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Procrastination is bad for your health

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It's last-minute holiday shopping time: sales, sales, and crazy sales. And to many people, these sales are terrific. To Joseph Ferrari, it's a terrible sign that our culture is encouraging procrastination, to our overall detriment.

When Ferrari started studying procrastination in the 1980s, there was almost nothing published on the topic. Since then, psychologists have learned all kinds of things, like what parenting style leads to more procrastinators (authoritarian) and what personality traits are related to procrastination (lower conscientiousness). They've even learned that procrastinators feel especially removed from the self that they envision living in the future someday. Researchers have also been coming up with strategies to help people change their procrastinating ways.

I talked to Ferrari, a professor at DePaul University, about how our culture rewards last-minute action and how that might ever change:

Susannah Locke: For the chronic procrastinator, what’s the data on the negative effects it has on their lives?

Joseph Ferrari: All the data shows it’s maladaptive. Chronic procrastinators have low self-esteem, low self-worth. They are high on self-consciousness, high on self-handicapping. Experimentally, they handicap, they do worse, and they know it too. That’s an experiment we did. Procrastinators were poorer in self-regulation, and they knew that they were poor in this, as well. And relationships suffer. So there’s nothing positive.

The health research finds that they get sick more often. They have more headaches and more gastrointestinal problems. So why? Is it the procrastination? No, it’s probably the worry that goes along with this. So there are health implications, there are social implications, there are personal implications. And all of those are based on the data.

SL: How do our culture's attitudes about earliness make procrastination worse?

JF: We need to start, as a culture, rewarding the early bird. That old expression, "The early bird gets the worm"? We don’t do that anymore. Today we want to give everyone a piece of the worm, slice it and dice it, and make sure nobody gets offended and everybody gets the same piece, same size.

People say, Okay, that’s the date you want it, but you know what, when do you really want it? When’s the drop-dead deadline? If you think about that, it’s a very insulting comment, because what that is saying is you believe the person was lying to you when they said they need it by deadline X.

SL: What kinds of things in our culture eventually lead to things like "drop-dead deadlines"?

JF: Why do you have to get 80 percent off Christmas Eve? What we should be doing is saying, "No. Thanksgiving: 80 percent. And then less and less and less and less. And you wanna shop Christmas Eve? Absolutely, but there’s going to be a 25 percent surcharge for waiting for the last minute."

Why should I send my government a tax check before April 15 if I owe money? The government, instead of [giving] you a penalty on April 16, should be saying, "Send it to me February 15, and you take 4 percent off what you owe. Give it to me March 15 — 2 percent."

[Procrastinators] will change when we stop letting them off the hook. But this is going to take a mind change, a social change. We have to let people know you pay more for that last-minute airline ticket. You don’t get the best deals unless you buy it earlier.

SL: Stores must have good economic reasons for offering these sales, though. Why would a retailer want to give up last-minute Christmas deals?

JF: If [shoppers] buy the gift earlier, well, then the retailers get their money earlier. They can restock if they run out. There’s less panic at the end. There’s a lot of reasons why. But, no. What do people say? I’m gonna wait. And you know what, give me a gift card, and I’ll go after Christmas. And I’ll get 85 percent off.

SL: From a practical standpoint, do you really think the culture can change last-minute rewards? That’s a huge thing.

JF: It is a huge thing, and — this is going to sound trite, maybe — but articles like yours where we can really get the true information out there will change it. Now, look, 20 percent of people are chronic [procrastinators]. That means 80 percent of us are not. And so are we ever going to get that 20 percent down to zero? No. But can we cut into that a little? Sure.

The question is what do we do with the 80 percent — the 80 percent who procrastinate sometimes. If you’re the occasional procrastinator, yes, there are things you can do. Surround yourself with people who are doers. People who are into social media, publicly post what you’re going to do so you’re held accountable by other people.

As a culture, we should reward people for getting those taxes and the shopping done earlier. You’ll probably still have 15, 20 percent who will wait to do their taxes, but if we can get that 80 percent to do it earlier, that’s a huge success.

SL: Those last-minute sales seem like a business model that’s going to be difficult to go against. But maybe on the everyday level — teachers, managers, friends, spouses — it seems like there are some things there that individual people can do.

JF: I agree, but I think that we can change the others. Teachers are a good example. What teachers need to do is reward the student who hands that assignment in early.

SL: Why is reward a better strategy than punishment?

JF: Because we like incentives. It becomes an incentive that I can work for. Twenty percent of those students, they’re gonna wait. But if I have 100 students, if I can get 80 of them to give it to me earlier, then I only have 20 to read on the last day. That makes my life a lot easier. And I use this, and it works. Why? Because we like incentives. I’m not saying, "Reward for doing it." I’m saying, "Reward for doing it early."

This interview, which was originally published on December 24, 2014, has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

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