Are Depression And Procrastination Connected?


Mental health and productivity, two cornerstones of a balanced life, often play tug of war. When one falters, the other seems to stumble too. Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), the heavyweight champion in the ring of mental disorders, affects a huge chunk of the population. Estimates tell us it’s touched as many as 13.5-21.2% of us at some point in our lives. More so, around 5% of us are wrestling with it right now.[1]

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, procrastination is emerging as a surprisingly common adversary. A study from a few years back, conducted in Germany, dropped some knowledge that resonates universally: Procrastination is not just the thief of time. It’s a silent enemy of peace, leading to higher stress levels, fatigue, and less satisfaction in life, especially when it comes to work and income. What’s more, it even shows ties with symptoms of depression and anxiety.[2]

This raises an intriguing question: Is there a connection between depression and procrastination? Could it be that one fuels the other?

In this article, I’ll break down the links and explore potential coping strategies.

Understanding Procrastination and Depression

Procrastination – a big word for a simple thing.

It’s doing what feels good now instead of doing what you know needs to be done. It’s choosing the tasty treat of ‘easy’ over the nutritional value of ‘important.’ From putting off your laundry to delaying a crucial decision, it’s everywhere.

The mind of a procrastinator is often full of perfectionists. These folks would rather not start something than risk not doing it perfectly. The fear of what others might think, the dread of judgment, becomes a roadblock that stops them in their tracks.

Then there are the thrill-seekers who say they work better under pressure. It’s not really about doing their best work, but about that adrenaline rush they get when they’ve beaten the clock. They trick themselves into believing they’re performing at their best, even when the research begs to differ.

At the root of it all, we procrastinate because we’re trying to dodge discomfort. We fear that we might not enjoy the task, or even worse, we might mess it up. Whether it’s confusion over complex tasks like filing taxes, distractions buzzing around, or simply feeling worn out, we choose to delay.

Several psychological factors drive this behavior – from lack of self-confidence to a sense of unstructured chaos or plain difficulty in self-motivation. Interestingly, research has found a close tie between procrastination and rumination, which is getting stuck on negative thoughts.[3] It’s a bit like having a song stuck in your head, except the song is a chorus of doubts and worries.

Depression, another big word, and an even bigger challenge.

It’s a mood disorder that packs quite a punch. It’s serious, common, and it impacts how a person feels, thinks, and does the day-to-day stuff – like sleeping, eating, or working.[4]

There are different types of depression, each with its own characteristics and triggers:

  • Major Depression — a leading player in the world of mental disorders, especially in the US.[5] This form of depression brings on a downcast mood or a loss of interest in almost everything. It’s like carrying a cloud of gloom around you, and it’s there most of the time, for at least two weeks. It hinders daily activities, throwing a wrench in the gears of everyday life.
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder[6] – Picture it like a low-level hum of depression, always in the background. It might not hit as hard as major depression, but it sure is stubborn. It sticks around, with its combo of depressive symptoms, for two years or more.
  • Perinatal Depression[7]
  • — specific to the journey of pregnancy and childbirth. If it sets in during pregnancy, we call it prenatal depression. When it shows up after the baby is born, we call it postpartum depression.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder[8] – This type of depression is like a fair-weather friend. It comes when the leaves fall and the days shorten, sticking around for the colder months. But once spring and summer roll in, it’s out the door.

Depression isn’t just one thing. It has many faces, and it can show up in different ways.

Depression and procrastination might seem like an odd pair, but they’re more linked than you’d think. The symptoms of depression can lay the groundwork for procrastination.

The Vicious Cycle: How Depression Fuels Procrastination

Depression can set up the perfect storm for procrastination. It’s not that people with depression want to procrastinate; it’s that their symptoms can make it tough to do anything else. But understanding this connection is the first step in breaking the cycle.

Depression on Motivation and Cognitive Functioning

Depression can mess with your attention and memory. It can slow down your information processing and decision-making skills.[9] It’s like you’re trying to run a race with one leg.

