Updated: Apr 22, 2022
Procrastination is nothing new, especially to those of us with ADHD. We are all too aware of the tragic, never-ending procrastination cycle we get ourselves into over and over, hoping it will be different from one time to the next. But all is not lost—there are some simple, valuable tools you can use to escape an ADHD procrastination trap and learn how to be more successful at completing the tasks on your to-do list. Below are a few suggestions to help you get started, but first let’s explore how procrastination impacts individuals with ADHD.
1. Everyone procrastinates sometimes
Procrastination can impact anyone’s ability to complete tasks like paying bills, doing laundry, making important phone calls, responding to email or text messages, completing work projects, picking up medications, and so much more. Life is busy and messy, and there are just so many things to pull our attention away from what’s important and onto other, less urgent tasks.
But for people without ADHD, these things eventually get done. Phone calls are made, bills are paid, and deadlines are met within a reasonable timeframe or without causing much interruption to the day-to-day flow of life.
For an individual with ADHD, however, procrastination occurs more frequently than “sometimes” and the tasks that are “eventually” completed often come too late or with costly consequences that are more than the individual bargains for. These costs can come in the form of missed deadlines at work, lost opportunities for promotion, utility shutoff notices, late fees, missed family time to take care of tasks last minute, and a slew of other consequences that can negatively impact the life of the person with ADHD and those around them.
Understanding the reasons for procrastination—and recognizing the emotions and thoughts surrounding the avoided task—can help give you better tools to get unstuck from an ADHD procrastination trap.
2. Reasons for ADHD procrastination traps
There are many reasons why procrastination can be more of an obstacle for those with ADHD than those without it. Often, qualities like forgetfulness, a lack of planning, and poor prioritization are associated with weak executive function skills.
Executive functions are the set of skills that people use to manage their daily lives. These skills include things like self-control, monitoring our own behaviors, planning, flexible thinking, time management, and organization.
When we are experiencing life stressors like sadness, decreased quality of life, poor physical health, or a lack of sleep, our executive function becomes significantly compromised (Diamond 2013). This is true for everyone, not only for those with ADHD, which is why a decline in cognitive ability becomes noticeable for all people when depression, anxiety, or significant life stressors are present.
But executive functioning and cognitive flexibility suffer much more for an individual with ADHD. This immobilizes the person’s ability to problem-solve, identify viable solutions, weigh pros and cons, and engage in creative, out-of-the-box thinking.
While difficulty with executive functioning plays a large role in ADHD procrastination, emotional dysregulation seems to be the biggest contributing factor for individuals who struggle in these areas. Emotional dysregulation is one of the defining characteristics of ADHD and occurs when someone has an intense, seemingly disproportionate emotional response to something that happens to them.
For example, someone experiencing emotional dysregulation might find that they have an inability to overcome the initial negative emotional reaction toward a particular task in a particular moment. Whether the feeling is boredom, a lack of interest, tediousness, fear, or anxiety, those with ADHD have significant challenges coping with or altering this initial negative emotional reaction in order to push through the process and accomplish the task at hand.
3. So, what can you do?
There are many different ways to navigate these challenges. Below, I will share some of the most common and frequently occurring ADHD cognitive traps that contribute to procrastination and provide some tools for overcoming them.
“I am feeling overwhelmed.”
Do I have all the information I need to start this task?
Do I have all the materials I need to start this task?
If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” then start gathering information or things that you need before you try to get started. Don’t think about doing the task—your first step is just to gather what you need. That’s all for now.
Make sure you write this information down on paper. Don’t try to organize the thoughts in your head, as mental organization of information tends to be difficult for individuals with ADHD.
“Procrastination makes easy things hard, hard things harder.”—Mason Cooley
“It’s too much!”
Do I know where to start?
What’s the very first step? Then the next?
What’s the smallest thing I can do?
When a task feels too large to accomplish, try listing out the tasks and subtasks and estimating the time it will take for each task. Set a time for a small increment of time—just 10 minutes, 5 minutes, or even 3 minutes—to trigger self-activation.
If you have more than one item as the “first step” of your task, start with the item you feel least resistant to or with the task that you feel capable of engaging with.
“Do it, and then you will feel motivated to do it.”— Zig Zigar
“It has to be just right or perfect.”
What is my goal versus my self-imposed expectation?
Is my expectation realistic?
What would “good enough” look like?
Acknowledging the tendency of ADHD individuals to be perfectionists is a key step in overcoming this procrastination trap. In these instances, fear of judgement or self-judgment manifests as avoidance that leads to procrastination. Noticing your self-critical, unrealistically high standard and expectations and finding a space that is “good enough” can help you shift your attention from your “inability” to a mindset of capability. Then, you can focus on listing behavioral strategies to initiate the task. The goal here is self-activation. Get out of your head and move into action!
“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”—Mark Twain
“I just don’t feel like doing it!”
What’s the importance of this task? To me? To others?
How will procrastination affect me or others I care about?
How will I feel once this is done?
When will be a good time to start on this?
Dig deeper to discover why a task is meaningful to you. Focus on your own values connected to the task and remember to bring that information forward to trigger instinctive motivation. Imagine and visualize the feelings you’ll experience after accomplishing the task. Then, proceed with the first action step: scheduling a time and date for the task. Next, write down the steps you will follow to get to that point.
“Procrastination is the thief of time.”—Charles Dickens
“It’s too boring.”
What other activity can I pair this with that I will enjoy?
How much am I willing to do, or how long am I willing to work on this?
Pairing unsavory tasks with activities you actually enjoy can be an effective method of escaping a procrastination trap. For example, try listening to a favorite podcast, audiobook, or song while folding laundry. Also try parsing the task out into chunks and setting a timer for a small increment of time, as we’ve already discussed.
Another method of getting yourself unstuck from this trap is to use the “body double” technique: do the task while someone is in the same room or in close proximity to you. The other person doesn’t have to do the same thing you are doing, but it helps to have someone around while you’re doing the task. For example, you can do the dishes while your kids do homework nearby and your spouse sits at the dining table going through the mail.
If you live alone or don’t feel comfortable asking someone you know to body double for you, consider using Focusmate, an accountability program that matches you virtually with a body double to provide a support system and externalized accountability.
With this trap, shifting your perception about the task matters. Try saying, “It’s boring, but I can do just 5 minutes.” Doing the time estimate helps you avoid getting stuck in a limiting thought process and avoidance. Really, nothing is going to take forever.
“Action will destroy your procrastination.”— Og Mandlino
Armed with these tools for overcoming your procrastination, you can go from being stuck to completing your tasks sooner and with less strife. Recognizing your initial emotional response about the task will allow you to generate helpful behavioral strategies that you can engage when you feel procrastination coming on.
Remember that intentionality matters, willingness matters, and, most importantly, believing in your ability and capability matters. Try being curious and telling yourself, “Let’s see what happens when I do this!”
Overcoming this aspect of ADHD requires a little experimentation to find the right combination that works for you. Approach each process with an experimental mindset and participate in your own moment-to-moment experience. Let’s activate your creative, problem-solving mind!
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135–168. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
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