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Procrastination in Depression: The Motivation Myth

Procrastination is putting off things for another day, or doing things which are not productive as an excuse of not doing what is important. Dr. Wayne Dyer (1995) in his book, Your Erroneous Zones, provides the rationale behind procrastination as a thought process which is something like this: “I know I must do that, but I am really afraid that I might not do it well, or I won’t like it. So, I will tell myself that I will do it in the future, then I don’t have to admit to myself that I am not going to do it. And it is easier to accept myself this way.” This temporary avoidance gives you a quick relief from the anxiety associated with a task, which then reinforces this behavior. We all have procrastinated at one time or the other, but in depression, procrastination becomes more complex due to the self-defeating attitudes of perfectionism (“I can do things only if I can do them perfectly”), hopelessness (“My low motivation and low energy levels are never going get better”), and fear of failure or criticism. Of all the reasons why people with depression procrastinate, perhaps the most common is the lack of motivation. 

People with depression who procrastinate tell themselves, “Once I start feeling better and my motivation has improved, I will do X, Y or Z.” And then they wait for the day when they are in the right frame of mind with the right amount of energy and motivation to get things done. Unfortunately, that day doesn’t arrive and nothing gets done. This then increases frustration and disappointment, which increases the severity of depression in these individuals. The more severe depression further reduces energy level and motivation, which makes doing things that have been put off even less appealing. This vicious “amotivation” cycle continues to wreak misery in the lives of people with depression.

You can break this amotivation cycle by challenging the commonly held belief that motivation precedes action (Burns, 1999). In real life, the opposite is true – action precedes motivation. When you do something toward achieving a goal, no matter how small it is, you feel good about your actions, which in turn enhances your self-confidence. This then makes you even more motivated to do what you started off with. Therefore, don’t put the cart before the horse with your “waiting for motivation” attitude and get yourself into the action mode. This doesn’t mean that you will only rest after you have finished the task you have been putting off. It just means that you will do whatever is the least amount of effort that takes to start the process of completing the task, pat yourself on the back for what you have done, build on your gains, recognize your enhanced sense of self-efficacy (your ability to do things) and motivation, and then do more. This action + motivation + reward yourself + more action = success is the life equation that will help you break the amotivation cycle and overcome procrastination.

To learn more about evidence-based self-management techniques that are proven to work for depression, check out Dr. Duggal's Author Page.



HARPREET S. DUGGAL, MD, FAPA

REFERENCES

Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Dyer, W. W. (1995). Your erroneous zones. New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks.


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