ADHD and Procrastination

75% of individuals with ADHD classified as “chronic procrastinators”

Posted Sep 06, 2018

The last time I wrote about this topic was back in 2010, and I only had a few studies to discuss. If you haven’t read my previous post on this topic, you may want to review this blog post for background information.

Today, I am summarizing new research conducted by Scott Taylor. Scott recently completed his undergraduate degree in psychology at Carleton University where he conducted his thesis research under my supervision entitled, Examining Procrastination and Delay Among Individuals With and Without ADHD. This research is the most recent and most rigorous in the field to date.

Scott conducted a self-report study to gain insight into the relations between procrastination and executive functioning among individuals with and without ADHD. The purpose of the study was to determine if individuals with ADHD exhibited differential levels of procrastination related to the various ADHD symptoms and/or executive functioning deficits.

Past research has shown a relation between procrastination and ADHD, but there were 3 limitations in this earlier work that Scott addressed.

  1. Previous studies failed to recruit a representative sample of individuals with ADHD and they lacked any confirming diagnostic information. This was improved upon in Scott’s research by working with a campus-based centre to recruit individuals with a formal diagnosis of ADHD.
  2. Past research used a definition of procrastination that has not been supported by empirical research. In the current study, he used a much more appropriate conceptualization and measure of academic procrastination.
  3. It is clear that academic procrastination and ADHD are associated with executive functioning (EF) deficits, but past research has failed to include an EF measure when investigating the relation between procrastination and ADHD.

Overall, Scott addressed three research questions and hypotheses. I summarize each below.

ADHD Subtypes and Procrastination

First, and not surprisingly, Scott found that when working on academic tasks, individuals with ADHD displayed high levels of procrastination. Most importantly, two symptoms associated with ADHD were key to this relation: Inattention and Sluggish Cognitive Tempo (SCT). Inattention is characterized by impairments in attention, lack of persistence, distractibility, and disorganization. Sluggish cognitive tempo is defined by frequent daydreaming, tendency to become confused easily, sluggish-lethargic behavior, and poor memory retrieval. People with SCT often have difficulty with problem solving, self-organization, and self-initiation. In fact, SCT symptoms can characterize an important subsets of adults who are often diagnosed with the inattentive presentation of ADHD yet do not have problems with hyperactivity, impulsive actions, speech, or difficulties with distraction.

Based on these findings, Scott suggests that it is important to target inattention and SCT in order to improve academic performance and decrease procrastination among individuals with ADHD. He will continue research on these specifically.

Executive Functioning Deficits and Procrastination

Second, Scott found that the self-motivation and self-management to time aspects of executive function (EF) were associated with increased levels of procrastination. This was the first study to my knowledge that determined relations between EF and procrastination among individuals with ADHD. Moving forward, these relations may be the foundation for a new labeling system for individuals with ADHD (a possible topic for a later blog post). Most importantly, researchers, clinicians and educators now have at least one study that sheds light on the specific aspects of EF (i.e., self-motivation & self management to time) that are related to academic impairment and procrastination among individuals with ADHD. (Strategies to strengthen these executive functions are discussed later on in this post.)

Procrastination among Individuals With and Without ADHD

Third, although it is clear that both symptoms of ADHD and EF deficits are related to increased procrastination among individuals with ADHD, it is still not clear whether individuals with ADHD display significantly higher levels of procrastination. In one interesting part of his research, Scott calculated a procrastination intensity/severity score to identify individuals with “severe” or “chronic” procrastination problems. Using this score, he found that 35% of individuals without ADHD were considered “chronic procrastinators.” In contrast, he found that 75% of individuals with ADHD were classified as “chronic procrastinators.” Procrastination is a pervasive problem among individuals with ADHD.

Concluding thoughts & Possible Strategies to Address ADHD

It was not clear until now that certain ADHD symptoms and EF deficits are differentially related to procrastination among individuals with ADHD. These new findings may provide the impetus for developing future research, group and class interventions, as well as identifying positive and negative environmental factors that may reduce procrastination problems. Improving academic achievement among individuals with ADHD will be important, as it can lead to an increase in success, confidence, motivation and well-being.

Executive functions such as self-motivation and self-management to time are important to target as they are related to procrastination among individuals with ADHD. With that being said, I will leave you with a few strategies suggested by research and Scott’s personal experience. 

Self-monitoring is a strategy where an individual sets goals for work completion and accuracy, monitors these goals, and administers rewards upon successful completion. Research suggests that these strategies help to improve the academic performance of individuals with ADHD, especially in combination with stimulant medication (Raggi & Chronis, 2006).

Strategy training involves teaching and transferring a specific skill to individuals so that they can implement it in an academic situation to improve their performance. Similar to self-reinforcement, strategy training takes some of the burden off parents and teachers, giving added responsibility and ownership to the student (Evans, Pelham, & Grudberd, 1995). For example, individuals with ADHD could be taught a specific skill such as time management to implement in academic situations.

The overall success of these strategies requires an individual with ADHD to possess the confidence to implement effective strategies, resist distractions, complete schoolwork and participate in class learning. Thus, strategies to improve executive functions should be delivered in combination with attempts to build students’ confidence in their ability to achieve academic success (Rabin, Fogel, & Nutter-Upham., 2011).

For more information on strategies to strengthen executive function you can read an earlier blog post on this topic. You can learn more about Scott’s research by listening to a podcast where we discuss this study in greater detail, including some personal insights about how to cope with ADHD while thriving at university.

Blogger Note: Many thanks to Scott who authored this blog post based on his thesis research..

References

Barkley, R.A. (2018). Barkley Sluggish Tempo Scale- Children and Adolescents (BSCTS-CA). Guilford Press.

Evans S. W., Pelham W. E., Grudberg M. V. (1995). The efficacy of note taking to improve behavior and comprehension of adolescents with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder Exceptionality 5, 1–17.

Niermann, H., & Scheres, A. (2014). The relation between procrastination and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in undergraduate students. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 23(4), 411-421.

Rabin, L. A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K. E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33(3), 344-357.

Raggi, V. L. & Chronis, A. M. (2006) Interventions to address the academic impairment of children and adolescents with ADHD. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 9, 85–111.