Many people in the world are getting used to a new post-lockdown world which is not quite the same as it was before. Restrictions and the threat of infection, isolation and financial and personal loss have hit us all hard. We are getting used to mingling again, working in the office and even being able to eat out and travel again. Change has been forced on us by factors out of our control. Many people are struggling with a new way of living and find it difficult to motivate themselves, leading to increased procrastination and depression.
Procrastination can be defined as that invisible wall in front of you, stopping you moving on and using effective methods for beating depressive thinking. Incredibly, the APA, in its annual Stress in America report, fails regularly to identify procrastination as a major factor in why people do not follow through on programmes designed to beat stress and pressure. This is even more incredible when survey participants recognised a lack of willpower in healthy lifestyle changes. Most said that this willpower was diminished due to lack of energy and confidence and once one was increased, the other increased too. I think you can see the pattern. In this post, I would like to show that depression and procrastination go hand in hand and need to be tackled simultaneously.
What is procrastination?
Business people define procrastination as the delaying of deadlines. However, a more serious form is the putting off of personally relevant activities for change. This can have a devastating effect on life and our view of it and ourselves. Procrastination is a process or a series of steps employed to avoid facing fears, situations, possible failure and even possible success. Put simply it is an automatic habit of putting off a timely and relevant activity to another day, month or some undefined time in the future. These timely and relevant activities are replaced with easier or simpler tasks. The link with depression comes when you put off making those necessary changes that might pull you out of depression, often with the thought that you are too weak to face the issues or fears or the constant cycle of internal critics drive us into a place of devaluing ourselves. When depressed, you may view getting started on these changes as overwhelming or impossible or even hopeless. But we must remember that depression and procrastination have overlapping features and I believe one is a significant aspect of the other.
Both make you feel uncomfortable at the thought of taking relevant action, making it more likely that we will put off changes.
Both contain elements of rumination and reanalysis, dwelling on depressive thoughts or substituting needed action for “pleasure” activities.
Both have us engaging in self-talk such as “why bother?”
Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioural Aspects:
The cognitive aspect of procrastination is well-known. There is always some form of justification found for delaying the pain and the dysfunctional thinking that conditions might be better at some later date. You may tell yourself that dealing with issues is something that can be done later when more inspiration is there or that you are under too much stress to deal with it now. This way we can easily con ourselves into thinking that we are making a planning decision. Procrastination gives us false optimism that things will eventually be right enough to tackle activities. Linked with depression, it holds nothing but false pessimism such as “I can’t do that” or “I don’t have the energy”. Talking like this means you are stuck in the procrastination-depression cycle of thinking. To change this, it is helpful to change the way you organise thinking. If you have the energy to think depressing thoughts, you also have enough to think proactively. You can also define timescales. For example, tell yourself, you will undertake that activity at at certain time in the day, for example 3pm (but then it has to be done). This makes the task definable and manageable and you can stop procrastination taking over. The best way to get yourself out of the cycle is to challenge the inner voices who are fuelling your thinking, especially the escape/avoidance part of your thinking that drives procrastination. Understanding this voice and what it is protecting you from is essential. For example: You have to face a task that you have been putting off and you have no desire to do it but you know you have to. The escape thinking might convince you that it is ok to sit and read the newspaper or watch tv or do anything else instead. You can still do this but challenging means first the task and then the newspaper and tv.
What are the emotional aspects of procrastination?
Well, it plays on our mood for sure, especially when we beat ourselves up for delaying a task which in turn, gives us discomfort. When depression is involved, those thoughts and discomfort are magnified out of all proportion and more things get pushed aside. We often believe that our happiness and depression is conditional on feeling good. This is what is known as a contingency procrastination cycle where we make our ability to do things and move on conditional to how we are feeling. If you are depressed and apply this, this ability will not easily reappear. Accepting this will allow you to give yourself the tolerance that you need to start. You may not feel better straight away but surely later as a by-product of taking action. It is often useful to look at the consequences of doing something against the consequences of not doing something, which are often greater. Behavioural diversions are a key aspect of procrastination in the fact that we tend to replace needed action with something less pressing. These are generally worthless, time-wasting activities that side-track us from doing what we really need to do. Some fine examples of these are napping, quarrelling, watching hours of tv and ruminating. When depression is added, these activities seem even more appealing. Hard as it is, activity is a great remedy for depression (and procrastination). The result of delaying and endless time-wasting can promote hopelessness and stress.
“Just Do It”: When we are depressed we tend to isolate ourselves from friends and society in general. This also includes many of the activities we take for granted in our daily lives. This, to the extreme can mean loneliness and isolation. Getting back into these daily activities can be difficult and overwhelming. Robert Heller, Florida psychologist believes that breaking the pattern of behaviour associated with the isolation is key to recovery. He advocates a “Just do it” approach. He suggests keeping a daily log of the things you do and to gradually add activities, regardless of whether you feel you want to do them. By reviewing this regularly, one can see gaps where activities can be placed like, saying hello to someone, approaching a friend or shopping every day for an item instead of once a week.
Increase Activity: People often believe that once they start to pull out of depression, they will start to catch-up on the activities they have stopped doing. Unfortunately, this is usually a case of shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Research tells us that the very things that have been neglected during depressive spirals are the things that will get us out of it. However, procrastination often takes over but with graded exposure to activities, it can be overcome. I often ask my clients to name a small thing they are prepared to do in the week between sessions and commit to it. This can be started of in a small way and gradually increased.
Paradoxical Thinking: If we convince ourselves that by delaying a task, we will feel better, we will repeat that habit over and over. It relieves the stress we are feeling at that moment and procrastination brings reward. Convincing yourself that procrastination will bring rewards is paradoxical thinking. It will bring exactly the opposite of what you hoped. Keeping contact with friends and family when depressed helps the depression in the long run but momentarily it seems better to stay away. Another example of this kind of thinking is when we tell ourselves that we cannot undertake anything until we feel inspired… can you see the chicken-egg theory here? This cycle can be broken by reversing the reward system you have set up for yourself. For example, you could reward yourself every time you resist the impulse to procrastinate. If you must work in the garden but want to watch tv, work for an hour in the garden and reward yourself by watching tv. Reward yourself with something pleasurable each time you avoid procrastination.