Though you may believe that procrastination only has immediate ramifications—that marked-down grade on your late term paper, the fee added to your overdue credit card payment—it actually has long-term consequences that touch almost every area of your life.
Procrastinators have poorer health, greater risk for mental health conditions, lower self-esteem, lower salaries, shorter periods of employment, greater risk of unemployment, and general misery. Let’s look at some examples of what happens to your life when you put things off.
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1. Your Mental and Physical Health Decline
I met Ashley after her first semester of law school. She hadn’t managed her assignments well and by the end of the semester, she was depressed and discouraged about her ability to ever become an attorney. She was also having panic attacks caused by severe stress.
Like Ashley, 94 percent of procrastinators report that procrastinating has a negative impact on their happiness (Steel, 2007). When procrastination causes emotional distress, they tend to engage in fewer healthy coping strategies to mitigate that distress, which means procrastination ultimately contributes to self-blame, self-criticism, anxiety, depression, and perceived stress.
Sometimes, we use procrastination as a way to reduce stress, thinking, “If I postpone studying for the test, then I’ll feel less stressed now.” And that’s true—as long as the test is far away. But as the test date approaches, procrastinators actually feel even more stressed and have more physical health problems (headaches, digestive issues, colds and flus, insomnia, etc.) than non-procrastinators.
It’s not just that they’re transferring the same amount of stress to a later time point; research shows that they actually create more stress for themselves overall by procrastinating.
Procrastination creates stress (not the other way around, by the way), and stress then activates a host of physiological processes in your body.
These processes ultimately compromise your immunity and disrupt your body’s inflammatory processes. This increases your risk for health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
Plus, that stress response discourages us from doing the very things that keep us healthy, like exercising, eating healthy meals, and sleeping enough.
2. You Lose Money
Chronic procrastination doesn’t just hurt your body and mind; it also hurts your wallet. A 2002 study by H&R Block (Kasper, 2004) found that 40 percent of Americans waited until April to file their taxes.
Procrastinating on filing their taxes cost them $400 on average, due to late fees or errors caused by rushing through their work. The government got more than $473 million in overpayments from Americans in 2002 due to these errors.
That same survey also found that many Americans procrastinate on saving for the future. This means instead of spending your retirement playing shuffleboard, bringing back the Macarena on the dance floor, and sipping cocktails on a private beach in Mexico, you’ll still be holding down your 9-to-5 because you didn’t save up for retirement.
Procrastination can cost money in lots of other, smaller ways, like incurring late fees because you didn’t pay your bills on time, getting stuck with a sweater that looked way better in the catalog because you didn’t get around to returning it in time or having to pay for car service to the airport because you didn’t leave early enough to use public transportation.
3. You Don’t Do Your Best Work
In addition to compromising our financial well-being, procrastinating means we just don’t do our best work. My client Mason put off writing a letter to his boss explaining his team’s frustrations with the company’s new policies.
In the end, he only had an hour to write the entire thing. Rushed, he forgot some of their key concerns, didn’t have time to have his team approve the letter, and made typos, which compromised how seriously his boss took the team’s complaints. Mason’s story is relatable because procrastinators often produce inferior work.
At school, this shows up as lower grades on assignments and exams, lower GPAs, and greater likelihood of withdrawing from courses. But even after graduation, procrastination is associated with compromised work quality.
4. Your Relationships Suffer
One of the most brilliant clients I ever worked with came to me because he had procrastinated so much that his marriage was falling apart. Michael, 42, was a highly successful business owner with a strong marriage, who would be anyone’s nominee for “Dad of the Year.”
For years, he failed to keep track of his business’s finances—it just never seemed urgent enough. But small bookkeeping errors added up until the business was in serious jeopardy.
That, of course, meant his family’s welfare, security, and relationships were in jeopardy, as well. Without a profitable business, they couldn’t afford their home, their Disney vacation, or even their five-year-old daughter’s dance lessons.
Michael’s story is one I hear often from my clients: They struggle so much to get motivated that their relationships fall apart. In fact, if I’m honest, the relationship piece is what gets people into my office more than anything else. We can pretend everything’s fine until the people we love are impacted.
We think of procrastination as a me problem. Who cares if I stay up all night finishing a project or put off folding my clothes? It’s not hurting anyone but me. But in many cases, procrastination is actually a we problem.
Michael procrastinated paying bills and filing taxes, and his wife felt betrayed, deceived, and resentful as a result. She couldn’t trust him with the business anymore, she couldn’t depend on him to ask for help when needed, and she was constantly afraid he was hiding more. The long-term financial impact of his procrastination made her feel vulnerable, scared, and angry.
You don’t have to be a parent or a business owner to have procrastination damage your relationships. When we don’t respond to our coworkers’ emails or phone calls in a timely manner, when we avoid discussing relationship problems with our partners, and when we delay making plans with our friends, we create extra problems for the people around us. In short, we turn me procrastination into we annoyance, exasperation, and irritation.
5. You Feel Good…Until You Don’t
Procrastination causes some problems, but it also feels really good. It’s so much more enjoyable to spend a night watching Netflix, scrolling Instagram, and clicking “Add to Cart” than it is to spend that time folding clothes, creating a budget, and updating your résumé.
At least for a minute. But later on, of course, we have to pay for procrastinating on important tasks. “Paying” for it can mean feeling stressed while we rush to get things done at the last minute, feeling demoralized by unmet goals, feeling defeated by mounting incomplete tasks, and feeling ashamed of how procrastination has affected the people we love.
Ultimately, the guilt we feel for repeating the cycle and letting ourselves down (…again) taints the enjoyable activities we’re procrastinating with.
We generally assume that procrastination is a problem of organization or time management. And it can be, in part. But as we discussed earlier, it’s actually as much about feelings as it is about behaviors.
When we think about a task we need to do, we start to feel some pretty uncomfortable feelings: overwhelmed, bored, immobilized, burdened, etc. Most humans don’t like feelings, so we try to figure out a way to dodge or avoid them.
Of course, procrastinating means we don’t accomplish whatever task we were thinking about doing, but it also means that we save ourselves from feeling uncomfortable.
The relief we feel from postponing a task and avoiding those feelings is addictive and makes us more likely to procrastinate the next time those same feelings pop up again. In other words, we’re actually conditioning ourselves to continue to procrastinate.