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Procrastination

6 Ways to Combat Procrastination for Adults With ADHD

Develop concrete methods for meeting work goals and overcome work avoidance.

Key points

  • Procrastination and avoidance is often a key challenge for people with Adult ADHD.
  • The thought of starting difficult tasks is not just unpleasant; it is painful. Therefore, pain centers activate when people think of a challenge.
  • Using cognitive behavioral therapy and developing an action-oriented plan to meet goals can alleviate barriers.

Most people procrastinate to some degree and want to overcome this challenge. However, as the deadline approaches, the work seems impossible, and the thought of not finishing may make us feel panic and shame.

Of course, it is normal to have occasional struggles with productivity. However, if procrastination has always been a challenge in your life, perhaps it is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Five percent of the population has ADHD.

Why Do I Procrastinate?

When you procrastinate, there is a fight between different parts of the brain: the limbic system (center of unconscious thought that drives emotions and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (controls executive functioning such as planning). When the prefrontal cortex loses out to the limbic system, you put off your work.

The amygdala also plays a role in procrastination. This section of the brain controls your automatic emotional reactions, and when you are overwhelmed by your work, you can experience a fight-or-flight response. Both these responses are the brain’s way of protecting you from the bad feelings you have about your work. Your brain drives you to avoid unpleasant activities and pursue pleasurable ones that are more likely to produce dopamine.

The thought of getting started on a difficult task is not just unpleasant; it is painful. Therefore, pain centers activate when people think of a challenge.

Is Procrastination a Symptom of ADHD?

If ADHD is the source of your procrastination, identifying what type of ADHD you have can help. The American Psychiatric Association has identified three types: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and combined. In addition, chronic procrastination can result from ADHD-related factors like problems with time management, prioritizing, sequencing, forgetfulness, distractibility, and disorganization.

In my practice, I have helped many clients with ADHD who procrastinate. For example, Donna,* a 42-year-old executive at a global pharmaceutical company, sought my services. She was struggling with many challenges at work, including procrastination. She had unrelenting standards for her work that caused her to spend inordinate amounts of time on job tasks, making it difficult for her to meet deadlines. Donna’s perfectionism stemmed from feelings of inadequacy and a fear of failure, which, paradoxically, hurt her work performance.

Six Strategies to Overcome Procrastination and Adult ADHD

If ADHD is the source of your procrastination, there are evidence-based strategies that can help you manage the thought patterns underlying your work avoidance and develop concrete methods for meeting your work goals.

1. Break projects into actionable microtasks.

If you have been putting off the work for a sales presentation, writing “create sales presentation” on your list of tasks for the day will probably not entice you to get started. Instead, it may benefit you to break your presentation down into smaller, more concrete tasks. So here is a more approachable list of actions: research client needs and challenges, identify best pitch strategy, write presentation draft, create and insert charts and visuals, edit.

You can write each microtask on a timeline—make sure it is realistic—to ensure that you complete them on time. Be sure that you describe the task in your calendar with enough detail not to remember what the task entails. Starting each task with a verb can help you do this. Essentially, you are making a quasi-instruction book for completing the project.

As you are writing out your microtasks on a timeline, it will help you visualize the steps necessary to finish the project, and you may begin to feel the work is more doable.

2. Overcome negative thoughts.

When you cannot focus on your work, your inner thoughts may become negative. Your internal dialogue may include negative thoughts like:

“I do not know how to do this.”

“I will never finish on time.”

” I am not good enough.”

“I am lazy.”

Replacing these thoughts with more positive, realistic ones can help you manage your anxiety and get started on your work. Some more realistic thought patterns include:

“My work does not have to be perfect.”

“I am a work-in-progress.”

"Let me work for 15 minutes for now.”

Adjusting your automatic thoughts can help you take a more realistic view of your project and your work habits, which may help manage the anxiety that makes it difficult to start working.

3. Determine if you need help or resources.

You may find it difficult to complete a project because you need to address your skills or knowledge deficit before continuing. Perhaps you are embarrassed because the deadline is approaching, and you are mad at yourself for not starting.

The first step to completing the project, regardless of whether you meet your deadline, is to correct this knowledge or skill deficit.

If you are working on a presentation, see if your company has a template as a guide. You might also ask someone who has more experience.

4. Overcome perfectionism.

When you cannot focus on your work, you may not feel like a perfectionist, but a growing body of evidence links perfectionism and productivity issues for people with adult ADHD. Perfectionist thought patterns could be debilitating for your productivity because they result in indecisiveness about your work.

One common perfectionist thought pattern is to impose unrealistically high expectations on your work, as we saw with my client, Donna. These high expectations do not account for the real-world constraints in which your work occurs, and they make work seem even more intimidating. Another thought pattern is putting off work until the perfect work conditions arise. That may mean waiting until motivation strikes or external factors like timing are ideal.

Consider writing out all your ideas for a project without judgment. Then, spend five minutes selecting one. Stick with that idea even though it may be tempting to reconsider. Unfortunately, work is usually done under imperfect circumstances. A valuable mantra for perfectionists is, “Done is better than perfect.”

5. Just get started.

This simple tip can be quite effective. We know that starting a challenging task triggers a pain response in the brain. Fortunately, this response will go away after about twenty minutes. Knowing that the discomfort is only temporary may make it easier to begin working.

The Pomodoro method is a proven and effective method for overcoming procrastination. You set a timer for a twenty-five minutes work session and then reward yourself with a five-minute break.

6. Communicate if you will miss a deadline.

When you anticipate that you will miss a deadline, tell your manager as soon as possible. Agree on a new, realistic deadline. Admitting the delay to your boss can be embarrassing at any point, but often, sooner is better than later.

What additional steps can I take to manage chronic procrastination?

If you are struggling to manage chronic procrastination, you may benefit from working with a mental health professional. My client, Donna, and I worked to find effective ways for her to procrastinate less. As a result, she developed more realistic expectations for her work while still maintaining a high level of performance. Her new perspective made it easier for her to start projects sooner. Within four months of treatment, Donna received a substantial bonus, and her supervisor noted a significant improvement in her work in her latest performance review.

* Names and details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

References

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Ferrari J.R., Johnson J.L., McCown W.G. (1995) Procrastination Research. Boston: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-0227-6_2

Gustavson DE, Miyake A, Hewitt JK, Friedman NP. Genetic Relations Among Procrastination, Impulsivity, and Goal-Management Ability: Implications for the Evolutionary Origin of Procrastination. Psychological Science. 2014;25(6):1178-1188. doi:10.1177/0956797614526260

Oakley B, Sejnowski T.J., Mcconville A. (2018) Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying (A Guide for Kids and Teens). New York: TarcherPerigree.

Polanczyk G, de Lima MS, Horta BL, Biederman J, Rohde LA. The worldwide prevalence of ADHD: a systematic review and metaregression analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2007 Jun;164(6):942-8. doi: 10.1176/ajp.2007.164.6.942. PMID: 17541055.

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