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Procrastination

ADHD and Productive Procrastination

How to stop delaying and get to the main task.

Key points

  • Procrastination can be debilitating for people with ADHD, a condition that makes it naturally harder to start and finish things.
  • Most procrastinators rarely spend their time doing nothing. Instead, they focus on easier tasks rather than more complicated, harder ones..
  • Reducing this so-called "productive procrastination" relies on improving self-regulation, organization, and prioritizing.
  • Limiting negative self-talk that tells you that you can’t do things that you actually can accomplish will redirect you towards a growth mindset.
iStock/AaronAmat
Source: iStock/AaronAmat

Do you ever feel so overwhelmed with dreaded tasks that you do anything else instead of beginning them? Does it seem like you're running in place and not getting where you want to go?

Instead of calling yourself "lazy" or a "slacker," consider that many people with ADHD struggle with procrastination. Whether it’s wanting things to be perfect—and not starting something because you can’t get it that way—avoiding a dreaded task that seems miserable, or going to the car wash instead of writing the report that’s due tomorrow, if you have ADHD, you have natural executive functioning challenges related to initiation, motivation, and goal-directed persistence. In addition to the physiological differences inherent to brains with ADHD, most folks also lack adequate skills and resources to overcome inertia, distractibility, and discouragement.

You may race around doing the laundry, going to the grocery store, or watering plants—all things that need to get done—but you can’t seem to finish that cover letter, summarize a report for work, or do the research for a project. Most procrastinators rarely spend their time doing nothing. Instead, they are great at doing other things—sharpening pencils, picking the right music to listen to, tidying up their workspace, etc.

Jaden, age 28, says, “When I want to get something done, my first task is to gather all of the materials and information, and set up my space for it. If I don't make a specific time for that pre-production work, then it always holds me up. If I'm set up, I can get right into it.” It seems that people with ADHD who procrastinate can be productive as long as they aren’t focusing on something that doesn’t interest them, seems impossible, or takes too much effort.

iStock/Ronstik
Source: iStock/Ronstik

Procrastination can be debilitating. You put something off until the last minute when your panic about not having it done kicks in. Adrenaline jumpstarts your activity level by fueling your dopamine pathways to fire more rapidly and often.

Often, procrastination is a form of anxiety; you’re not sure you can do the task, project, or assignment the way you want to or at all. You’re worried and uncertain about the outcome so you avoid it and set it aside until the due date is right in front of you. Kelsey, age 42, admits, "I give myself a pep talk and remind myself that I’ll have less anxiety if I get it done and it will feel so good to tell my husband, 'I got this done today.' I like the praise.”

The term productive procrastination was first used by Piers Steel in his book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. Productive procrastination is also known as "procrastivity," positive procrastination, or structural procrastination.

Productive procrastination is a delay tactic that feels good because you are getting other things done while avoiding the onerous or unpleasant tasks. You keep yourself busy with something else and stay away from the big thing that’s really looming over your head. You still do things that need to be accomplished, but what you work on is less urgent and important than the items you push aside. This makes you feel temporarily better because you feel like you are making progress and you are. But this short-term relief increases your long-term stress.

Reducing productive procrastination relies on self-regulation and the ability to prioritize. You have to do a brain dump, identify what’s critical to do right now (emergencies and crises), and then sort out everything else.

This is where folks with ADHD stumble. It’s tough to determine what is most important if urgency isn’t attached to it. There’s a difference between writing a history paper or work report and doing the laundry. Both need to be accomplished. Doing the laundry is less cognitively demanding than writing a report—so it gets pushed to the front. It’s a task that’s more on autopilot than the creative, organizing, sorting, and persistence needed for research and writing.

iStock/CnOra
Source: iStock/CnOra

Sometimes people put the big-ticket items at the top of their to-do list, if they make one, followed by other easier items. Then, they aim for the low-hanging fruit—even if it means they are wasting their time. This is when productive procrastination kicks in.

Learning how to work with the ways that your brain likes to accomplish tasks is key to reducing this pattern. Some folks like to do the smaller tasks first, paving the way for working intensively afterward. Others like to take the tougher stuff head-on. McKenna, age 51, explains her method: “I always complete all the little tasks first. Then I can hyperfocus on the big one. It is hard to do things in a prioritized manner.”

Tasks that fall under productive procrastination often have a time frame, with clear start and endpoints. Doing the laundry or taking out the chicken to defrost for dinner is a finite task. Written work, especially if you throw in perfectionism, does not. It is very helpful if you do a brain dump of your tasks, make a smaller list of the things that have time and value pressure, and tackle those few things. Raj, age 33, explains, “I find that getting the big thing done first helps me. I only put three things on my list per day so that way, if I only get one done, I feel I accomplished something.”

Here are five tools to combat productive procrastination:

1. Break down big tasks into smaller chunks.

When you complete a piece of work, it not only then seems smaller but also helps reduce your anxiety about completing it. Create a fixed time period to work on it so it doesn’t take over your life. Take stock of what you’ve accomplished when you take your pause. You’ve done something—now keep going!

2. Figure out your approach.

It’s easier to get started when you have an action plan. Ask yourself what order makes the most sense when faced with several tasks. Do you like to do something easy first, followed by something harder, and finishing with a task of medium difficulty? Think about what tasks you would qualify as easy, medium, or hard, and work with your natural inclinations instead of against them. Then set up a plan of approach accordingly.

3. Use logic to build a strategy to reduce productive procrastination.

Continue to work on improving your prioritization skills. Over and over, ask yourself about the time and value factors related to what’s on your to-do list. Is this urgent? What is the importance of this task? Identify helpful supports, whether they are digital apps or analog tools. Create a map of how to approach the hard stuff, how to set up meaningful incentives, and what tools you might need for self-regulation to get there.

4. Address mood issues.

You may not want to do something because you’re not in the mood. Emotional control and starting anyway is what’s called for. With a smaller chunk of work as your goal, and a set start and stop time, you may find that you can summon the motivation to begin.

Consider playing soothing or inspirational music, making a cup of your favorite tea, or setting your timer. The mood may never arrive, and that’s OK. Do it anyway.

If you can’t, make a plan with a friend, family member, or work buddy to help you talk about what’s bothering you and sit down at your desk. If there isn't anybody you can reach, talk it out in your voice memo or write it out for a short timed period. Think about how you will feel (positively!) on the other side of doing some work.

5. Avoid negative self-talk, exaggeration, and trickery.

Negative self-talk will tell you that you can’t do things that you actually can and probably have accomplished in the past. Anxiety often erases memories of courage and competence. Anxiety also distorts things and can exaggerate the discomfort or impossibility of doing a task. Many people with ADHD also deceive themselves into thinking they cannot do something because it didn’t work before without giving themselves a chance to try it again differently.

Think about a time when you dreaded doing something and left it until the last minute. How did that work out for you? What was the price you paid to complete it? Do you want to do that again?

Create some phrases to talk back to this part of you. Say: “I can do this and I have succeeded in the past.” Or “I’ve set my timers and I’ve planned my reward when I stop—so let’s get started.” Pivoting towards trying something with a more positive outlook and self-encouragement nurtures that essential growth mindset that is so critical to people with ADHD.

References

Steel, P. (2011). The procrastination equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. New York: Harper.

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