Procrastination and Mental Health Problems

Procrastination doesn’t just cause mental health problems; it is also caused by mental health problems. If you experience difficulties with your mental health, keep in mind that books (regardless of how science-based they are) are no substitute for individualized treatment. 

Always consult with a mental health provider about your specific needs. The purpose of this article is not to replace the treatment you’d receive from a clinician, but to enhance your understanding of how procrastination might be related to your emotional and behavioral experience.

ADHD

The mental health condition most commonly associated with procrastination is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a mental health condition characterized by trouble concentrating, impulsive behavior, or both. Folks with ADHD often make silly mistakes, get sidetracked easily, have trouble meeting deadlines or managing their time, and lose things frequently.

Consider my client Tim, who was so inattentive that he somehow earned a degree and then landed a job in a field that he had no interest in. The problems inattention and distractibility created in his life were numerous—from unpaid bills, to physical injuries, to a disgruntled wife.

That disgruntled wife is what ultimately led him to me. She would give him a list of tasks to complete on his day off, but he’d spend most of the day playing video games and then rush to complete the list just before she got home from work. He often didn’t finish the list, and when she got home…well, you know how that story ends.

After experiencing so many versions of the same issue, Tim, like many people with ADHD, started to think there was something wrong with him, that he was incapable of getting his life together. 

These beliefs echoed in his head whenever he felt stressed, which made him feel depressed and anxious, which perpetuated his procrastination. But his wife was also impacted—she had to do more than her fair share of work around the house because Tim either delayed starting, left a task incomplete, or was unreliable.

Procrastination with ADHD can take many forms. Sometimes, it looks like Tim’s life, where susceptibility to temptation and distraction prevents someone from effectively structuring their time. 

But it can also look like forgetfulness, trouble completing long-term projects, problems with organization or decision-making, or a tendency to avoid starting or finishing difficult, unpleasant, and uninteresting tasks.

ADHD procrastination stems from a different set of causes than procrastination related to other mental health conditions. For example, someone with depression might have trouble starting or finishing tasks because they lack energy, whereas someone with ADHD struggles with starting because of distractibility and difficulty delaying gratification.

Someone with anxiety might avoid tasks because they’re afraid of failure or uncertainty, but someone with ADHD more often avoids tasks because the tasks themselves are boring or tedious. However, it’s common for a person with ADHD to also have depression and anxiety, meaning their procrastination can be the product of many different factors.

Tackling ADHD-Related Procrastination

There’s considerable overlap in the brain areas affected by ADHD and procrastination. 

Just about every element of completing a task—including choosing the task, finding the motivation to start, staying focused, following through, and finishing the task—can be challenging for someone with ADHD. 

But the primary factor affecting procrastination in ADHD is distractibility.

Depression

A person experiencing depression usually feels sad, empty, irritable, or hopeless. Depression also changes sleep and appetite patterns. Like any mental health condition, depression exists on a spectrum: On one end are people who only occasionally feel blue and are still able to keep up with most of their normal activities; on the other are people who are chronically depressed and have trouble getting out of bed. 

Episodes of depression can occur repeatedly throughout a person’s life, sometimes without any trigger or provocation; they can also occur just once, in response to a major adverse life event (like the death of a loved one).

When Nathan first called me, he admitted he’d been putting off starting therapy for years. But procrastination hadn’t just kept him from making a therapy appointment: He’d also procrastinated on building relationships, finding an intellectually stimulating job, and getting involved in meaningful activities. 

Reflecting on his life, he believed he had little to live for and was seriously contemplating suicide. If you’re thinking this relationship between procrastination and suicide is extreme, it’s not. 

Procrastination is actually a major predictor of suicidal thoughts (especially in college-age women who have a low sense of self-worth).

Nathan had obviously put off the big things in life, but he was also procrastinating on all the little things, like tidying up his apartment, getting a haircut, and going to the grocery store. He put off work assignments until the very last minute, making his resentful teammates responsible for all other projects while he was rushing. He was eventually fired from his job.

His family and friends were also impacted by his procrastination—he cancelled plans and broke promises in order to get work projects done at the last minute, and his chronic tardiness made them late, too. But most importantly, they were at serious risk of losing him to suicide.

Procrastination stemming from depression has many similarities to procrastination associated with ADHD and anxiety; the primary difference is that a person with depression procrastinates because they lack the energy to start a task. 