Depression can also rob you of your cognitive flexibility – that’s your ability to bob and weave through life, adjusting your goals and strategies as things change. It can hamper your executive functioning too – that’s the stuff that helps you get things done, step by step.

Furthermore, depression is a master manipulator. It alters the way we process information and how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world.[10] A person grappling with depression might find themselves stuck on the treadmill of negative thoughts, struggling to jump off. It’s tough to shift focus, to suppress irrelevant thoughts, to regulate emotions, or adapt to new situations. It’s like trying to change channels on a TV with a broken remote.

Procrastination as a Coping Mechanism

Here’s the plot twist: sometimes, depression and procrastination are in cahoots. When depression dumps a load of negative emotions on you, procrastination might step in as a makeshift solution.

It’s a band-aid fix, a way to momentarily push away the discomfort. It gives a quick fix to your mood,[11] but it’s not the real solution.

When faced with tasks that evoke negative emotions, procrastination swoops in as an avoidance behavior. It’s a bit like seeing a giant wave coming and choosing to duck under it rather than riding it out.

Can Procrastination Cause Depression?

But the plot thickens. Could procrastination be more than a sidekick to depression? Could it be a villain in its own right?

A research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests a strong correlation. For every bump up in a person’s procrastination score, the likelihood of them experiencing depression jumps by 13% . Procrastination isn’t just a harmless delay; it’s a potential trigger for mental health challenges.

Notably, Joseph Ferrari,[12] a psychology professor at DePaul University, estimates that about 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators. This isn’t the “I’ll do the dishes later” kind. This is the kind that interferes with daily life and drags along guilt and shame. These negative emotions can snowball, adding fuel to the fire of depression.

But here’s the rub – it’s hard to tell which came first, depression or procrastination. It’s the classic chicken and the egg conundrum.

To illustrate this cycle, imagine you’re facing a tough task. You’re already feeling low, and the task seems like an insurmountable mountain. So, you decide to delay it, hoping for an energy boost later. This decision might offer temporary relief, but the task still looms in the background, feeding your anxiety and self-doubt. As you continue to delay, the feelings of guilt and worthlessness increase, leading you further down the path of depression. And so, the cycle continues.

This vicious circle of depression and procrastination is a challenging one to break, but recognizing it is the first step towards recovery.

Breaking the Depression-Procrastination Cycle

Procrastination might be a go-to defense against negativity, but it’s not the only one. You can equip yourself with more positive, proactive mechanism:

1. Get to Know Your Procrastination

Just like peeling back the layers of an onion, getting to the core of your procrastination starts with self-inquiry.

Ask yourself: “What’s really going on here? What am I afraid of? What’s preventing me from doing the task?”

To illustrate, let’s consider an instance when you put off a work project. The surface reason might be that it’s a daunting task, but dig deeper. Are you afraid of failing? Or do you worry about the judgment of others?

Understanding these underlying reasons can help you navigate around them and move forward. I’ve written a guide on procrastination to help you do just that: How to End Procrastination

2. Break It Down

Taking a huge task head-on can be like trying to swallow a watermelon whole. It’s better to slice it up first.

For example, if you have a 10-page report to write, don’t think about it as a single gargantuan task. Break it down: research, outline, draft, revise, and polish. Now, you have five smaller tasks that are much easier to tackle. As you complete each part, you’ll gain momentum and confidence.

Take a look at How to Break Down a Large Project into Manageable Tasks and learn the steps on how to break down large tasks into actionable steps.

3. Face Your Fears Head-On

Fear can paralyze us, but it loses its power when we face it.

Let’s say you’re afraid of your business ideas being rejected by others, so you keep putting off discussing your ideas with your manager and other team members. Instead, confront the fear. What would happen if you did get rejected? You might have to revise your ideas, which isn’t the end of the world.

