Whether you fear criticism, misjudge the passage of time, or get overwhelmed by the sheer size of your to-do list, procrastination is a problem that most with ADHD share. Learn three common reasons why we procrastinate, and try some of these great hacks to get started and to finish strong.
How Can I Stop Procrastinating?
In survey after survey of those diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, the top productivity issue is always procrastination. Our to-do lists are filled with tasks we intended to have banged out by now. Yet there they sit, taunting us, reminding us of their undone-ness — and draining our mental energy.
As an ADHD and productivity coach, author, and almost-reformed chronic procrastinator, I’m a bit of a nut on the topic of procrastination. I’ve studied it from every angle — the psychological, emotional, practical, even physiological. It’s important to acknowledge that everyone procrastinates. But thanks to our ADHD brain wiring, we are the World Champions, the Special Forces, of procrastination.
If you delay one task because you have calculated that another task is of greater priority or utility, that’s not procrastination. But avoiding your difficult top priority and “escaping” into an easier, low-priority activity — like repeatedly checking/deleting emails — is not in your best interest. Procrastination may feel good in the moment (“It sure is nice not doing the laundry right now”), but it never feels good when it’s time to pay the bill. Here are three insights into understanding ADHD procrastination — each paired with an Action Step to move you toward overcoming it.
1. Temporal Discounting: “I’ve Still Got Three Weeks to Finish It”
Temporal refers to time, and discounting refers to the way in which we place less value on things that are further away into the future. For example, the perceived pain of blowing your deadline that is three weeks away has much less power than if that deadline were three hours away. “Ah, I’ve still got three weeks…” vs. “Holy @#$%! I’ve only got three hours!”
The same goes for rewards. The reward (and the motivation) for saving for retirement that’s 20 years away has less “oomph” than if you were retiring in five years.
Action Step: Research shows that the more you think about your Future Self, the more responsibly your Present Self will act. Next time you catch yourself kicking back and saying, “I don’t feel like doing that right now, and, besides, I still have plenty of time,” make sure to ask your Present Self: “How will my Future Self feel about my Present Self blowing this off?”
My client, Carl, is in operations management, and must hand in incident reports regularly. But he procrastinates on this mundane, unpleasant task, which of course gets him into hot water with his supervisor and dings his performance reviews. He berates himself after the fact, “Why didn’t I [his Present Self] just do those reports when the information was fresh in my mind?! The longer I procrastinate, the harder they are [for his Future Self] to write up!” We formulated a mantra that’s worked well for him. When he catches himself blowing off a report, he thinks a simple thought: “My Future Self doesn’t deserve the frustration or the dings on my review, so my Present Self is going to buckle down and bang out this report now.”
2. Irrational Avoidance: “I’m Afraid I’ll Be Criticized if I Do It Wrong”
The sense of dread in the face of our to-dos is a big reason why our long to-do lists stay long. Of course, we avoid tasks we dread. But most of the time, the avoidance is irrational — for instance, some irrational fear of the doing (e.g., confrontation, failure, frustration), or an irrational hope that if you wait long enough, some magic bullet will make a swift completion of the task; or the subconscious hope that, if we ignore it long enough, it might go away.
Action Step: Next time you catch yourself avoiding a task out of fear, ask yourself, “How painful will this actually be? Is my fear real, or am I inflating the fear to give myself permission not to begin right now?”
The most common application of this for my clients is to look back at the last time the avoided task was done. Martin, an inner-city social worker, must visit an ongoing rotation of schools for brief touch-base meetings. But due to his frequent lateness and having postponed so many meetings, he has come to fear the encounters with his school counterparts (shame, fear of being criticized), resulting in a snowball effect. But when we reconstruct recent meetings with counterparts he’d expected to upbraid him, we see that the meetings have gone fine. A feeling of relief ensues, and he is energized to show up on time, and barrel in there with a renewed love of his important job.
3. We Have to Finish It: “I’ll Never Neaten Up That Super Messy Closet”
In his book The Now Habit, Neil Fiore, Ph.D., writes, “Never look at a big project and say, ‘I have to finish that dang thing.’ Because the thought of having to finish is the surest way to invoke all the mental and physical chemistry that supports continued procrastination.” The more painful or perceived-to-be painful a given task is, the more we will avoid it. The notion of having to finish something is almost always painful or threatening!
Action Step: When staring at a tricky or jumbo-sized to-do, never think about finishing it. Instead, schedule a time to start it. Put it in your calendar (to-do’s that are assigned a time and place to be done are 50 percent more likely to get done). When that time comes, set a timer for five minutes. Then just start, which is easy when you feel you are only committed to five minutes of work.
In our very first coaching session, Mary nearly came to tears describing her cluttered home office, which was a festering point between her and her husband, who also works from home. A particularly dreaded area was a supply closet she described as “such a mess I don’t know where to start…so I don’t even open the closet door!” We agreed to try the “Just Start” hack, with the super-low expectation of working on it for just five minutes. After that, she could declare victory and move on to something else if she wanted to. This gave her the permission to open the door. She worked for an hour, scoring a win on her way to clearing it out within a week.
How Can I Beat ADHD Procrastination?
These insights may not help you overcome procrastination, but they “loosen the lid.” To bust open a can of whup-@$$ on your procrastination, you’ll need power tools.
Give yourself permission to fail. It’s not always easy to “just start” when you know you’ll get bogged down soon after starting, or when you just don’t know where to start. Give yourself permission to fail. Completely. Drop all expectations of success, even expectations of finishing the task. The only thing you need to do is start, with no demand on yourself other than to give it a few minutes of effort.
If you start and bang away for 45 seconds? That’s a victory. If you re-start and bang away for five more minutes but then get stuck? Victory! Twelve minutes? Victory. Why victory? Because you started, which is the opposite of procrastination.
Ask a question. Let’s say you still have a tough time with starting. This is often the case with a super-complex task or a major project. Ask yourself, “What is hard about this?” Not knowing where to start it up again? Trouble scheduling time to work on it? One part of the task you need someone else’s help with? As you think about these things, you start to break down the barriers to action. This is a simple question, but we rarely ask it.
Separate the setup from the task. Make setting up for an unpleasant activity a task of its own, and focus on getting that done first. Say you’ve been avoiding painting the dining room for months. Do just the setup: Cover the floor and furniture, and get the paint and equipment out. Two things are now working in your favor: 1) You’re not likely to want to be tripping over paint cans for a month; and 2) it will now be easier to get started, since the setup is done.
When you do start it, set the timer for five minutes. Because remember: All you have to do is start it. If you bang away at it for five minutes, you’re a rock star. Twenty minutes, and you’re Zeus!