Is Your Chronic Procrastination Actually a Matter of Mental Health?

Perhaps you’re checking Facebook – you know, just one more time before you get started with your work. Then it’s email. Then it’s some other obscure to-do that suddenly seems pressing (and isn’t); or perhaps you’re not doing anything at all. And you know you should get going on that project with a deadline looming, but you just can’t seem to help putting it off.

Essentially you’re putting stuff off despite expecting to be worse off as a result, explains Piers Steel, a professor of psychology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, and author of “The Procrastination Equation.” That’s what makes procrastination different from, say, simply planning or scheduling. There’s nothing wrong with delaying completion of a task – in due time – to do it properly. But compulsively putting things off is a different story.

Most people procrastinate at some time or another. Frequently it’s situational – limited to certain circumstances – or something a person may do only on occasion. It may be shrugged off as a common part of the human experience or even good for a laugh. “Like not taking down the Christmas lights,” Steel says – by the summer. “Then you’re halfway there to next Christmas. You might as well just say I’m early for next year.”

However, procrastination can be deadly serious, too. “You can die from it, of course. I know lots of people who have died from it,” Steel says. “It can be something like finding a lump in your breast and then not treating it.” Unnecessarily delaying medical tests or treatment – a common concern – can certainly put a person in harm’s way.

What’s more, ignoring the problem of chronic procrastination itself – and what’s causing it – can have a significant impact, from affecting job or school performance to straining relationships (like when expectations aren’t met) to diminishing quality of life for the individual. Procrastination becomes a serious problem when it affects all aspects of a person’s life, says Robert Schachter, a psychologist and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Schachter, who has extensively studied procrastination and has broad clinical experience in areas ranging from mood disorders to stress management, founded the Procrastination Centers of America, which offer programs to deal with procrastination for individuals, corporations and colleges.

Schachter says there are numerous causes of procrastination including, in some cases, mental health issues. One of those is depression, symptoms of which include hopelessness, helplessness and a lack of energy that result in difficulty starting or finishing a task. He describes this and other causes in a written list of 20 types of procrastination he’s identified.

“When you’re depressed, you’re more likely to put stuff off,” Steel says. “Many people who are depressed procrastinate.” But where procrastination – to a degree – is nearly universal, most people who put things off aren’t depressed, he notes. One marked difference among people who are depressed and procrastinating is that they may put off even the simplest tasks – like writing a check when the checkbook and pen are already out on the counter (and the money is in the bank). “So even when it’s right there in front of you, you still don’t feel like doing it,” he says. For some, depression and procrastination both work against seeking treatment. The propensity to compulsively put things off is also an impediment to getting the help one needs, Steel points out.

While depression may be more obvious, in some cases procrastination may be a tip off to an underlying issue. “Procrastination is one of the symptoms that we look for when we’re assessing attention deficit disorder,” Schachter says. If someone is easily distracted, or has difficulty staying with a task, they may naturally be more likely to procrastinate. As with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, certain traits such as impulsivity and being easily distracted and poorly organized that all contribute to procrastination seem to cluster together, Steel says.

Separately, obsessive-compulsive disorder can also cause a person to procrastinate. If you’re washing your hands again and again or tied up with other compulsions, that’s going to keep you from something else you know you need to do, Steel says.

Though procrastination is not listed among mental health disorders included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5, experts who study it say it can be a consuming problem. And solving the problem isn’t so simple as it might seem: “When people tell procrastinators, ‘You should just do it now,’ it’s pretty much the same as when they tell people who are depressed, ‘Be happy,’” Steel says. “It’s ineffective, and actually kind of more than annoying. It’s almost disrespectful of the seriousness of the underlying condition.”

Advice on dealing with procrastination tends to focus on time management and organization skills; and that’s fine for people who have deficits in those areas, Schachter says. But it doesn’t help a person who procrastinates for other reasons. Whether that’s a mental health issue, like depression, or perhaps having a fear of failure (another reason, Schachter notes, that some people procrastinate) – the cause must be addressed, rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits all model to solve persistent procrastination.

Linda Sapadin, a psychologist, success coach and author of “How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age: 6 Change Programs for 6 Personality Styles,” focuses on how different personality types can contribute to making procrastination a serious issue. Among those is “the worrier.” “The worrier personality is somebody who tends to be anxious,” says Sapadin, of Long Island, New York. “[They] tend to worry about things, tend to hesitate to leave their comfort zone. They paralyze themselves before working on a project by thinking about what ifs.” Like, she says, “what if” they can’t do the task.

Schachter also lists anxiety as a cause for procrastination. But the role anxiety may play in procrastination is complex – and the subject of debate among experts. “Some people that are anxious don’t procrastinate,” Sapadin notes. Instead, anxiety about not getting something done may drive some to be even more dutiful in completing tasks.

Steel is circumspect about the role of anxiety as it relates to procrastination. He says that a closer examination reveals many who are anxious don’t procrastinate, though some do, and that another factor is usually at play: impulsiveness. “So when you’re an impulsive person, and you’re anxious, you tend to [use] emotional coping techniques,” he says. “Instead of dealing with the problem you try and drown out your awareness of a problem.” You might instead turn on the TV, go party or do other things or rationalize in ways that make you feel better about not doing what you’re putting off, he says.

