How common is procrastination in college students and how does it relate to mental health?

March 30, 2023

How common is procrastination in college students and how does it relate to mental health?

Amaura Kemmerer, LICSW 
Executive Vice President of Client Engagement 

Discovering a far more unstructured lifestyle than they knew in high school, many students struggle with time management upon arriving at college. They might put off assignments, overestimating how much time remains before the deadline, only to find later they’ve fallen behind. They shrug off a last-minute submission or, worse, force an all-nighter, assuming that everyone procrastinates. And it’s true—almost everyone does, especially students. Yet the prevalence of procrastination on college campuses may be the reason the depth of the issue ends up flying under the radar.

The pervasiveness of procrastination among young people hardly negates the possible harms. When the American College Health Association (ACHA) surveyed tens of thousands of students for its annual National College Health Assessment last year, nearly three-quarters (73.9%) said they had experienced problems with procrastination in the previous 12 months. Far more students reported having struggled with procrastination during that time than any other challenge, including the other three most prevalent: personal appearance (53.3%), academics (48.2%) or finances (46.8%). Nearly half (47.4%) of all respondents also indicated that procrastination had negatively impacted their academic performance in the previous 12 months. Procrastination was the top factor identified by students that impeded academic performance, even beating out stress (41.3%).

The widespread barrier that procrastination poses to student success may reflect its relationship to mental health challenges. While popular opinion has associated procrastination with laziness, this kind of avoidance can in fact stem from larger emotional problems. As clinical psychologist Jenny Yip explained to CNN earlier this year: “Laziness is like, ‘I have absolutely no desire to even think about this.’ Procrastination is, ‘It troubles me to think about this. And therefore, it’s hard for me to get the job done.’ That’s a big difference.”

At best, college students might procrastinate due to disinterest in the task before them. At worse, they’re experiencing feelings of self-doubt, anxiety or perfectionism that make their impending responsibilities uncomfortable or even unbearable—so it’s more pleasant to steer clear of them altogether. Given the coinciding prevalence of procrastination and mental health challenges in students, the link between procrastination and anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may not come as a surprise.

Yet the mental health implications of procrastination aren’t limited to why students indulge the habit in the first place—the fallout is significant, too. Their inability to motivate or complete tasks in a timely manner, especially chronically, can weigh on them. The same perfectionism driving some students to procrastinate could end up depleting their sense of self-worth further, as they fail to live up to high standards of production and achievement. While avoiding an anxiety-inducing task may provide relief in the moment, it ultimately causes more stress. A 2023 study of Swedish college students demonstrated an association between not only procrastination and various mental health conditions but also physical health issues, including poor sleep and physical inactivity.

For most students who struggle with procrastination, the resources offered through Christie Campus Health can be an important addition to the services already offered through a college/university. Whether students are in search of time management assistance or mental health support, Christie offers customized solutions for college students to address a wide range of needs. Christie’s services include a 24/7 clinical support line; psychiatric prescribing; Navigators to assist with referrals and specialty care; science-backed meditation and mindfulness tools through the Headspace app; and SilverCloud, a self-directed and clinically validated Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT). Contact Christie Campus to learn more.

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