Breaking that Depressive Thinking with CBT Part 1 : Procrastination- Depression Cycle

In the first of a series of posts about how depressive and pessimistic thinking can cause major issues in life, today I look at procrastination and how it fuels depression and vice versa. 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, in 2010, the APA, in its annual Stress in America report, failed 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. 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:

  • 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 Behavioral 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 depression 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, you have to change the way you organise your 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 critic who is fuelling your thinking. Simply do the opposite of what the inner critic tells you. 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 inner critic 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 never 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.

Behavioral 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 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.

Help yourself out of Depression and Procrastination

1. “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 lonliness and isolation. Getting back into these daily activities can be difficult and overwhelming. Robert Heller, Florida psychologist believes that breaking the pattern of behavior 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.

2. 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 will 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.

3. 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.

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals,couples,  groups and companies globally. Online therapy is, in my experience, effective for treating a number of major conditions. Are you having issues that you need to talk through? I have a range of plans that can help you get the help you need.  Online Therapy details : Here …… Take advantage of the “online therapy” tester. Try the first three sessions for free. Contact me for more details.

  21 comments for “Breaking that Depressive Thinking with CBT Part 1 : Procrastination- Depression Cycle

  1. March 18, 2013 at 5:15 am

    I love this entry. Beautifully written and very informative. As someone who has recieved CBT treatment, I can whole-heartedly say that it works! It just takes some effort, determination and consistence on the part of the patient, but it is SO worth it and very possible to achieve.
    As someone who deals with depression. anxiety and OCD, I know that there will be good days as well as really hard days and that just comes with the territory. I feel inclined to mention something that pertains to my own situation and perhaps others like me. Along with my depression, as I mentioned I live with a very acute form of OCD and anxiety disorders. Sometimes I get SO overwhelmed that I do not know which direction is up or down. A powerful thing that I have learned is to have my tasks or goals written out (as you mentioned) and then focus on doing even one or two things on that list a day. For someone like me, it becomes quite daunting if I try to fit too much in, but when I only have the expectation of accomplishing one or two productive things, it is more do-able for me and makes it easier to subsequently add more activities as I go. If I try and do more than this, I become very discouraged and want to give up, but simplifying my task list takes a lot of the pressure off. Your post reminds me of a quote I heard which says, “Wherever the body goes, the mind will follow.” I have always loved that and feel those words are very powerful and true.

    Thank you so much for all of your well thought out posts, ideas and advice. I feel that being able to read your blog is truly a blessing in my life!


    • March 18, 2013 at 6:25 am

      Thank you so much for the comment and I love the fact that CBT is helping you. Your case proves that when the tools are employed effectively then results follow. Thank you also for the kind words. The act that someone might read my posts and it helps them in some way is what keeps me motivated to write.


  2. March 18, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    It’s amazing how parallel that post was to the one on my blog that you liked! Haha. Glad to see I’m doing it right!


  3. March 20, 2013 at 12:48 am

    I have to admit this has been a long time problem for me I’ve been having to work on and work through myself Nicholas and I definitely agree that it very well is a contributing factor in depression. I think that’s why occasionally I get depressed out of the blue now and again – and it’s not just the weather because of where I live. 😛

    Note: I live in NW Washington.

    I do often find myself trying to do a pleasurable activity though, over something I’m not overly looking forward to. I’m trying to complete a correspondence course now and it was VERY difficult to get started on the reading portions of it! Normally this kind of stuff I’m all over and very studious about, but for some reason I’m struggling with it and wanting to simply put it off. So yes, procrastination is definitely something I have been hard at work to overcome.



    • March 20, 2013 at 1:47 am

      Thanks for the comment…maybe it helps in this case to plan study periods into your schedule just as any other appointment. That way it becomes a commitment. The feeling of success that you gain from this is certainly much better than the one felt when you berate yourself for not doing it.


      • March 20, 2013 at 2:18 am

        And that’s what I was thinking along with an example you mentioned earlier, do the task at hand FIRST, then do whatever else that is pleasurable and/or fun.


