7 Tips For Adults With ADHD to Avoid Procrastination
As adult ADHD specialists, we have worked with many individuals who struggle with task initiation. These individuals typically want to know how to stop procrastinating at work, in college, or at home. “Why am I so demotivated?” they often ask with a sigh of frustration.
In our experience, though, demotivation isn’t the real issue. Adults with ADHD are just as motivated as neurotypical people. Their procrastination is typically driven by executive functioning issues and/or emotional challenges. They struggle to shift their focus away from other tasks, especially if they are simultaneously dealing with negative emotions from past failures.
The Role of Emotions in Procrastination
Emotions play a big part in sabotaging task initiation. Procrastination can result from painful mental states such as fear of failure, self-doubt, overwhelm, frustration, depression, defensiveness, or anger. These factors are the figurative “bricks” in what ADHD coach Brendan Mahan metaphorically refers to as the “wall of awful” – the psychological barrier between someone with ADHD and whatever task they want to initiate.
We have seen many adults with ADHD struggle to overcome their wall of awful. In our experience, most often, the emotional bricks they deal with include some combination of anxiety, guilt/shame, overwhelm, and frustration. While one of these emotions may be dominant in a particular situation, my clients typically deal with a mix of emotions that escalate and feed off one another. When procrastination decreases the time available for task completion, for example, anxiety often results. This can lead to yet more procrastination and a failure to complete the task. Frustration about not just being able to do the task creeps in. Then intense guilt or shame takes over, which further prevents getting things done.
If you experience a similar kind of emotional spiral yourself, your emotional bricks may have accumulated so high that your wall of awful feels insurmountable. Sadly, each time this process happens, residual negative effects from previous failure accumulate and negatively impact the current task at hand. The good news is that strategies exist to help you climb your wall and overcome procrastination, despite your ADHD.
Tips to Address Procrastination
There are many strategies to improve initiation, but these are our favorites that we use most frequently with clients.
1. Recognize emotional barriers
Everyone has a wall of awful and struggles with procrastination to some degree. By taking a moment to explore the bricks that make up your own wall, you can mentally prepare yourself to overcome them. Knowing what the obstacles are allows you to pick the most effective strategies to tackle them.
2. Don’t conflate emotions with time
Will your work assignment really take all week, or does it just feel that way? Sometimes people with ADHD conflate feelings with time. For example, when something feels really difficult, you imagine that it will take your hours to complete. When, in reality, you can complete the task in thirty minutes. A way to address this is to cultivate time awareness. The next time you have a big task, time yourself to see how long it actually takes you to complete it. If you get into the habit of timing yourself, you’ll likely realize that many tasks don’t take as long as you initially thought.
3. Create specific, achievable goals
Sometimes we task ourselves with achieving a goal without making it specific enough. This leads to feelings of overwhelm because you have no idea when you’ll actually be done. For example, the idea of checking your email is anxiety-provoking because you have hundreds in your inbox. Are you done when you check the hundreds of emails, or are you done if you just check ten? Create a concrete (and achievable!) goal for yourself so you know what to aim for.
4. Break tasks into bite-size pieces
If you sit down at your desk with the goal of writing an entire 10-page term paper, how do you think that will work out? You probably won’t even start writing because writing ten pages feels daunting. Instead, break the task up into bite-sized pieces and tackle them one at a time. For example, a reasonable goal for a single evening might be to write an outline for your paper or to find three good research sources. If you find that it’s still too difficult to do the task, then break it down into an even smaller bite-size piece. So, if finding three good sources feels overwhelming, try instead to make a list of potential places to look for sources. Then look at ten random sources first. After that, narrow down the list to three sources. This strategy can decrease feelings of overwhelm and make it easier to get started.
5. Focus on problem-solving
Many adults with ADHD immediately blame themselves for past failures, but it is much more helpful to evaluate the approach to completing a task. Ask yourself: What was it about your approach to creating last week’s presentation that caused you to do it at the last minute? Perhaps your workspace was full of distractions, or you failed to break the task into small steps. By taking a few minutes to review your previous performance and focus on problem-solving, you take yourself out of the blame game and focus on eliminating factors that contribute to your procrastination.
6. Pay attention to your internal monologue
Fear of failure is common, but it can cause ADHD-ers to avoid getting started on tasks that intimidate them. The next time you tell yourself that you are probably going to fail, ask yourself whether you would speak to your best friend the same way. If not, you’re probably being too hard on yourself. Instead of immediately accepting self-critical thoughts when they pop into your head, ask yourself whether they’re true or helpful. (For more information on overcoming self-criticism and fear of failure, read my blog post on 10 Ways to Stop Being Your Worst Critic.)
7. Increase your dopamine
We often suggest this tip to our clients. By increasing your dopamine, you kick start your pre-frontal cortex (the part of your brain in charge of executive functioning). This boost of dopamine facilitates task initiation. A common way to increase your dopamine is by exercising. Engaging in a pleasurable activity also increases dopamine. So things like playing a favorite video games, listening to great music, or painting can help. Exposing yourself to novel stimuli, like changing your environment, helps, too.
As ADHD specialists, we help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder overcome procrastination and tackle other executive functioning struggles. If you would like to perform more effectively at work, at school, or in your personal life, we can help. Visit our ADHD treatment page for more information. You can also book a free 20-minute consultation call with Dr. Lee or Dr. Goldman.