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The Late Show: Procrastination

I’m finally getting around to writing this.

Key points

  • Procrastination is a huge part of ADHD at any age.
  • The consequences of procrastination worsen as people get older and have more responsibility.
  • One part of reducing procrastination is learning how to start tasks.
Source: Lazy_Bear/Shutterstock

Procrastination is one of the most common symptoms of ADHD. It is seen in childhood ADHD as well as in teenage and adult ADHD. It is also one of the symptoms that most people find most frustrating. “Why do I procrastinate over and over?” It’s worth thinking about: if you can figure out why you keep procrastinating, you may be better able to find a solution.

As a first step, let's consider why people with ADHD are prone to procrastination generally. To generalize, the brain of someone with ADHD has a harder than average time prioritizing and focusing on one task for a protracted period of time, as opposed to shifting attention between tasks every few moments. Compared to the non-ADHD brain, the ADHD brain tends to “see” the world in rapid-fire. It may not take in all the details of any one thing, but it sees a little about a lot of different things quickly. Given that the ADHD brain is constantly shifting attention between many tasks and possibilities, it has more difficulty focusing on just one to get started on. It’s like coming back from vacation knowing there are 200+ e-mails waiting for you. Who hasn’t wanted to wait a little longer before opening that inbox to face all those messages at once?

A related reason why people with ADHD tend to procrastinate is that they are easily distracted by other items that are good at demanding attention—particularly modern electronics/recreational screens. When confronted by this, many of our patients will tell us, “I do the electronics because I can’t start working, not the other way around.” We think this is usually more of a push-me/pull-you sort of situation: If your brain is given a choice between chemistry homework and Tik Tok, or doing your taxes and browsing on Pinterest, the screens tend to win. When you don’t feel like working, making a commitment to putting your other screens away will make it easier to get started on the less compelling stuff. Of course, these days everyone plays and works on the same screens, so it isn’t always a simple matter of “putting the screens away." But there are many apps to help you control your electronic diet.

Another reason people with ADHD procrastinate is there is often just one little part of a task that keeps them from getting started. They want to put away the laundry, but they hate pairing socks—so they don’t do it at all. They want to start their math, but can’t find their math book. Identifying the one little part of a task that is keeping you from rolling forward is the solution here.

Action item: Consider whether there is one little part of a task that is keeping you from getting started and doing the whole task. Either outsource that one part of the task (i.e., maybe your sibling or significant other will agree to pair the socks if you sort the rest of the laundry), or find a way to make it more palatable, or easier.

Sometimes people with ADHD procrastinate because they have a hard time estimating how long a task will take. If they continually underestimate the time they need, work on that task tends to get started later. In this case, your action item involves time management. Use a timer so you know exactly how long a routine task actually takes you to do. Allow for extra time if you tend to take longer. (Hint: it’s always a good idea to give yourself a little “padding” so you’re not late getting started and have time to finish).

We suspect that possibly the most common reason why people with ADHD procrastinate is that sometimes it works out well for them. When they procrastinate and have to cram something in before a deadline they become more efficient. Then, they can do in one day what everybody else might take two weeks to do. What a rush! From there it’s just a short leap to get to, “This is the only way I can work.” Procrastination, followed by working under intense deadline pressure becomes “their process,” “their method.” The problem is that sometimes they can’t get it done at the last minute. And this becomes more and more likely as they move up in life. Sooner or later a person with this “method” gets promoted to a position where procrastination followed by racing to complete something at the last minute doesn’t work anymore and gets them into trouble with their subordinates, peers, or superiors.

Action item: Identify whether the hidden positive reinforcement of “rushing” to meet a deadline is there for you. If it is, then you need to decide whether it is worth putting in the extra time and effort to take your game to the next level. That means learning how to get organized, work steadily according to a schedule, and consistently do a better job. Make sure you have no hidden beliefs that you “have” to do it the way you always have before.

In general, we recommend that the best solution to procrastination, besides considering the above, is to practice starting. Never say, “I’m going to do it in ten minutes.” That is practicing procrastination—i.e., it is literally practicing not starting. Remember, you get better at everything you practice. So instead of practicing procrastination, practice starting even if it’s just the tiniest little bit of the task that you can. If your task is that you need to write something, maybe the way to start is just opening the document, or, if you’ve done that already, maybe it’s putting your name or a title at the top of the page. If the task you’re stuck on is paying the bills, maybe you can walk over to the paper bill pile and just sort it, oldest bills on top. The important thing is to make a start, even if it is just a little bit.

More from Benjamin Cheyette, M.D., and Sarah Cheyette M.D.
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