Depression and Procrastination: How They’re Connected and What to Do About It

Depression is a negative emotional state, which can range from unhappiness and discontent to extreme sadness and pessimism that interfere with daily life. It is a symptom of a number of mental health conditions, and especially of depressive disorders, which have depression (particularly in the form of persistent sadness) as the main symptom. Depression is also a disorder in itself, which is also referred to as “major depressive disorder” or “clinical depression”.

A key issue that depression is associated with is procrastination, which is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if someone’s depression means that they have no energy to work, so they postpone an assignment until right before its deadline despite intending to start earlier, that person is procrastinating due to their depression.

The association between depression and procrastination is complex, and can have serious implications, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about how depression and procrastination are connected, and see what this means for you in practice.


The connection between depression and procrastination

Depression can cause people to procrastinate through various mechanisms, such as:

  • Making them feel tired or exhausted.
  • Making it harder for them to concentrate.
  • Reducing their motivation.
  • Reducing their self-esteem.
  • Increasing their tendency to ruminate or brood, for example in the form of preoccupation with repetitive painful thoughts about the past.
  • Making them worry more, which can lead to issues such as feeling overwhelmed.

In addition, procrastination can make people feel depressed or exacerbate existing depression, for example when it makes someone feel guilty or ashamed over their inability to act on time, when it causes people to feel stressed, or when it causes people to delay getting treatment for their issues. This can lead to a depression-procrastination cycle, where depression leads people to procrastinate, which in turn makes them more depressed, which causes them to keep procrastinating, and so on.

However, although this depression-procrastination association exists, there is substantial variability in terms of when and how it occurs. This means, for example, that not all depressed individuals procrastinate, and that even those who do procrastinate don’t necessarily do so because of their depression, or only because of their depression. Furthermore, people can procrastinate for many reasons other than depression, such as anxiety and perfectionism, so not everyone who procrastinates is necessarily depressed.


Characteristics of depressed procrastinators

Depressed procrastinators are people who procrastinate to a substantial degree, and who do so primarily due to their depression. Accordingly, their procrastination is generally driven by issues such as diminished interest in activities, lack of motivation, fatigue, and problems concentrating.

In addition, depressed procrastinators often also suffer from related issues, such as irrational beliefs, pessimism, learned helplessness, and neuroticism. Similarly, they are also likely to be low in resilience factors, such as self-compassion, mindfulness, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

Depressed procrastinators’ procrastination may also be driven in part by additional causes beyond depression, such as anxiety and perfectionism. Some of these causes are associated with depression, in the sense that they tend to co-occur with it, and can potentially exacerbate it or be exacerbated by it.

However, depressed procrastinators’ may also be partially driven to procrastinate by causes that aren’t necessarily related to depression, such as abstract goals. Furthermore, depressed procrastinators are generally characterized by traits that make them less likely to procrastinate due to many reasons that commonly lead to procrastination; for example, they generally display low susceptibility to temptation, which makes them less likely to procrastinate due to available distractions.


Dealing with depression-based procrastination

To deal with depression, you should generally seek help from a licensed professional (e.g., a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist), who will be able to advise you on the proper course of treatment, including things such as therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. This can be beneficial in reducing depression, as well as the issues that it leads to, such as procrastination.

In addition to doing this, there are many anti-procrastination techniques that you might benefit from using, primarily to stop procrastinating. These techniques include the following:

  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as writing a research paper, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, finding relevant resources, and writing the introduction.
  • Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to writing only a single sentence or exercising for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft.
  • Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re afraid of getting negative feedback from someone who isn’t really important, you can tell yourself that their feedback doesn’t matter.
  • Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
  • Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and can’t make progress, switch to a different task until you’re ready to go back to the first one.
  • Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
  • Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
  • Improve your social-support network. For example, you can find a role model to imitate or an authority figure to hold you accountable, or you can associate with people who motivate you to make progress while minimizing your contact with people who make you feel stressed.
  • Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest can reduce your productivity in the short term, it will often be much better for you in the long term, both in terms of your productivity and in terms of your wellbeing.
  • Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
  • Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.
  • Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassionself-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
  • Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.

When choosing which of these techniques to use, it can help to start by figuring out why you procrastinate, and when and how you do so, since this will help you find the best anti-procrastination techniques to use in your particular situation. Doing this can help you figure out how exactly your depression causes you to procrastinate, and can potentially help you identify issues other than depression that are also causing you to procrastinate, such as anxiety and perfectionism.

However, if you realize that the main reason for your procrastination is that you suffer from depression, you should generally aim to treat that first, likely using help from a licensed professional, since this is important both for dealing with your procrastination and for reducing other serious issues that depression can lead to.