Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Bookending in ADHD

A way to tackle procrastination and enhance relationships

To Bookend (verb)

When you hear the word bookend, you probably think of a noun: a somewhat sturdy object that holds books or maybe magazines up so that they don’t fall over on a shelf. It is often made of stone, metal, or wood. But bookend can also be a verb. In this regard, to bookend means to occur both before and after a specific event. Something essentially happens on both ends of an event without it occurring during the event itself. A picnic for instance could be bookended by rain. An even longer event might be punctuated by similar events on both ends (bookended); for instance provides an example of the word’s usage with the sentence, “his term in office was bookended by crises.” So while bookend as a verb is a little more figurative than bookend as a noun, it is still pretty easy to recognize its meaning.

Bookending as a Tool

Bookending (still deep down a verb at heart, even as it identifies as a gerund now), also has a specific meaning within some of the 12-step recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and the like. In this sense, bookending is a tool used to help members continue safely along the path of their recovery process, such that they minimize their chances of relapsing back into problematic or damaging behaviors related to addiction.

One basic strategy of bookending as a 12-step recovery tool involves making contact with a fellow recoverer both before and after a possibly triggering event. It might mean, for instance, calling or texting someone before and after (see the bookend?) a potentially risky situation, to insure that no relapse is likely to occur. In 12-step work, bookending may be one way for a person to commit to being abstinent from alcohol or drugs at a party for the night. Or it might be the tool that a compulsive gambler uses to make it home from work without stopping at a casino or racetrack; he calls his sponsor from the office (before) and then again at home (after) to insure that he has not relapsed during the vulnerable car ride home.

The idea is that when someone else knows what we are doing and what we don’t want to do, we are not alone to face our demons; rather, we can feel both an additional sense of support and an increased degree of accountability for our behaviors when we share and follow up with others. The contact before acts as a form of commitment; the contact after acts as a form of accountability. Add to that a sense of encouragement and support, and the tool of bookending can be quite helpful.

So What about ADHD?

In the case of adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the demons to face head on maybe substance-related, but they are more often linked to procrastination, disorganization, and difficulty finishing tasks. Some key challenges for adults with ADHD often involve beginning and completing mundane work-related responsibilities, projects that require fine attention to detail or that are arduous, and assignments with elements that are confusing, unfamiliar, or just plain daunting. Tasks at home are negatively impacted as well; cleaning the house, filing taxes, finishing craft projects, and doing the laundry are either not started at all or never finished once the enthusiasm for the task runs out. Some aspects of adult ADHD that involve distraction and poor focus can be managed with medication, but the medications by themselves may not do much for the persistent difficulties involving disorganization and procrastination.

Bookending and Procrastination

A number of strategies are available to help individuals with ADHD to complete job related projects and home tasks more efficiently and with better organization skills. Today we are just going to focus on the problem of procrastination.

Having had my run-ins with procrastinator myself (though without ADHD), I know pretty well how the game works. When it’s time to start a dreaded task or project, that is the perfect time to turn on the television, make a phone call, take a nap, do an easier task, or surf the web! And the new activity just can’t wait, it’s crucial to do it now!

Well, that habit creates problems. There are a number of strategies that can be used in this instance, but the one I describe here is bookending. Borrowing this tool from its 12-step roots, bookending is a very useful technique to help neutralize the insidious pull of procrastination in adult ADHD. The difference is that instead of bookending around an event that might trigger a relapse, the bookending is used to manage a task that is not getting started or done due to procrastination.

So how does it work? Let’s say Mr. Jones has to complete a boring but important task for work. He just can’t seem to get started on it, due to a combination of factors: the sustained mental energy it requires; his fears about doing it wrong; feelings of shame about not knowing how to complete some parts of the task; and a preference to avoid projects that make him feel stressed out. So he avoids it by all means possible.

To get started on it, he bookends the project with his wife. He does this by calling her at 9 a.m. to commit to working on a segment of the project that will fit within his specified time frame of say 3 hours, until noon, when he takes lunch. He might say for instance, “I’m going to work on the summary report for the XYZ account and I’ll call again at noon to let you know where I’m at with it.” She does not need to understand the details of the report, why it needs to be done, why it is hard to get started, and so on. It is only relevant that he share with her his timeframe and general idea what he wants to accomplish. This is to keep him on task and accountable for what he has or has not done in the given timeframe when it is difficult for him to do this for himself. Not calling at noon now signals a potential problems and, unlike procrastination when only he knows about it, he has to explain what happened that he did not call again as planned. If the project is going more slowly than he had anticipated he can just explain that in his follow up call, or explain what got in the way for him in the morning hours. It makes the consequences of procrastination more immediate and in a sense more real.

Relationship Considerations

When using the bookending method for procrastination it should be done with an outside individual who is invested, supportive, and yet willing to hold you accountable. Someone who makes excuses for procrastination or doesn’t really care if you did your work is not a good choice. Someone who likes the power too much, calls to check up on you, and interrogates you like an FBI agent is also likely to sabotage the effectiveness of the method. A friend, partner, spouse, or relative who is invested in supporting and helping you is the best.

Be careful to adopt this method only as a focused strategy to limit procrastination and not as a general way to relate to one another. It should not lead to a power differential or a sense of dependency. The method is only for overcoming procrastination on a given task for a given day, it should not create a situation where you need to call or check in with the person on everything you do.

The mutual sense of support, improved productivity, and greater capacity for understanding make this tool one that may be beneficial for the relationship as well. Working as a team to conquer the threat of procrastination is a far better place to be in a relationship than an adversarial position of one individual pitted against the other.

More from Larry Maucieri Ph.D., ABPP-CN
More from Psychology Today