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Depression and Procrastination

What might explain this relationship?

If I were to name two common problems or experiences that many people share, they would be depression and procrastination. Not surprisingly, they’re related. Here’s some recent research and personal experiences that provide some insight into this relationship.

I’ve been depressed the past few months. You can measure the time since my last blog post. I haven’t felt like writing. I haven’t felt like doing much of anything.

They’re not unexpected, these feelings. My mother became ill late January. She died in late March. Between the exhausting travel and emotional drain of palliative care, depression can be expected. Although it wasn’t a surprise, it ran me over pretty hard.

During this time, life marched on, of course. I supervised theses, did my administrative work, etc. Before I explain how some things got done, I want to tell you a bit about one of the theses that I supervised.

It was a project that we put together last fall. One of my many talented — and one of the most intelligent — students who worked with me this past year began a study on the relationship between depression, procrastination, and self-regulation skills.

She collected data from undergraduate students using self-report measures. Of course, the sample and data have limitations, but the findings are of interest nonetheless. As expected, she found that scores on the measure of depression were significantly correlated with scores on the measure of procrastination.

This positive correlation indicates that the more depressed we are, the more we report procrastination, and vice versa. No surprises there. Previous research has reflected this as well, and who hasn’t experienced how these two dark knights can ride together?

What was interesting was that when we statistically controlled for the measure of self-regulation skills, the relationship between depression and procrastination essentially disappeared (from a statistical standpoint).

This analysis indicates that the relationship between depression and procrastination is indirect. It is mediated by self-regulation. Self-regulation is a key factor related to both of these psychological constructs.

Lower scores on the measure self-regulation skills are related to higher depression and procrastination scores. Hmm.

These thesis results were emerging as I was doing a nose dive emotionally over the winter term. My experiences were an embodiment, of sorts, of these results. The thing is, I managed to turn it around a bit.

I knew I felt depressed. I often felt like crying. My eating and sleep habits were wacky. I was sad, distracted, not able to concentrate. So, I focused on self-regulation skills. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, so to speak.

(Others in my life focused on helping me in a variety of ways, so don't read this as an individual's efforts alone. I'm just writing about a part of this experience here — the part that I experienced inside of me, if you will.)

I’d set an intention, and I’d simply get started ... despite how I was feeling. I edited text. I attended meetings. I made the kids’ breakfast, walked them to the bus. I did the chores around the farm.

No joy in most or any of it, but I did each thing as intended. Showing up is half the battle with self-regulation.

As I succeeded despite my feelings each day, I avoided most of the procrastination. With time, my sadness lifted, as exogenous depression will. And, I hadn’t fed that beast with procrastination. Nothing like not getting things done to drag myself down deeper into that darkness.

So, I’m writing now. I set the intention to write. I’m writing.

Is it this simple? Yes, and no.

Yes, it’s that simple. I do have to exert my own agency moment to moment. That’s life. I put my fingers on this keyboard, and I began to type. Typing, thinking, more typing, more thinking, some momentum. That’s how it goes.

No, it’s not that simple. As Al Mele explains in his excellent recent book, Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will, “ ... core weak-will action is free, sane, intentional action that, as the nondepressed agent consciously recognizes at the time of the action, is contrary to his better judgment based on practical reasoning (p. 57; emphasis added)."

Depressed agents are different in important ways. We understand that their self-regulation is undermined somehow, their practical reasoning impaired, perhaps. Depression complicates our consideration of procrastination or weak-willed action. It's not only or "just" about putting one foot in front of the other.

The thing is, a focus on simple self-regulation skills can help. The research indicates this important relationship. My experiences show it to be a personal truth.

Little self-control “wins” around intentional action fuel us. It is truly “one foot in front of the other.” Just showing up. Pretty good steps in the right — or should I say “write?" — direction.


Mele, A.R. (2012). Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will. New York: Oxford University Press.

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