Because someone with depression may also experience low self-esteem, perfectionism, or imposter syndrome, they may be dealing with several different types of procrastination.

Tackling Depression-Related Procrastination

Tackling depression-related procrastination can require special expertise. If you’re struggling in this area, I strongly recommend that you also consult with a therapist or psychologist, who can help you address the root of your depression.

The low energy associated with depression makes it harder to get started with and complete tasks, so it may be helpful to focus your energy in that area. 

Learning strategies for finding motivation is helpful for overcoming the fatalistic pessimism we experience when we’re depressed—those thoughts like “Why should I even bother to take a shower? No one’s gonna smell me today.” 

One lesser-known symptom of depression is indecisiveness; because everything feels really crappy when you’re depressed, it’s hard to make decisions about anything. Learn some strategies for making decisions so you can move forward with what is important to you.

Anxiety and Anxiety-Related Issues

Anxiety involves feelings of fearfulness, apprehensiveness, or uneasiness. 

This can include generalized anxiety, where someone worries about lots of different things (safety, money, job performance, physical appearance, or relationships); social anxiety, where someone fears being judged, scrutinized, or embarrassed; and OCD, where someone has intrusive thoughts about something bad happening and tries to get rid of those thoughts with compulsive behaviors.

There’s a certain level of “normal” anxiety that everyone experiences to some degree. Just about everyone feels nervous stepping into a busy street without checking traffic first; if you didn’t have that anxiety, you’d probably get hurt. 

Most of us feel anxious when giving a presentation; if you didn’t have that anxiety, you might not take the presentation seriously and could disappoint your coworkers and lose your job. 

Anxiety is essential to survival, but some people have anxiety that seriously affects their quality of life. As with any other mental health condition, anxiety can range from mild and transient to severe and persistent.

Richard had a more chronic form of anxiety. He had fairly serious OCD—he doubted nearly everything he ever did or thought, and he coped with this by avoiding most tasks, like throwing away plastic bottles (maybe he’d need them one day) or checking the mail (what if he received some bad news?). 

One day, after grocery shopping, Richard forgot a gallon of milk he’d left in his car trunk. By the time he realized what had happened, the milk was spoiled, and he felt guilty for making this mistake. But instead of throwing the carton away, he avoided it. 

By avoiding it, he could avoid the guilt he felt about his mistake. But his guilt grew while the spoiled milk baked in the summer heat, eventually giving off a truly foul odor.

The milk example is extreme, but Richard’s anxiety made him avoid far more than the gallon of milk. He avoided taking his medicine, brushing his teeth, and getting the heat in his apartment fixed. 

He felt overwhelmed by these tasks, pushed them off to relieve that feeling, and then felt guilty for delaying them. He was overcome with a fear of not doing tasks correctly, which kept him from even attempting them. His avoidance affected other people, too. Because he avoided saving money, he relied on credit cards, which created debt, lowered his credit score, and cost his family extra fees.

All this, plus his tendency to avoid important conversations, meant his relationships slowly deteriorated.

As with depression and ADHD, it can be hard to get started on tasks when you’re anxious, but this is most often due to feelings of being overwhelmed or worries about failing. As with ADHD, it can be hard to stay focused on a task, but with anxiety, this is more about being distracted by worries than being distracted by other temptations. 

An interesting component of anxiety-related procrastination is fear of finishing tasks successfully. Sometimes, people with anxiety are actually afraid of success:

If I succeed, people might expect even more from me, and what if I can’t meet their expectations? Better to put it off and just stay in this comfort zone of mediocrity, they decide.

Tackling Anxiety-Related Procrastination

The connection between anxiety and procrastination is largely related to feelings of being overwhelmed and fear—fear of success and fear of making mistakes. 

These fears make it harder to start and complete tasks and make decisions. If you can relate, consider focusing especially on strategies for conquering overwhelmed feelings so you can get started on your task list. 

Then, work on indecisiveness and avoidance. People with anxiety often worry about making the “right” choice, and a fear of making the wrong choice can lead them to avoid decisions altogether. Focus on how to finish what you started, even if you’re afraid of what success could mean for you. 

Use these strategies in conjunction with a therapist or psychologist to ensure you’re addressing your anxiety-related procrastination in the healthiest way for you.

Procrastination and Addiction 

When it comes to drugs and alcohol, procrastination has been linked strongly to marijuana use. Fifty-three percent of occasional marijuana users report that it causes them to procrastinate, but 94 percent of people who are dependent on marijuana report that it has led them to procrastinate. 

