I received a letter from a Don't Delay reader today. With his consent, I'm sharing this letter here on the blog, as it's an insightful, well-written, first-hand account of coming to grips with adult ADHD and procrastination. We can all learn something from reading this.
I won't comment on the letter below. I've had an email follow up with the author. I think the letter stands alone as a compelling, insightful piece of writing. Please use the comments section to let this reader know what you think or to share your story.
Dear Dr. Pychyl-
I hope this new year is treating you well and thank you again for posting the message I sent you last October regarding my struggles with Adult ADHD. I'm grateful that my story resonated with some of your "Don't Delay" readers, and as I continue to work through my procrastination challenges, I'd like to share with you a few revelations and strategies I've found to be extremely helpful to me over the past few months.
The Myth of Immediate Rewards
Much of my cyclical behavior in the past--procrastination "binges" alternating with brief periods of manic activity--has been driven by the unrealistic expectation that increased effort should always result in immediate rewards. My job is sales-related, so I'd habitually overcompensate for weeks of inactivity with a desperate week on the phone, feverishly cranking out prospect calls to make up for lost time. Reality check: a week of "make up" time after a month of doing nothing does not ensure instant results. Expecting immediate payoffs inevitably results in a relapse of my old habits. Disappointment leads to frustration, frustration morphs into lack of confidence, lack of confidence becomes anxiety and how do I treat anxiety? Procrastination and task avoidance.
I'm learning to accept that the only immediate reward is inherent. In overcoming my initial resistance and performing a task, I feel better for having taken action than not having taken it. That's a much healthier way of "feeling good in the moment", but it ain't easy and it definitely doesn't come naturally to a lifelong procrastinator.
Feeling Too Good
Another hallmark of my up-and-down cycles has been overconfidence. For a chronic procrastinator, it's not difficult to feel better about yourself simply by taking action because any activity-when contrasted against total inertia-creates an immediate sense of empowerment. In the past, I'd allow a couple days of "good" behavior to create a false sense of security, sort of a "now that I've gotten my act together, everything will be perfect from now on!" mindset.
Not! Feeling too good inevitably leads to disappointment (as described above) the moment things stop being "perfect". Overconfidence also leads to faux-confident rationalizations like "I've really poured on the effort these past few days so I think I've earned the right to take a little break from my responsibilities. After all, now that I've got a handle on my problem I know I can get back on track whenever I want to!"
A break is one thing. But chronic procrastinators are notoriously bad at defining the edges between needful rest periods and anxiety-driven task avoidance. And the idea that I've gotten a handle on my problem even as I relapse into destructive old patterns is akin to a smoker who "rewards" himself for a period of abstinence by lighting up, convinced that he can quit again whenever he wants.
I've been countering this tendency by mindfully recognizing these rationalizations as they occur. I'll give myself a little pat on the back for a job well done but, in doing so, I also remind myself that the initial boost of self-confidence won't last and when it evaporates, the job at hand still needs to get done.
Do It Anyway/Emotional Impermanence
Keeping my nose to the grindstone means fully accepting a truth that you, Dr. Pychyl, have advocated consistently in your blog, i.e. breaking the procrastination habit means doing certain things even when you don't feel like doing them. This has taken a lot of work on my part-it runs completely counter to a procrastinator's life model-but in consciously employing that strategy I've begun to appreciate a simple fact of life: no mood is permanent.
It's an obvious truth but it's important to remind myself of it in moments when I'm just not in the mood to do what I should be doing. It requires a leap of faith, but that faith is invariably justified. If I just do it, I will always be glad that I did and I can rest assured that whatever resistant mood I'm in at present will not necessarily be my mood tomorrow, this evening, three hours from now or even 30 minutes from now.
As this strategy hardens into habit, I find myself much less likely to think about, assess or judge my current mood because I'm starting to understand how mostly irrelevant it is to performing the task at hand.
Anything Trumps Nothing Every Time
I don't have to solve all my problems in a day. Steady, focused activity-being mindful of the fact that some days are easy, some aren't, and some are simply neutral-is producing far better results at my job that my old all-or-nothing habits ever did. My fortunes are not going to change overnight but in learning to live between the extremes of my personality, I've noticed an improvement in my overall level of well-being. In learning to live life more "rationally", I'm fulfilling, incrementally and bit by bit, a fundamental need for certainty.
I'm realizing that the only certainty in life is that which is self-created. I can't control the outcome or result of my actions, but I can control my actions themselves. I can't control the ups and downs of life but I can control how I feel about them. And since my anxiety largely stems from lack of certainty and that lack of certainty mostly results from lack of trust in myself, each battle I win against procrastination adds to my confidence, which ultimately provides me with the certainty that I can and will get myself to do what needs to be done.
I wouldn't be surprised if the need for certainty drives the behavior of many chronic procrastinators. Task-avoidance does a great job of satiating that need, in a perversely destructive fashion. When I procrastinate by indulging in some sort of distraction activity, I'm certain I'll feel good in the moment, "feeling good" defined as a lessening of anxiety.
Unfortunately, it also guarantees a continuance of the very anxiety I'm trying to avoid. Remembering that in moments of temptation is a great reality-check. If my anxiety stems from the fear that I can't change my habits and I "treat" my anxiety by indulging in the very habits that create the anxiety, wouldn't I be better off stopping the cycle here and now?
So the adventure continues, but I once again want to say, Dr. Pychyl, how inspiring your blog has been to all of us who struggle with procrastination issues. Thank you for sharing such helpful information with us.
Best wishes for 2010!