Break free from procrastination for better health

procrastinationAre you a procrastinator?

Someone who regularly selects to carry out less urgent tasks in preference to doing more urgent ones?

Most of us procrastinate as we seek to prioritise our work, however it is estimated that around 20% of people are chronic procrastinators who may reshuffle their “to do” list so often that very little progress is made each day 1

While procrastinators may believe that the urgent task “will get sorted soon because they work better under pressure” 2 they could also be endangering their mental and physical health, their credibility and relationships.

Signs of procrastination

Here are a few examples of procrastinating behaviour:

In the workplace

  • You choose lower priority things to do first
  • Re-reading emails, surfing the internet or checking Face book
  • Starting something and stopping it soon after or opting for a coffee or telephone chat instead.
  • Ignoring important tasks by saying ‘yes’ to unimportant things
  • Waiting for the ‘right moment’ to tackle the job

All of these things could be quite legitimate ways that you get your work done. Particularly if you are tired, feeling unwell or just trying to prioritise a heavy workload.

Problems can set in if procrastination undermines your performance and opportunities for advancement. If you fail to meet deadlines and start developing a reputation for empty promises then people may start to side step you, afraid if they give you a job and you let down then they will have to do your work as well as their own. 3

In your relationships

  • You regularly arrange to met up with friends and continually cancel due to work pressures.
  • You delay making important decisions. This problem can become compounded because when you procrastinate you are forced to make decisions under time constraints and based on a set of criteria (e.g. fear of failure/missing out) that weren’t issues at the start. This can place you at greater risk of making poor decisions. 3
  • You notice a loss of confidence as self sabotaging behaviours lower your self-esteem. 3

In your health and fitness routines

  • You postpone your gym assessment, doctor or dietitians appointment
  • You continually grab food on the run
  • You put all your ‘thin’ clothes to the back of the wardrobe
  • You say “yes” to the morning tea cakes and savouries, the extra glasses of wine after work or offers of takeaways.
  • You put off weighing yourself or getting your blood sugar or cholesterol checked because its easier/less stressful not “knowing”.
  • You forego the gym (yet again) for more time in bed.

The effects of procrastination on health

Over the past 20 years psychological researchers have agreed that a poor concept of time management may exacerbate the problem of procrastination. However they also believe that an inability to manage emotions seems to be at its very foundation 4

Increased feelings of stress and anxiety

In 1997 researchers from Florida,Tice and Baumeister 5 found that students given a task were healthier at the beginning of the year (when they could exercise choice over their time management). However by the end of the year those who had procrastinated over finishing their tasks reported more stress and anxiety than their peers who had completed the task on time. They also scored lower grades. So procrastination not only affected work and health outcomes but also their sense of well-being.

Mood swings

Social theorists like Ferrari and Psychl 6 have found that people often put off a task in order to seek pleasure and relieve stress in the short-term. However the longer they procrastinated the more they felt an increased sense of guilt, anxiety and depression. While procrastinators recognised the temporary harm they are doing they found it hard to overcome the emotional urge towards a diversion.

Increase risk of harm

Chronic procrastinators may not understand the feedback loop of learning from their mistakes. In 2004 Sirosis 7 observed that procrastinators may lack awareness of this and that people who concentrate on feeling good now could miss out on a lot in the future if they failed to change their behaviour or learn by experience.

For instance a procrastinator may put off checking a mole with their doctor until it becomes problematic.

Their interpretations of events could be “ at least I caught it in time” thereby feeling good about the short-term outcome instead of drawing learning from the event which may have made them feel temporarily bad, but taught them an important lesson “if I had gone earlier I might not have ended up with such a big scar on my neck”

Helpful tips for better health.

Be aware of when you procrastinate the most.

Procrastination at work, home and in relationships can lead to ill-health. So if you are keen to take action it is important to monitor the self talk, emotions and vulnerabilities that are driving your procrastination.

  • Who are you with? certain friends or family sabotage your efforts to complete tasks on time?
  • What conditions make it worse? E.g. are you hungry or sleep deprived?
  • What are the feelings you have prior to “letting things slide”? Is it when you are tired?; under stress; feeling “put down”;
  • Is the “job” unpleasant or boring? Maybe you hate the thought of exercise and find it boring or have tried diets in the past which failed so assume the same thing will happen if you try again.
  • Is your life too busy with no room for “extras” ? Often life becomes so full with commitments to others that making time for yourself to exercise or try new eating routines is just too hard to contemplate.
  • Do you lack the skills to do the job well ? Learning how to exercise or lose weight can actually quite easy, but knowing how to apply these things when other distractions arise may require a completely different set of skills.
  • Do you feel overwhelmed by the task at hand?  Perhaps you’ve stalled the job for so long that it feels too “big” to achieve. When you focus on the big picture of say losing 20-30kgs+ or training for a marathon, the task can seem daunting.
  • Are you a “perfectionist?  Perhaps you are worried about failure or not being able to give of your best. Maybe you would rather have people think that you lack effort rather than that you lack the ability or knowledge to achieve results 1

Sharpen your powers of executive functioning

Neuropsychologist researchers such as Rabin in 2011 8 has looked at the frontal systems of the brain and in particular the areas related to executive functioning ( e.g. planning, organisation, task monitoring, working memory) to see if chronic procrastination is due to specific mental dysfunction and how it may respond to behavioural interventions and counselling. She found that this could be achieved if people:

  • Broke the project down into smaller tasks
  • Set deadlines for each stage and monitor progress daily
  • Sought counselling or advice for behavioural modification

Certainly in the case of weight loss and fitness, self reporting, keeping food diaries and obtaining professional support can help to improve performance. It can also help to  ensure that the key nutrients that assist brain function are being consumed in adequate amounts each day.

Find the positive now

In 2010 Sirosis 7 and Ferrari 1 both concluded that rather than punishing people for lateness we should reward “the early bird”. In other words we have to encourage people to find something positive and worthwhile in the task they are postponing so that it becomes a personally more meaningful experience than the sum of all the distractions.

The earlier people recognise the emotional forces that are driving procrastination the sooner they can make changes. As Psychl has observed: “Procrastination is a self-inflicted wound that gradually chips away at the most valuable resource in the world: time. You only get a certain number of years. What are you doing?”6

Seek help

If you would like to stop procrastinating over health issues and take positive steps to find more energy to meet your commitments then contact us today.

For more information refer to other articles Lea has written on similar topics:

Are you seeking motivation?

Tips to move you off the couch

Accept responsibility for your own success

Overcome misconceptions about weight for better family health

Find optimism for goal success

Is stress making you fat?

Avoid self sabotage


  1. Ferrari JR. 2010 Still Procrastinating? The no regrets guide to getting things done. (Hoboken; NJ: Wiley).
  2. Perry, J. (2012). The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing. (New York, Workman).
  3. O’Donovan K. 2015 8 ways procrastination can destroy your life
  4. Jaffe E. Why wait? The Science behind procrastination
  5. Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science, 8, 454–458.
  6. Pychyl, T. A., Lee, J. M., Thibodeau, R., & Blunt, A. (2000). Five days of emotion: An experience sampling study of undergraduate student procrastination. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 239–254.
  7. Sirois, F. M. (2004). Procrastination and counterfactual thinking: Avoiding what might have been. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 269–286.
  8. Rabin, L. A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K. E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344–357.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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