Likewise, procrastination has also been linked to using stimulants (like cocaine, speed, or Adderall) and intravenous drugs (like heroin), as well as to internet and social media addiction.

Procrastination isn’t just a consequence of addiction; it can also be part of the cause. Research consistently shows that procrastinators get worried or anxious just before deadlines, and using drugs or engaging in other addictive activities can help relieve those feelings.

Plus, procrastination is part of what keeps people stuck in the addiction cycle. Researchers have called the repeated promise that tomorrow will be the day we stop drinking or smoking the “procrastination defense” (Clancy, 1961).

Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

We sometimes use the terms “self-esteem” and “self-confidence” interchangeably, but they’re actually very different, at least in psychology.

Self-esteem refers to whether you have a positive or a negative attitude about yourself and think of yourself as good or bad. People with high self-esteem respect themselves and feel worthy, while acknowledging that they’re not perfect; people with low self-esteem can only see their weaknesses and feel unworthy or inadequate.

Caleb was exceptionally generous and loving; however, his low self-esteem made him think he was a terrible person. Caleb’s low self-esteem kept him from asking for help when he needed it. 

He was nearly evicted from his apartment because he avoided asking for help when he was in serious financial trouble. Unfortunately, by trying to avoid causing problems for the people he loved, he sometimes created extra problems.

For example, Caleb never wanted to upset his partner. So, to make sure they never had any serious, potentially upsetting conversations, he avoided spending much time with her. But by doing this, he put off improving their relationship.

While self-esteem is about how you evaluate yourself, self-confidence is about your belief that you can do something well. Michelle had been putting off her weight-loss goal for years. She wasn’t confident she could make a suitable nutrition plan, follow through with exercising regularly, or lose the 150 pounds she needed to in order to be healthy. So, she put it off and continued to gain weight.

Procrastination stemming from low self-esteem and self-confidence limits the opportunities we pursue. We stay in unhealthy relationships too long, don’t go after promotions, and don’t pursue opportunities for personal growth. The people around us suffer, too: They don’t get to see us thrive, and sometimes, they have to step in to do the things we’re not confident enough to do for ourselves. We start to lead very small lives, thinking that’s all we deserve or are capable of.

Procrastination stemming from low self-esteem or self-confidence often involves difficulty starting or finishing tasks, just like procrastination coming from ADHD, depression, or anxiety. But this form of procrastination stems from the belief that we don’t deserve to get started or to find success, or that we’re not capable of completing the tasks.

Tackling Esteem- and Confidence-Related Procrastination 

Because the connection between self-esteem, self-confidence, and procrastination is largely related to what we think we deserve and are capable of, tackling this type of procrastination involves overcoming those unhelpful beliefs. 

As with any mental health condition, it’s best to check in with a therapist or psychologist to provide tailored individual treatment if you’re struggling with self-esteem or self-confidence. 

When you hit a stumbling block, low self-confidence can make it hard to push through, so learn some strategies to resolve those setbacks and get back on track. When you’ve completed most of a task and are nearing the end, thoughts about whether you deserve success or can tackle what comes next can keep you from following through. 

Perfectionism

Perfectionism involves setting exceptionally high standards for yourself and then tying your worth to your ability to meet those unreasonable standards. In some ways, this can be positive: Having high expectations for yourself can increase self-confidence and is actually associated with less procrastination. 

But perfectionism can also be detrimental: Criticizing yourself, worrying excessively about mistakes, and being unable to feel satisfied even when you do a good job can cause anxiety and depression and increase procrastination.

Many of my clients are perfectionists, like Chloe, a meticulous CPA. The success she had built for herself was addictive. When she was young, she excelled in school and made the honor roll. 

Soon, she became terrified by the idea of not making the honor roll—who would she be then? Eventually, she developed a habit of procrastinating on her assignments and staying up all night to finish them right before they were due. 

As deadlines loomed, she’d spend hours obsessing over font choices, sentence structure, and formatting, making everything absolutely perfect. She realized delaying getting started was risky, but this way, if she didn’t do well, it was because she didn’t have enough time, not that she wasn’t smart enough. In other words, to a perfectionist, procrastinating and failing is better than trying really hard and failing.

Perfectionists are often highly capable, but their unreasonable standards encourage them to put things off—and putting things off sabotages their ability to meet their own standards. Procrastination causes self-criticism (e.g., “I should have started sooner,” or “I always mess this up”), and perfectionists often unintentionally transfer their pressure-driven intensity to the people around them, who believe they’ll be criticized if they can’t meet the perfectionist’s standards. 

