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The Procrastination Black Hole — and How to Climb Out of It

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Those of us with ADHD are often all too familiar with the concept of procrastination. In my experience, this is frequently misunderstood and we’re sometimes accused of being lazy or unmotivated. We may even internalize those words and feelings until we believe them. And that’s not good — it can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and stress in our relationships.

After many years of working with adults who have ADHD, and being diagnosed with ADHD myself, I know that these negative criticisms couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s my perspective that adults with ADHD are dying to get things done. But sometimes we don’t know where or how to start.

Let’s take a look at why procrastination is such a difficult challenge for adults with ADHD and what we can do about it.

Reasons for putting things off

There are a number of common reasons why adults with ADHD struggle with procrastination.

Boredom

If a task is rote or in the least bit boring, someone with ADHD may run for the hills. I find that people with ADHD seek stimulation. And there’s not much stimulation in filing papers, paying bills, cutting the grass, or washing clothes. For those of us with ADHD, our brains will do almost anything to avoid dealing with a boring chore.

Distractions

One of the symptoms of ADHD is inattention, or being easily distracted, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. People with ADHD often may have the greatest intentions to organize a linen closet or the garage, but we may find our eyes and brains wandering. Soon enough, we might be thinking about that novel we always wanted to write or spending an hour (or three) on social media.

No starting point

Researchers who study ADHD now suggest that the condition may involve a deficit in executive functioning, according to a report in the Archives of Clinical Psychology. Simply put, that means those of us with ADHD may sometimes have trouble figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Our roadmap is missing! In turn, this may cause some of us to shut down.

Planning is already a challenge. And it’s especially hard when you consider that a deficit in executive functioning may interfere with determining the steps needed to complete a task.

For example, think about paying bills. First, you need to find them. Next, you need to check if you have enough money to cover the payments. Then, you need to make sure you have checks, envelopes, stamps, and anything else you might need to get your payment in. Clients I’ve worked with have sometimes told me that when they get this far, they forget to mail the check!

Disorganization

Procrastination may be even more likely to occur if disorganization has left a project in chaos. Figuring out the first step — whether it’s organizing your office or finding specific tools you need — can feel overwhelming. For many of us, the mental shutdown is inevitable.

Memory trouble

I don’t know how many times my clients have fretted over their poor memory. I, too, am not gifted with a great memory. In fact, research published in the journal Neuropsychology suggests that deficits in working memory may be connected to ADHD.

What does a poor memory have to do with procrastination? One obvious way is that we may simply forget to get a chore done. (Distractions and executive functioning impairments are in play here, too.) Before we know it, a small task may balloon into an enormous one. The thought of even getting started may become stressful. And then, we may realize we’ve forgotten where we put the items we need to get the task done.

The common symptoms of ADHD, in my opinion, play a huge role in why procrastination can be a big headache for those of us who live with the condition. That’s why I spent time thinking about how to manage the issue.

Tricks of the trade: Beating procrastination

After years of personal and professional experience, I’ve developed some strategies to tackle each of the underlying reasons for procrastination. Consider if these tips would work for you.

What to do about boredom

The first step to dealing with boredom is to take frequent breaks. Set a timer and take a break every half hour or so.

Try to liven up the activity by playing music or dancing while you work. You might also find it helpful to chat with a friend on the phone, as long as it won’t derail you.

Another option is to look for an “accountability partner.” Tell a friend what you need to work on and see if they will work on something at the same time. Check in with each other every 15 minutes or so to help keep yourselves on track.

Try having your friend come over to work on their project in person, so that you feel “friendly pressured” to stay on task. It’s imperative that you find someone who is not judgmental. Think of a friend who is supportive and understanding about your ADHD challenges. For example, you could work on your taxes while your friend writes thank you notes.

What to do about distractions

If distractions often derail you, start by making a plan and writing it down. Write out each step! For example, let’s say you want to clean the basement. Make a list of everything you need: garbage bags, cleaning equipment, and a location to put stuff. Do you want to have a garage sale? Donate unneeded items? Write it all down.

Better yet, put a check box next to each step to help keep you on task. It’s always a great feeling to check those boxes when each step is complete.

A key part of avoiding distractions is to promise yourself that you’ll stick to your plan. Stay in one place and don’t fall into the habit of running upstairs to check on other things.

Work systematically on your plan, and consider breaking certain big steps into smaller steps. Will you first pick up things off the floor? Or clear off flat surfaces? One tip I often share is to look at one corner of a room and work clockwise from there. You can get one small area done at a time before moving on.

Lastly, don’t forget to take breaks!

How to find a starting point

A tip I personally use when trying to figure out a starting point is to “go inward.”

Ask yourself, “What do I need to do in order to feel better?” You may even feel the stress of disorganization in your body. Listen to your body and think about what you need to do first. Is it decluttering your dining room? This might mean you can have calm family meals without the unpleasant visual distractions. Or, is paying your bills a bigger priority? This could clear your mind of worries about utilities being shut off.

Try to write down your first step, and then your next step. You can make this fun by using colorful pens and pretty paper.

What to do about disorganization

If you’re procrastinating because you’re disorganized, get that handy paper pad out again. In my opinion, it’s always helpful to write down a list.

Ask yourself, “What is holding me back from jumping in and getting this done?”

If it’s because you don’t have the tools needed, make a list of what you need to buy. If you’re hesitating because the chore seems too overwhelming, try to break the task down into smaller steps. You can work in half-hour increments.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to hyper-focus on one aspect of the task. For example, if you’re working on organizing a room, choose just one small part to work on. Try not to feel stressed about the whole room. This might mean just picking up papers and neatly stacking them until you figure out a plan for them.

You may need to add additional steps when a space or chore is holding you back. Do you need to set up a filing system to manage your papers? Consider hiring a professional organizer to help. I did this for my home office and it was one of the best investments I ever made.

How to manage your memory

It’s easy to lose things that we need to manage a space. When I hired a professional organizer years ago, she taught me something that has stuck with me all these years: Make a home for everything! Scissors, stamps, brooms — every item gets its own home.

Once I got into this habit, finding my “stuff” became easy. Then, I didn’t have to rely so much on my memory to figure out where I’d put the envelopes, dust rags, or garbage bags.

The takeaway

Procrastinating is not always easy to tame, but with the tips above, anyone can get started. Take the time to work on finding new ways to manage this common and frustrating part of living with ADHD. In my experience, it’s well worth it!

For more information on how to manage ADHD, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

Article resources

ADHD-US-NP-00035 NOVEMBER 2018