      • March 20, 2013 at 2:22 am

        There is a lot to be said for just saying to yourself….now I will just make sure I do it


  4. March 21, 2013 at 12:03 am

    I find with the TBI feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to start can be a trigger to procrastinate. I also still compare “me before” with “me now.” I use an iPad and task list now. Unless my supervisor has a time sensitive task or I have a client or meeting scheduled, I choose a task and start. Once I start, I am fine. The comparison issue is false talk that I recognize. I still have the skills. It takes a little longer to get them out at times.


  5. March 22, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Well written, to the point, as such… appreciative information. As a member of NAMI I cannot tell you how dissatisfied I am of the presentation of data to those of us struggling to breathe from our chapter organization. As someone who has been diagnosed with both Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar Disorder – and is a extremely gifted at that, my situation couldn’t be more intractable. It’s a daily struggle. Things are better when I can follow my exercise routine ( marathon training ) but as soon as i’m grounded – nothing helps.

    I’m hyper-sensitive to medication – as such my dozen therapists/psychiatrists/doctors have found it almost impossible to treat my issues with current medications without me suffering a wide range of paradoxical effects. ( Last 8 years has seen us try maybe 60+ different medications. ) Therapy is touch and go, because of my personality type I always seek to establish an identity with my therapist. I want to know them and their story. I never liked the professional ‘gauze’ ( or guise ) of just talking to someone about my issues.

    If I wanted that I would go one of the ten churches or synagogues in the are and speak to the preacher or rabbi.

    Things are always made more complicated in my treatment plan due to the other nature of my brain. As a friend put it ” you’re one of those unfortunate souls not just a smart ass, but a really smart ass.” ( North of 180 ) Many therapists end up being intimidated or alienated by my breadth of knowledge and expertise and the client-patient relationship flounders as a result. They are hesitant to try approaches because i’m familiar with them, exasperated with them, or have an painful level of insight.

    Anyway, to rubber-band out: From my experience and perspective much procrastination IS indeed done out of fear of change. One may grow used to living in his foxhole of depression and yet meanwhile the world has rolled by. Old friends are no longer friends, or may not recognize you or how you think. It is a troubling reality to acclimate and achieve healing out of.

    Once again – I appreciate the read.

    – Bracken


    • March 22, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Hi Bracken…thanks for the comment and the look into your life. As a clearly intelligent person, I wonder why therapy doesn’t work for you? Could you be mistaking therapist indifference for the importance of therapist/patient boundaries that are essential for successful therapy. Could it be that you need to feel you are challenging someone in a professional sense in order to feel better about yourself? Could it also be that due to your high intellect, you see your therapists as inferior? You are however, spot-on with your comments about procrastination!


      • March 22, 2013 at 11:17 am

        I should think so. I have a very sense of self adequacy, made none the better by how ‘smart’ people tell me I am. Makes me feel more guilty than blessed, as such I tend to lash out when it is made an object or barrier to feeling well and healing. Yes, I struggle with reducing people because I reduce myself so frequently.

        As a rule, I expect no more out of others than I do myself – and I expect way too much out of myself. I judge everyone harshly as a result.

        The boundaries is a difficult thing – especially when it boils down to ideas, concepts, beliefs – etc.


      • March 22, 2013 at 11:20 am

        An intereresting paradox. A man with intellect who beats himself up and feels the need to do the same to others to increase low self-esteem. You are intelligent enough to realise it and accept it but why can’t you change it?


      • March 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm

        Circle of suffering – so far as i’ve figured. The situation is really too complex to reduce to even a year of therapy, which is why I ultimately always get frustrated with the process in the long run. Ends up feeling like i’m offer a monologue or exposition rather than having a dialogue.


  6. March 22, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Reblogged this on Cynthia's Health Hut and commented:
    #Depression and #Procrastination have been struggles in my #Life at various times and this article from Dr. Nicholas Jenner keys into the why and how to help yourself out of the cycle.


  7. March 30, 2013 at 6:22 am

    I hope you don’t mind but as a procrastinating housewife I found your blog very interesting and will be putting a link on my blog tonight.


  8. April 5, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Thanks for this helpful


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