The Procrastination Equation

Everything you wanted to know about procrastination but put off finding out.

Crazy for Procrastinating? Maybe

Mental disorders that contribute to procrastination.

Last week was much like the week before. You meant to check the oil in your car but it really wasn't that convenient, so you put it off once again. Sure the red "check engine" light was glaring at you, but that damn thing's been on for so long that it hardly registers. The smell of smoldering oil radiating from your car's hood is harder to ignore. Is it finally time to get your oil changed? No, of course not. Deep down you know that you really should have done this task months ago. Years of engine life have evaporated because you keep putting off a trivial chore.

So you think to yourself, "Am I crazy?" Is this inability to do things that I know need doing, at great long-term cost, a sign of mental illness?

We don't use the term "crazy" in clinical diagnosis any more; it has too much baggage and patients don't like it. So frame the question this way: Do I have a mental disorder that makes me procrastinate? There are a few psychologists who would argue that you need to begin regular sessions of cognitive therapy right away to overcome your dilly-dallying. But I'm not one of them.

Since 95% of people admit to procrastinating, does the entire world suffer from some sort of neurosis? Unlikely. In his book SHAM, Steve Salerno critiques the self-help industry for making everyone into a victim and everything into a disorder. I agree. The human race has procrastinated since the dawn of history [or, for as long as we have written records] -- putting things off is part of our DNA. It may not be one of our better traits, but it is human.

Still, there is a grain of truth in the idea that procrastination reflects a mental disorder. I didn't emphasize this in my book, The Procrastination Equation, as it is the exception rather than the rule, but it is only fair to give the other side. There are a few clinical conditions that create or are at least thought to create procrastination. You might as well get the entire picture here.

Here are the most significant mental disorders that may contribute to procrastination.

Depression

Last month, a reader wrote to me asking whether losing his job and his long-term relationship could have contributed to his procrastination. "Most definitely so," I wrote back to him. In its extreme form, depression is a crippling disease with many symptoms, and one of them is indeed procrastination. The Beck Depression Inventory, for example, will score you higher if you answer the following question in the affirmative: "I put off making decisions more than I used to." For depressed people, any chore, including a routine oil change, can seem like just another pointless task.

Depression heightens procrastination in two major ways. First, it saps your energy, and we all tend to put things off when we get tired; being exhausted is actually the number one reason for procrastination. Second, it increases your feelings of helplessness, to the point where you feel nothing you do makes a difference. When you lack confidence in your ability to complete a task, you are much more likely to procrastinate. Still, only about 5% of people get seriously depressed, and not all of them procrastinate. So if 95% of people procrastinate in one way or another, the numbers don't add up -- depression can't be a major cause of procrastination.

That said, depression can be a life-threatening illness and is not to be taken lightly, regardless of whether it affects your procrastination. And if you want some help that focuses exclusively on the depression/procrastination double-whammy, I recommend the book Get It Done When You're Depressed by Fast and Preston.

Irrational Beliefs

Irrational beliefs come in many forms, but the ones thought to be connected to procrastination have two defining features. First, they almost always get in the way of your happiness and the fulfillment of your desires. Second, they are arbitrary and can't be disproved. If you are miserable and motivationally crippled because you think "It always has to be perfect" or "Everyone has to like me," you harbor some irrational beliefs. 

When it comes to procrastination, the relevant forms of irrational belief are evaluation anxiety, fear of failure, and the ever-popular perfectionism. From these perspectives, an oil change could be a potentially traumatic event that speaks to your self-worth. Did you get the right oil? Did you pay too much for the service?

If this sounds like a bit of a stretch, science agrees with you; studies show that perfectionism doesn't have a significant relationship with procrastination and only a small percentage, about 7% of the population, report that it drives at least some of their procrastination. And other types of irrational belief are only slightly more responsible for dilly-dallying. The most significant connection between irrational beliefs and procrastination comes from low self-confidence, the same factor that came up for depression. If you don't believe you can meet your standards or goals, be they high or low, you are less motivated to pursue them.

Self-Handicapping

Technically, self-handicapping isn't procrastination based on the way I and others define it. To be a procrastinator, you have to believe that you are worse off for putting off, and this doesn't appear to be the case here. Self-handicappers purposefully try to damage their own performance, including putting off their work until the last minute. This looks a lot like procrastination, but self-handicappers don't believe they are worse off for it. They delay for a good reason -- to protect a rather fragile self-esteem. They believe that no matter what they do, they will never win or be successful, and consequently shun any situation that will shine a clear light on their performance. If they put off that oil change or any other action, no one will ever know what they could have done if only they had truly tried.

Self-handicapping is the result of a past history where everything was against you. If you do self-handicap, you have my sympathy, and I truly hope you seek some assistance. The good news is that this disorder needn't define your future. There is a solution: rational-emotive therapy, which has proven to be a very effective treatment for self-handicappers. However, I am still in agreement with Clarry Lay, the developer of the General Procrastination Scale and one of the father's of procrastination research: "to intend to put off some activity to protect one's self-esteem is not procrastinatory behavior."

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder

If there is a procrastination homeland, it is filled with people with ADHD. Reading the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual symptom checklist, it is almost as if those with ADHD were custom-tailored to be procrastinators.Being impulsive, distractible, and poorly organized will make procrastination worse for anyone. You will crave every pleasurable diversion and, being easily distractible, will find you have to make the decision to work again and again. Since people with ADHD have these qualities in spades, it is no wonder that procrastination is a big problem for them.

So does ADHD cause procrastination? Not directly. The prevalence rates of ADHD just aren't high enough to make a causal link. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates only about 3% to 5% of children suffer from ADHD, and the numbers are even lower for adults -- and that's with a lot of people complaining that it is over-diagnosed. That said, the underlying traits that explain why those with ADHD procrastinate -- being impulsive and distractible -- are universal. Anyone can have these characteristics, but people with ADHD are more likely to.

Getting Treatment

In conclusion, if you suffer from a mental disorder, it could make your procrastination worse and you would probably benefit from some professional help. However, this doesn't mean that the average procrastinator needs clinical treatment. In fact, the opposite is true.

A lot of techniques that work for everyday procrastinators -- and there at least a dozen scientifically proven ones -- will work for people with a mental disorder as well. In addition to whatever professional advice your therapist gives you, you might add on a few more practical tips that any good life coach should provide.

If the "check engine" light in your car is blinking, don't rush to the psychiatrist's couch. Your car might break down, but that doesn't mean that you are having a break down too. Still, you should do something -- cars are expensive! Try the straightforward first; here's one simple commonsense technique from my book. Make a specific goal, like driving by your local lube shop after work tomorrow, and see what happens. I suspect that the concrete visual cue of the shop combined with its physical proximity will be enough to get you to pull right in.

Tell me how it goes.

Want to learn more about yourself? Take one of our online surveys on different aspects of your pesronality and get immediate feedback about yourself.

 

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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