That’s certainly what Chloe’s husband felt; he thought he couldn’t do anything right by her standards. Plus, because Chloe was so busy working on tasks she procrastinated due to perfectionism, her friends and family often missed out on time with her. She missed happy hours and her son’s tee-ball games, and she frequently rescheduled dates with her husband, all to stay late at work.

As with anxiety, low self-esteem, and low self-confidence, perfectionists often procrastinate due to a fear of completing tasks and a preference to avoid feeling inadequate or afraid. Perfectionists don’t feel satisfied after they succeed with a goal or task; instead, after a brief moment of relief, they reason that they should have set the bar even higher. Leaving a task unfinished can prevent a perfectionist from having to raise a standard that was already exceptionally high even higher.

Tackling Perfectionism-Related Procrastination

Some perfectionists have trouble getting started with tasks. This is motivated by a fear of failure—they think, “If I don’t get started on a task, then I can’t mess it up.” But when it comes to perfectionism-related procrastination, the primary issue is completing tasks. Perfectionists put off finishing tasks as they strive to meet their own impossibly high standards.

When perfectionistic standards encourage you to give up, convince you you’re not good enough, and make you fearful of failing (or even succeeding), these strategies will help you push through and overcome those barriers. 

And if you’re one of the perfectionists who have trouble getting started with tasks, consider spending some time resolving the task-initiation barrier. As always, work in conjunction with a therapist or psychologist to make sure you’re really addressing the root cause of your perfectionism and using the strategies that are the best for you.

Imposter Syndrome

Even if you’ve never heard of imposter syndrome, chances are high that you’ve experienced it. It’s a fear of being exposed as an incompetent fraud, even when you’re objectively competent. It’s that feeling you get when you worry that you don’t deserve a promotion you’ve clearly earned. 

That’s exactly what happened to Christina. Even though she was qualified for a promotion, she feared she’d only deceived her supervisors into thinking she knew what she was doing. She was afraid she’d eventually be outed as a fraud.

Because she didn’t feel worthy or capable of the promotion, Christina delayed applying for it for years. Those kinds of missed occupational and academic opportunities are some of the most common outcomes of imposter syndrome-related procrastination. People with imposter syndrome have trouble recognizing their own potential and don’t pursue prestigious career opportunities they’re likely qualified for. This holds them back professionally and financially.

But Christina wasn’t the only one who was suffering due to her procrastination. Her reluctance to push herself at work meant she busied herself with relatively easy assignments, while her coworkers got stuck with the harder or more time-consuming tasks. 

And while prioritizing busyness helped her conceal feelings of inadequacy, it meant she wasn’t available to work on her relationship or spend time with her children.

Because people with imposter syndrome doubt their capabilities and assume other people doubt them as well, their procrastination issues are similar to those of people with self-confidence issues. 

People with imposter syndrome are so focused on their inadequacies, flaws, and mistakes that they lean toward perfectionism to correct them, so perfectionism-related procrastination can show up, too.

Tackling Imposter Syndrome–Related Procrastination

The greatest barrier to overcoming imposter syndrome-related procrastination is getting started on tasks. Low self-confidence or low self-esteem makes us buy into the narrative that we aren’t qualified enough to go after our goals. 

We’ll delay applying for a new job, starting our own company, or writing a book. Or we’ll get started during a rare burst of confidence but then talk ourselves out of completing these tasks. 

If you can, find some strategies for getting started on your projects and finishing them, even if you’re feeling like a total fraud. And, of course, make sure you’re doing this in conjunction with a therapist who can help you get an individualized approach that addresses the root of your imposter syndrome.

Final Thoughts

Let’s be honest: You can probably relate to more than one of the issues we covered in this article. Mental health conditions have a tendency to overlap, and many of them cause similar symptoms and problems. Your procrastination may stem from multiple issues. 

Maybe you put off cleaning your oven because of perfectionism, and then put off getting involved in a spiritual group because of self-esteem, and then put off opening your mail just because. You might have a few different areas to focus on, and that’s normal. 

Now you understand the psychology of procrastination—what causes it when it becomes a problem, why it’s such a hard cycle to stop, and the issues it can cause in your life. It’s time to use that knowledge to start tackling the problem. Let’s get our hands dirty and start overcoming your procrastination.

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