will feel if we don’t get our work done now. Take a breath, try to calm down, and just get started on that task.

Set specific goals and reward yourself

When you decide to complete a task, set a specific deadline for yourself, Pychyl says. Deciding to do some of your laundry over the weekend is too vague to be effective. Instead, try deciding to do one load of laundry right after breakfast. That will hold you accountable to a specific deadline.

When you meet your goal, reward yourself, Ferrari says. Indulge in popcorn and a soda at the movies, or let yourself buy those concert tickets.

Turn to social media

There is nothing like Facebook to hold you accountable. Try posting a goal or task to a social media account, so your friends can check up on you and make sure you are getting to work, says Ferrari. It also helps if you surround yourself with friends who are “do-ers.” “We’re more likely to do things if we’re publicly held accountable,” he says.

Focus on getting started

Try to think about how you will begin the task. Don’t think about how difficult the project is, or how long your work will take, advises Ferrari. Set small goals on your way to completing the larger task.

Focus on getting most, not all, of the task done. Psychologists consider completing 80 to 85% of your goal a success, he says. Even if you don’t finish all of your work, you can be proud to finish most of it.

So just get started. If we keep waiting to be in the mood to go to the gym, or to begin our work, or to do the dishes, we will never get them done, says Pychyl. The best thing is “if you can just find a way to get started and prime the pump.”

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