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Procrastination and Adult ADHD

Adult ADHD diagnosis related to procrastination

Confused personHere's a brief summary of some not too surprising results of research exploring the relation of ADHD with procrastination.

Figures vary depending on the source and the year of publication, but it is clear that as many as 9% of school-age children are diagnosed with ADHD. What is under-appreciated is how many adults are diagnosed with the same disorder. Again, the summary statistics vary by source, but Young (2007) reports that 40-70% of children diagnosed with ADHD will continue to struggle with the disorder as adults, and Ferrari's & Sanders' (2006) literature review revealed that 4-5% of adults report this is a chronic condition.

Personally, I was unaware of the effects of ADHD in adulthood until a few years ago when a colleague revealed his recent diagnosis (subsequently others have "outed" themselves as well). It was a relief to my colleague, much as Young has written in his book, because he finally understood that his issues with inattentiveness and distractibility were not some moral failure of being "lazy or malingering."

For those readers who are unaware (I'll bet no one clicked on this blog entry without some idea about ADHD, so I'll keep this brief), ADHD is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. As Ferrari and Sanders summarized it, people diagnosed with ADHD are characterized as "having difficulties completing tasks on time, organizing work, and are often described as being carless, impulsive, distracted and forgetful . . . [and they] also report feeling easily stressed, impatient, and short-tempered (APA, 2000)" (2006, pp. 2-3).

Quite a few readers of this blog and listeners of my podcast have discussed their own ADHD in relation to procrastination. Perhaps the most impressive of these replies to my blog was this beautifully written response which thousands of readers have read, and for which many have expressed gratitude. What surprises them and me is how little formal research has been conducted exploring the relation of ADHD to procrastination.

The Research
My colleague Joseph Ferrari (DePaul University) and Sarah Sanders (Illinois School of Professional Development) published one of the first studies specifically aimed at exploring the relation between measures of procrastination and adult ADHD. They collected data from a group of adults (18 men, 11 women, average age of approximately 49 years) from a western Chicago support group for adults with attention deficit disorder. Daily, these participants were taking at least one and sometimes two prescribed medications to control their attention/hyperactivity disorder. Ferrari and Sanders also collected data from a convenience sample of adults who attended a public presentation about procrastination. As both were community samples of primarily Caucasian, married, "white-collared" professionals, the authors considered this a good comparison.

The comparison they made between the groups was on three measures of procrastination. The details about these measures are not that important as all three are highly correlated. The key thing is that one measured decisional procrastination and the two others behavioral procrastination.

The results of the comparison of the ADHD group with the community sample revealed that adults diagnosed with ADHD reported significantly higher decisional and behavioral procrastination. As Ferrari and Sanders write, the results "support the clinical diagnoses that frequent delays in completing tasks may be a symptom of AD/HD disorder" (p. 7).

More recently in his dissertation research, Craig Miller (2008) found similar results with a sample of college-age participants. Miller reported significantly higher cumulative average ratings of procrastination among ADHD participants.

Implications & Concluding thoughts
As I said in my opening line, these results are not that surprising. Anyone who has had to deal with ADHD in his or her life can tell you that procrastination has been a problem. What remains to be done in the research and discussed more explicitly are the strategies individuals with ADHD can use to deal with their procrastination.

I think what I've learned as a teacher informs my approach here. For example, when I was studying education in preparation for public-school teaching, I recall attending lectures on and reading about working with students with "special needs." At the time, I also recall asking one of our guest lecturers, an expert in the area, what really distinguishes the learning needs of these students with "special needs" from any other student? It seemed to me that all of the strategies that were recommended were things that would really benefit anyone's learning. The guest expert's response was that, "yes, it's just that with these students it's really important to emphasize these strategies as they're more essential to success."

This applies to the case of ADHD and procrastination as well. Strategies that anyone can use and benefit from in terms of managing task engagement, staying on task and facilitating focus are essential for individuals who are more chronically challenged with inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. I think this is one of the reasons that I have gotten such positive feedback from readers who do struggle with ADHD. They are learning, or re-learning, strategies that are helpful.

That said, much more research needs to be done in this area, and I don't want to suggest that "more of the same" is the only approach possible or appropriate. However, I do want to emphasize that what we consider diagnostically "abnormal" is simply a point on a continuum, and we all have some degree of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity which we deal with daily.

Being strategic is key, and I hope that the many blog entries here within "Don't Delay" provide clear ideas and suggestions for strategies that might help.

Ferrari, J.R., & Sanders, S.E. (2006). Procrastination rates among adults with and without AD/HD: A pilot study. Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 3, 2-9.

[Blogger note: Although the title of this article suggests that "rates" of procrastination were identified in the study, these data are not reported. The only analyses reported were the differences between the adult ADHD and convenience community samples in relation to the measures of procrastination. This indicates that the ADHD sample had higher mean scores overall on the measures of procrastination, but it does not provide information about the "rate" of procrastination per se nor the clinical severity of the scores reported.]

Miller, C.W. (2008). Procrastination and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the college setting: The relationship between procrastination and anxiety. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering Vol 68(9-B), pp. 6322.

Young, J.L. (2007). ADHD grown up: A guide to adolescent and adult ADHD. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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