When is procrastination a matter of mental health?

When’s the last time you put off doing something that you had to get done? Procrastinating is extremely common, and we’ve all done it from time to time. You may even be procrastinating while reading this article, when you instead need to get work done, pay bills or do chores.

Sometimes, however, procrastination interferes with your day-to-day life and could be a sign of a mental disorder, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety.

Why We Procrastinate

The majority of people procrastinate occasionally, even if it doesn’t interfere with our daily routine, says Dr. Indra Cidambi, psychiatrist and medical director at the Center for Network Therapy in Middlesex, New Jersey.

Studies show that students, particularly those who are college age, tend to procrastinate more than others, says Annette Nunez, psychotherapist and founder and director of Breakthrough Interventions, a Denver-based therapy practice that helps parents. This may happen because they have so many things to get done and think they have more time to do it all. There are also a multitude of distractions for college students. Procrastination also occurs more often in young male adults than young female adults.

There are a few reasons why you procrastinate:

Feeling anxious about the task. For instance, maybe you’ve meant to set a doctor’s appointment, but you’re scared about what they’ll find.

Insecurity about your ability to complete the task. By calling a friend, going on social media or distracting yourself otherwise, you don’t have to face the negative emotions associated with that task, Cidambi says.

Feeling tired or bored. In these situations, if you have something else to distract you, it’s easy to do that instead. “Proximity to temptation really pumps up procrastination,” says Piers Steel, a Brookfield Research Chair at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, Alberta, and author of “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.”

Thinking that there’s a lot of time to get the task done, even if there isn’t. This could relate to poor time management skills.

Believing that you perform better by leaving the task until the last minute. When you complete a task quickly with just a few hours to spare, you feel a rush of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, says licensed clinical psychologist Annie M. Varvaryan of Couch Conversations Psychotherapy and Counseling in Los Angeles. Doing this last-minute routine may work once or twice but isn’t usually helpful in the long term, she says.

[Read: Vitamins for Stress: Do They Work?]

When Is Procrastination a Problem?

If procrastination is so common, how do you know if it’s a problem? There are a few signs that chronic procrastination is causing harm to you:

You constantly have trouble getting things done on time, Cidambi says. When this happens, you blame the poorer-than-expected performance on not having enough time to complete the task.

You face more serious consequences because you put off tasks, says Dr. Ashwini Nadkarni, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and an associate psychiatrist at the Brigham & Women’s Ambulatory Care Center’s Department of Psychiatry in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. For instance, you receive eviction or shut-off notices because you routinely don’t pay bills on time. If it’s work-related procrastination, you teeter on the edge of getting fired or you get fired. At school, your poor grades relate to turning in assignments late or performing poorly due to last-minute work completion.

You lie to cover up procrastination. For example, your teacher or manager asks if you waited until the last minute to do a project and you tell them no, and that it’s been done for a while.

You procrastinate in your relationships. You constantly make plans with friends and then cancel them. Or, you agree to do a favor for someone but never get it done.

One nuance to consider is what you are procrastinating, Varvaryan says. If you’re procrastinating in one area of your life — say, at work — there may be specific reasons for this. Perhaps you don’t feel equipped to get your job done and need additional training. If your procrastination affects several areas of your life, there is greater potential that you may need help to manage those behaviors, she says.

When Procrastination and Mental Health Intersect

Procrastinating sometimes doesn’t mean that you have a mental health-related diagnosis. However, procrastination is indeed associated with certain diagnoses.

Here’s a breakdown of the association between procrastination and specific mental disorders:

ADHD. A person living with ADHD has a hard time concentrating and completing a task, Nadkarni says. Procrastination is a common issue associated with ADHD. There’s also a tendency with ADHD to want to focus on the next bigger and brighter thing that comes along.

Depression. A person with depression likely doesn’t have the motivation or energy to get a task done, even if it’s something easy to do.

Anxiety. For someone living with anxiety, tasks can seem too daunting and overwhelming. However, anxiety also can have the opposite effect, Varvaryan says. “People with anxious symptoms are driven by their worries and nervousness, and not meeting a deadline is the consequence they consider before considering procrastination,” she says. Still, it’s possible to have several disorders — say, anxiety and ADHD — and that could ramp up the tendency toward procrastination.

[See: 12 Proven Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Ease Anxiety Now.]

7 Tips to Help Get Procrastination Under Control

Whether your procrastination is associated with a mental health issue or not, there are some ways you can tackle it and get things done in a more timely way.

1. Acknowledge that you have a problem with putting things off.

Take a look at where you’re procrastinating so you can analyze why you might procrastinate in that specific area. If it’s a job-related problem, maybe you need to ask your manager for more training in a certain subject area to boost your skills, Cidambi says.

2. Consider speaking with a mental health professional if procrastination affects various facets of your life.

A therapist, psychologist or similar professional can help you identify how and why you procrastinate and what underlying issues may prompt procrastination. They also can give you tools to manage procrastination, Varvaryan says.

This could include an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT helps you pinpoint thoughts, behaviors and emotions associated with a stressful situation and provide concrete ways to change your thinking pattern about that in the future. Mental health professionals use CBT for a wide range of issues, including anxiety and depression.

3. Don’t put yourself down for procrastinating.

There are many other people having the same problem, and the world seems to be set up to cause motivational troubles, Steel says.

In fact, Varvaryan has observed more procrastination during the pandemic. That’s because it took more effort to complete things on time or early because of the mental stress everyone has felt.

4. Have someone to hold you accountable.

This person can ask you how a task is coming along, and you can report your progress, Nadkarni says. When you complete the task on time, you can celebrate in some small or big way.

A life coach, if you can afford one, also can help hold you accountable, Steel says. There are also apps that can help you with life plans and goal setting, such as Success Coach — Life Planner.

[See: Tips to Manage Stress at Work.]

5. Start small.

Begin with small, manageable steps. For example, if you have a paper to write, as a first step, create a new document on your computer. Or gather the materials that you need for a task. Small, first steps like these could push you toward overcoming your procrastination tendencies, Varvaryan says.

6. Give yourself “false” deadlines, and reward yourself for meeting those deadlines.

This is just one of many time-management tricks you can use to get things done on time, Nunez suggests. Say that you have a paper due in two weeks. With a false deadline, you tell yourself it’s due in a week. If you make your false deadline, give yourself a little reward, like going out for coffee. If you don’t make the deadline you set, then natural consequences will follow, be it the rush to get it done on time or a bad grade for missing the deadline completely.

7. Change a negative mindset about a project with positive self-talk.

Say that you put off biology assignments because you think that you’re bad at it. Instead, tell yourself, “I love biology, and I’m good at biology.” Even if you don’t believe it at first, the positive messages will eventually affect the way that you think about something, Nunez advises.

More from U.S. News

Tips to Support Someone Having a Panic Attack

12 Proven Strategies to Stop Overthinking and Ease Anxiety Now

Questions Doctors Wish Their Patients Would Ask

When Is Procrastination a Matter of Mental Health? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 11/16/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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