When you live with depression, you might have a harder time initiating and completing tasks when you need to.
Procrastination means delaying something, usually unnecessarily or deliberately, even when there may be looming consequences.
It’s natural to procrastinate once in a while. Maybe you waited to submit your work project until the very last minute, or you put off paying a bill so long that you incurred a late fee.
Postponing the inevitable doesn’t mean you live with a mental health condition, but procrastination is a behavior often experienced in people living with depression.
Procrastination isn’t one of the formal symptoms of depression. But it could be related to some of them.
“Procrastination is a behavior, whereas depression is a clinical diagnosis,” says Lauren Debiec, a therapist in Kailua Kona, Hawaii.
Debiec explains that when you live with depression, you may experience low energy and lack of motivation, making it challenging to accomplish activities you were accustomed to doing.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) establishes that an episode of depression can include symptoms such as:
- loss of interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed
- decreased focus and concentration
- feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, or emptiness
- sense of worthlessness or guilt
- low energy and fatigue
- thoughts of death or suicide ideation
According to Dr. Shauna Pollard, a licensed clinical psychologist from Rockville, Maryland, these symptoms of depression can lead to procrastination. In turn, procrastinating can sometimes worsen depression.
“We often put off or avoid experiences that we think unpleasant with the assumption that we will feel differently at a later time point,” she explains. “A person with depression will often overestimate how unpleasant a task will be or underestimate how long it will take them to complete [it].”
This can create a cycle of procrastinating and depression symptoms, says Pollard. The depression and associated
pessimism can keep you from asking for help or problem solving around barriers that make the task unpleasant.
Cognitive distortions in depression
Procrastination may sometimes be associated with negative thinking, something common in people with depression.
“Depression can make it difficult to stay calm and keep moving forward due to self-defeating thoughts. For example, that you’ll never be good enough or you might as well give up,” Pollard says.
These types of thoughts are known as cognitive distortions. They often make you see things more negatively or pessimistically than they are.
Cameron Murphey, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Oakland, California, says cognitive distortions can stop you from meeting your goals. They shift your focus toward questioning the purpose of completing tasks or meeting goals.
“This loss of focus on goals leads people to question the reason for doing a task, and their motivation suffers as a result,” he says.
Emotion regulation and cognitive function
Murphey also notes that depression contributes to negative thoughts and can also make it challenging for you to regulate emotions and perform cognitive tasks.
As a result, it might be challenging to focus on anything other than the negative feelings you’re experiencing.
You may not be able to plan, which may come off as procrastination.
“People with depression report having difficulty stringing thoughts together and planning even basic sequences of actions,” he says. “These cognitive challenges make it very hard to complete tasks, and as a result, people with depression are more likely to avoid these tasks because of this difficulty.”
What procrastination is not
Procrastination in depression isn’t laziness or mediocrity. The delay in doing things often has to do with symptoms like fatigue, low motivation, brain fog, and pessimistic thinking.
An avoidance strategy, also known as avoidance coping, is a way of dealing with stress through denying, avoiding, minimizing, or ignoring.
Procrastination is an avoidance strategy that allows temporary relief from the pressures of responsibility.
“Avoidance can be helpful as a short-term coping strategy. When overwhelmed, it can be helpful to put off stressful events or take a break,” says Pollard.
However, she cautions that habitual avoidance behavior doesn’t hold the same benefit.
“Chronic procrastination is problematic for everyone, and especially for those with depression,” she says. “Chronic procrastination in terms of your career, education, relationships, finances, health, and personal goals can lead to negative outcomes.”
Potentially. Murphey says sometimes procrastination can lead to depression, though it’s more often the other way around.
“Since it’s not always clear which came first, it can feel like a chicken and the egg problem,” he says.
Depression, however, isn’t the only driver behind procrastination.
In addition to other mental health conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), research suggests procrastination is also linked to:
- fear of critique or evaluation
- dislike of the task
- length of the effort
- low task aptitude
- fear of failure
- learned helplessness
- irrational thoughts
- lack of persistence
- negative self-evaluation
Procrastination as an outcome of depression may improve as other symptoms of depression are treated.
A mental health professional can help you identify factors contributing to procrastinating behaviors. They can also address your symptoms and help you develop coping skills to restructure unhelpful thinking patterns.
“In depression, procrastination is just one manifestation of the disorder,” says Debiec. “If you have depression and are not getting treatment for it, it’s going to be very difficult to do basic everyday things.”
Besides starting treatment for depression, these tips can help you manage procrastinating tendencies:
1. Mood shifting activities
“Engaging in mood shifting activities, like good music, exercise, or watching funny YouTube videos can help put you in a good mood before engaging in tasks prone to procrastination,” says Pollard.
2. Focusing on the start
“If you need to write an essay, set a goal of writing one sentence,” recommends Murphey. “This works as a strategy because getting started is the hardest part of overcoming procrastination. Once you get started, you are much more likely to continue with the activity.”
3. Rewarding yourself
Incentives can help overcome a lack of motivation and create positive reinforcement.
“When you begin to associate completing tasks with positive consequences, you are more likely to work on tasks that you might normally avoid,” Murphey says.
4. Getting other people involved
Ask a friend or family member to sit in the same room while you work on an important task, suggests Pollard, to help hold you accountable. Accountability partners can keep you motivated and feeling supported.
For important things to get done, you may need to sometimes have extra help when procrastination is an outcome of depression.
“Outsource tasks,” Pollard recommends, “if possible, like laundry, meal prep, grocery shopping, cleaning, even if only for a brief period of time.”
For example, you can ask a trusted friend or relative to pick up your kids from school or to help you prep the meals for the following week.
Procrastination is the deliberate delaying of a task. Everyone can engage in procrastination, and it isn’t a formal symptom of any mental health condition.
When you live with depression, though, some symptoms can make procrastination more likely.
Low energy, cognitive changes, and poor emotion regulation can contribute to a cycle of negative emotions and procrastination tendencies.
Treatment for depression, positive reinforcement, and accountability strategies may help lower the chances you’ll procrastinate.