Having a plan in place for the worst-case scenario can ease your anxiety and help you to start studying.

Learn how to overcome your fear of failure here.

4. Embrace Self-Affirmation and Self-Compassion

Self-affirmation and self-compassion can be your best allies. For instance, if you’re procrastinating on starting a fitness routine because you feel you’re not athletic enough, try a simple affirmation like, “I am capable and can improve with practice.”

If you miss a workout, don’t beat yourself up. Remind yourself, “It’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day. I can try again.”

Check out these 30 Daily Positive Affirmations to Boost Your Motivation.

5. Foster Your Social Support Network

Think of your social support network as your own personal cheer squad. They’re there to lift you up and cheer you on when you’re facing challenges.

Imagine, for instance, you’ve been hesitating to confront a family member about a difficult issue, causing you to feel stressed and anxious. This is where your social network can help.

Open up to your friends about the situation, ask them for their perspective or advice based on their experiences.

Engaging with your support network can provide you with different viewpoints and potential solutions, making the task ahead feel less daunting and isolating.

6. Seek Professional Help

There’s no shame in seeking help when you need it. Therapists and counselors have tools and expertise to guide you through this journey.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)[13] is one of the most effective methods that can help you challenge negative thought patterns that feed procrastination and depression. Here’s a great article published by American Psychological Association to help you find the right therapist: How Do I Find a Good Therapist?

Final Thoughts

Depression can rob us of our motivation and clarity, making us susceptible to procrastination. In the same breath, procrastination can trigger feelings of guilt and stress, feeding the cycle of depression. This cycle is challenging to break, but it’s not impossible.

The most important thing is to take good care of your mental health. Just as you wouldn’t ignore a broken leg, you shouldn’t dismiss feelings of chronic sadness or perpetual procrastination. Reach out, seek support – it’s okay to ask for help. Your journey is personal, but you don’t have to navigate it alone.

Change might seem overwhelming, even unattainable at times, but you’re stronger and more capable than you think.

Take heart, embrace your courage, and move forward. Your future is bright, and the path towards better mental health and productivity is within your reach.

TL;DR

Don’t have time for the full article? Read this.

Procrastination, often linked with higher stress and reduced life satisfaction, has a significant connection with depression.

Procrastination is defined as delaying or avoiding less pleasurable tasks, often driven by fear of judgment, a desire for perfection, or lack of motivation.

Depression is a serious mood disorder affecting daily activities and comes in different forms such as major depression, persistent depressive disorder, perinatal depression, and seasonal affective disorder.

The symptoms of depression, such as low mood and lack of motivation, often lead individuals to procrastinate tasks.

Depression impacts cognitive functions and motivation, making tasks harder to complete and increasing the tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination can serve as a short-term mood repair strategy in depressive states, but it can also lead to increased chances of developing depression.

To break the cycle of depression and procrastination, understanding the root cause of procrastination, breaking down tasks, addressing fears, practicing self-compassion, improving social support networks, and seeking professional help are suggested strategies.

Featured photo credit: christopher lemercier via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Kessler and Walters, 1998 ; Turner and Gil, 2002 ; Kessler et al., 2005
[2] PLoS One.: Procrastination, Distress and Life Satisfaction across the Age Range – A German Representative Community Study
[3] Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy: Anxiety, Depression, and Procrastination Among Students: Rumination Plays a Larger Mediating Role than Worry
[4] National Institute of Mental Health: What is depression?
[5] National Institute of Mental Health: Major Depression
[6] National Institute of Mental Health: Persistent Depressive Disorder
[7] National Institute of Mental Health: Perinatal Depression
[8] National Institute of Mental Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder
[9] Harvard Health Publishing: More than sad: Depression affects your ability to think
[10] Clark and Beck, 2010; Kaser et al., 2017
[11] Science Direct: Chapter 8 – Procrastination, Emotion Regulation, and Well-Being
[12] DePaul University: Joseph Ferrari
[13] APA: What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

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