“Procrastinators tend to be their own worst enemy,” Sapadin says. So it’s important to drill down to understand why you’re putting things off. Taking even seemingly basic steps may help reduce procrastination, once you work that out. “I’m a firm believer in listening to your language, because that’s the easiest way to change behavior,” she says. “The worrier in particular says, ‘I can’t.’ So I tell them to say … ‘I can’t do this, but one thing I can do is that.’ And that makes a world of difference.” She also says that it’s important to tackle those “what if” questions that may arise. “Don’t just leave the question hanging in the air to create anxiety and stop you from taking action,” she says. “Answer the question; figure out your options; get inspired.”

What’s more for the worrier, she advises, “Don’t make challenges more intimidating than they are. They are a part of life; don’t view them as potential disasters. Guard against your natural tendency to overestimate the time you’ll need to devote to a task, the energy you’ll need to expend on a task or unexpected problems that may arise.”

On the other hand, tackling procrastination might mean unraveling layers of complexity – and in some cases, dealing with more significant psychological concerns. In the latter case, experts say it’s critical to seek professional help. Schachter recommends starting by talking with a primary care provider about concerns and asking for a referral to a mental health provider if needed.

“Cognitive behavior therapy – CBT – works really well for this type of thing for the most part,” Steel says. It helps people understand unhelpful ways of thinking and behaviors that may contribute to underlying issues like depression. And the therapy’s practical, structured approach that uses goal-setting makes it a natural fit to take on procrastination, Steel says.

Apps to Mind Your Mental Health

Technology as hope

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness – or NAMI – reports that approximately 1 in 5 American adults is affected by mental illness in a given year. What’s more, the Pew Research Center reported that as of October 2014, 64 percent of American adults owned a smartphone. With the proliferation of apps for everything from paying your rent to tracking your fitness, it’s no surprise more adults are turning to technology for help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and more. Here are tips for navigating some of the many mental health support apps available:

Benefits and limitations

Benefits and limitations

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The American Psychological Association doesn’t have any official recommendations for using apps or texting systems for mental health care, says Vaile Wright, director of research and special projects at APA. Consider confidentiality if you’re sharing personal health information. Apps also shouldn’t replace face time with a provider, Wright says, but they offer some benefit. “They can reach people in a lot of different areas. Not everybody has access to mental health professional. It can help people in rural areas,” she says. Talk to your health care provider before incorporating a mental health app into your daily routine. 



Happy female student text messaging on smart phone at university campus. Horizontal shot.


The country’s largest grassroots mental health organization has developed a free app called NAMI AIR (Anonymous Inspiring Relatable), designed for either people living with a mental illness or their family members and caregivers. Dawn Brown, manager of the NAMI information helpline, says the peer-support app allows users to share everyday experiences and give or receive virtual hugs. “People are finding it very useful as an uninhibited, stigma-free way to relate their experiences as well as learn from others,” Brown says. It’s available on Google Play and the Apple Store.



School blackboard with Expert spelt in wooden letters


This app allows users to receive advice and guidance from licensed therapists on mobile devices 24/7. All messages are private and anonymous. For other apps like this, Wright warns consumers to pay attention to credentials. “Licensure helps you understand if they have the appropriate training to provide services, and there’s a level of protection if something goes wrong in the therapy,” she explains. Look for the following letters behind a therapist’s name: Ph.D., Psy.D., M.S., RMHCI, LICSW, LMHC, LPCI or LPC. The cost of Talkspace ranges from $49 for one week of unlimited use to $12 per week for one year.

Stop, Breathe & Think

Stop, Breathe & Think

A woman takes a break from yoga to check her phone.

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Stop, Breathe & Think allows users to select their feelings through an interactive platform that chooses meditation or mindfulness techniques, such as breathing exercises and guided imagery, to encourage relaxation. Mindfulness is a well-established tool that teaches patients to concentrate on the present moment, while accepting their feelings. In a January 2014 analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that mindfulness programs reduced anxiety, depression and pain-induced stress across 47 clinical studies involving 3,515 people; most mindfulness programs occurred over eight weeks. The app is free.



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The Happify app provides users with activities and games designed to build on what its developers call the five stages of happiness: savor, thank, aspire, give and empathize. It starts with a questionnaire to determine your personal goals, followed by a customized daily schedule of games and activities to meet them. The company claims the exercises will help promote positive thinking patterns and inspiration to cope with stress, ultimately leading to increased happiness. A free version permits a few games per day, but the plus plan offers options ranging from $4.95 to $14.95.

PTSD Coach

PTSD Coach

Depressed woman staring out the window


PTSD Coach was developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in partnership with the Department of Defense’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology, and aims to help users manage symptoms that occur after a trauma. The VA estimates that at least 7 out of every 100 people will have post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives. The app offers information on PTSD treatments, a symptom tracker, tools to use during stressful situations and links for support and help. PTSD Coach is free on the Apple Store and Google Play.

Coming soon: RELAX

Coming soon: RELAX

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Sherry Pagoto, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, is developing RELAX, an app that targets stress eating. “When you are experiencing elevated stress, it will allow you to engage in stress-reduction strategies like mindfulness,” Pagoto says. The app is part of a three-year project to study stress eating. Once available, patients will be able to track their daily activities using a smartphone, and their clinician will have access to a Web-based companion tool to make informed treatment decisions based on the person’s stress and eating patterns.

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August 5, 2017 at 12:05AM


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