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A Procrastinator's Story: Adult ADD, Life-long Habits & Irrational Thinking

A "Don't Delay" reader shares his story about procrastination

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. I have added links within the text to relevant Don't Delay postings in case you would like to read further about a particular topic or issue raised.

October 7, 2009

Dear Dr. Pychyl-

I discovered the "Don't Delay" blog a couple months ago and, as a lifelong procrastinator, I would like to thank you profusely for the mother lode of insight I've gained from your posts.

I was diagnosed this past January with Adult ADD and while my daily 30mg of Adderall has enhanced my ability to maintain focus at work, I've found that 47 years of habitual procrastination and "giving in to feeling good" cannot be undone by medication alone. Enhanced focus is a double-edged sword and increased focus on the urge to distract myself from my work simply exacerbates a long-conditioned habit.

I would also like to offer my personal insight regarding the debate referenced in your 4/9/08 "Mindfulness Meditation" blog, where you note that there is no real consensus over the cause of regulatory failure. I believe that there is no single thing that regulatory failure can be attributed, but rather it's an insidious combination of factors that lead to regulatory breakdown, the mix being unique to each procrastinator.

The prime contributor to my own procrastination problem, I've come to believe, is a set of grossly outdated and inherently unrealistic expectations. Throughout childhood, I enjoyed an abundance of artistic talent that included the ability to write well, draw well and play musical instruments. Contrasted against my confidence in those areas was an overwhelming sense of inferiority when it came to academics (I only excelled in subjects that captured my attention), sports and general social skills.

As a result, I've spent almost 5 decades of my life expecting everything to come as easily to me as writing or music and feeling perpetually frustrated, angry, disappointed and ill-used by Fate that life is not as perfect as it should be. My study of Albert Ellis' work has been a real eye-opener, as I've begun to see for how destructive my chronic perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking has been to my well-being.

Only recently have I been able to objectively observe my patterns of self-sabotage. The perfectionism demanded by my Ideal Self ensures that my Actual Self is consistently dissatisfied. My disgruntled Actual Self, always in need of an emotional Band-Aid, habitually rebels against activities that don't feel good in the moment, mainly because Actual Self won't be able to do them as "perfectly" as Ideal Self requires. So Actual Self shirks his responsibilities and when Ideal Self has had enough of this weak-willed avoidance, he steps to correct all personal flaws in one fell swoop. Ideal Self is a huge fan of self-help gurus like Anthony Robbins and other proponents of the myth that rapid, massive self-improvement is not only achievable, but easy.

Years of setting goals and promising myself whole-hearted commitment to quantum life changes (starting "tomorrow", of course) have yielded few lasting results, as my goal-setting sprees invariably backfire in the form of rebellion against such draconian attempts at self-discipline. Rebellion typically means binges of distraction behavior that can last days or even weeks--doing the exact opposite of what I promised myself I'd do-before Ideal Self, fed up once again, resolves to put a stop to such shenanigans once and for all.

Ideal Self is now consumed with anxiety as I push myself to make up for lost time. I set no reasonable limits to my activity, convinced that every waking minute should be spent reversing the ill effects of my previous inactivity. A few days of denying myself any semblance of downtime --- after all, how can I possibly think I've earned the right to reward myself when I've screwed things up so badly? --- inevitably leads to a wholesale rebellion by Actual Self, who believes that if this is the level of activity required to succeed in life, he wants no part of it.

Moderation, needless to say, is extremely difficult for me.

I've come to see that an unconscious benefit I derive from these up-and-down cycles is the perceived pleasure I experience when I defy my internal taskmaster and play "hooky" from life and its responsibilities. It's a hollow gratification --- not particularly pleasurable at all, in fact --- and at its core it's nothing more than self-created relief that I've given myself one more day's reprieve before really getting my act together. As Ideal Self glowers with disapproval, I assuage my guilt in the moment with the assurance that one more day spent goofing off or surfing the Internet surely can't hurt.

Maybe one day can't hurt, but hundreds of days surely can and these behavioral cycles have had a devastating effect on my career. I'm in a sales position and I'm not accountable to anyone but the president of the company, a person who's rarely in the office. Freedom from day-to-day supervision can be a curse for someone with poor self-regulation skills and ultimately the sales numbers speak for themselves, as my lack of consistent effort has resulted in several reductions in my base salary over the past 5 years. The resultant anxiety, self-directed anger and terrifying belief that I'll never be able to change my habits simply re-triggers the urge to distract myself from the reality of my situation (a reality that includes a wife, two children and a mortgage) and thus does the cycle perpetuate.

The best advice I've gleaned from your blog is a basic truth understood by anyone who succeeds: to accomplish anything, you'll have to do what needs to be done whether you feel like it or not. For a chronic procrastinator, that's a bitter pill to swallow but I've found that the more I embrace this hard fact of life and put it into practice, the less I allow my anxiety, frustration and craving for immediate "mood fixes" to dictate my actions in the moment.

I have a long way to go before I'll be able to trust my self-regulatory skills in the work environment - my procrastination problems are almost exclusively related to my job - and, as with some recovering alcoholics, I am forever fearful of falling back into those incredibly destructive habits. But the more I read "Don't Delay" and related links, the more confidence I gain, realizing that I am not alone in my struggles with the corrosive problem of chronic procrastination.

Thank you again for the inspiration you've provided, Dr. Pychyl, and I wish you all the best.