The Trouble with Getting Started: ADHD & Procrastination

It’s hard to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Incorrectly known as attention deficit disorder (ADD), ADHD is partly an attention disorder that affects people in different ways.  Some adults with ADHD never received clinical diagnoses as children in their school years.  Adult ADHD is often misdiagnosed as depression or an anxiety disorder and can be overlooked as the source of such symptoms. So it’s important to get medical advice or a diagnosis in adult life, regardless of age.  ADHD can impact a person’s ability to focus, finish tasks, and control impulses. It can have a big effect on people because it results in them have trouble focusing in school or at work and can impact self-esteem.  For people with ADHD, one of the common challenges is attending to tasks.  Procrastination is one of the common traits that make it difficult for people with ADHD to complete tasks. 

Procrastination – What is it really?

Procrastination is defined as a propensity to put off tasks that have to be completed by a certain deadline.  Procrastination can occur when people with ADHD experience feeling overwhelmed due to challenges with dedicating the necessary time towards completing tasks. 

Procrastination – Why do people with ADHD struggle? 

Procrastination is not officially recognised as an ADHD symptom, which means it has not been medically reviewed to be classified as part of the DSM-5 criteria for ADHD.  Research has found that those with ADHD measure significantly higher levels of procrastination than those who do not have ADHD (Niermann & Scheres, 2014).  Many adults with ADHD often find it challenging to manage procrastination due to the sheer amount of stimulation in their surroundings, as they find themselves easily distracted.  Often a common intervention to help with procrastination is to limit distractions in class and learning environments so that people with ADHD can attend to tasks without being distracted or losing self-control. 

A common reason for the inattentive focus 

When your brain is not working optimally, it may result in you finding it difficult to pay attention.  The inability to pay attention can happen for many reasons, including feeling dehydrated, fatigued, substance abuse or trauma, to name a few.  ADHD is not something that can be fixed by simply taking ADHD medication.  Medication does help to reduce ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity and impulsivity, but it doesn’t always improve attention, which means people with ADHD might struggle to concentrate on certain tasks if they aren’t in the optimal state for mental clarity and focus. 

ADHD and dopamine shortage – medically reviewed 

People with ADHD have a shortage of dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone.  It is hard for them to feel happy if they are bored (Binkovitz & Thacker, 2015).  When they want to go out, it might be challenging for them to finish a tough job at school or work because they are devoid of the emotional feel-good feeling that aids them in completing difficult tasks. 

Chronic Procrastination

If you find that you’re putting off and avoiding tasks, again and again, it is a sign of chronic procrastination.  Many adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with long-term procrastination due to a range of symptoms.  This procrastination can cause problems at work when job responsibilities aren’t completed until the last minute.  It can also cause financial stress at home due to losing track of paying bills on time for instance.  Ongoing procrastination can also cause problems in relationships when you continue to avoid important tasks or duties in the home or other environments, leading to others becoming resentful of having to do more of the work. Often adults with ADHD might find themselves playing computer games for hours on end, rather than spending time on important tasks. According to Fuschia Sirois Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, “People engage in ongoing procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” “The basic notion of procrastination as a self-regulation failure is pretty clear,” says Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University and Head of The Procrastination Research Group.  The struggles with procrastination can lead to a range of issues, including low self-esteem and often experiencing a range of negative feelings including frustration and anxiety.  It is really important to equip those with ADHD, with a range of coping skills to ensure they can overcome negative emotions, low self-esteem and other issues. 

Time management and procrastination 

Procrastination can often also relate to difficulty managing time.  To provide a stronger understanding of the role of ADHD in procrastination, a systematic review confirmed a positive correlation between the severity of ADHD-related behaviour and procrastination (Niermann & Scheres, 2014).  In prior peer-reviewed studies, one conducted by Rabin, Fogel and Nutter-Upham in 2011, found more conclusive links between ADHD and procrastination.  Specifically, the study found that time management was an issue for college students with ADHD, due to difficulties with executive functioning.  Adult ADHD disrupts what is called the “executive functions” of the brain, such as judgment, decision-making, initiative, memory, and the ability to complete complex tasks.  Impaired executive functions can spell disaster for scholastic and professional achievement, as well as sustainable, stable relationships.  Executive functioning is the cognitive ability to regulate one’s attention, through the presence of environmental challenges and distractions, to make clear decisions and act per one’s desired goals and outcomes.  For the ADHD mind, the difficulty with utilising executive functions in decision making can make it easy to fall into impulsive patterns and lack of self-control.  As result, working memory difficulties and inability to manage time are common features in the struggle with executive functions, leading to procrastination. 

Time management and task completion

Some adults with ADHD do their best when they work at the last minute.  They are more motivated to finish the work and less likely to make mistakes.  The closer they get to the deadline, the more focused they are and can complete complex tasks.  This can be seen as a strength.  However, for many people with ADHD, time management issues often mean a lack of awareness of time, particularly when engrossed in everyday tasks, they find themselves distracted.  What may seem like an easy task to complete can take much longer than expected due to becoming engrossed in a task and losing track of time and sight of other tasks, or the inability to stay focused.  This lack of awareness of time may seem like an easy challenge to overcome by setting deadlines on tasks and projects, it is important that people with ADHD are able to stay accountable in consistently working towards meeting the task deadlines. 

Accountability plan: How do you stay accountable

Accountability 

When ADHD and procrastination are both issues, finding ways to focus and create structure can help throughout daily life.  One way is with an accountability plan.  An accountability plan will help you picture what ways you’ll need someone to help you be accountable for tasks as well as the timeframe in which they must be completed.  It may also require a task scheduling system to stay on track.  Another helpful way to remain accountable is through setting small goals and rewards, as milestones along the way towards achieving larger outcomes. There are a number of other helpful tools to prime the ADHD brain, to remain focused and on track. 

Brain Waves for Optimal Focus 

One of the more modern approaches to prime the ADHD brain is through the use of brain wave programming.  ADHD may be a result of the brain having an imbalance of certain brain waves, either making it difficult to focus or for the brain to switch off when it is time to rest the mind.  ADHD treatment can be as simple as listening to binaural beats for 12-15 minutes per day that will help regulate the brain waves into a more optimal way of functioning to focus and perform tasks.

Beta

When you have these kinds of brain waves, you are awake and alert. You can do things that we do every day, like making decisions.  Your brain will produce beta waves that measure around 12-35 Hz.

Gamma

Your brain makes the fastest waves, called gamma waves when you are involved in solving problems.  Your brainwaves go up to 35 Hz.

People with ADHD might get so interested in any activity they want to do, that they forget about everything else going on around them.

5 Strategies to beat procrastination 

This article will teach you 5 strategies for overcoming ADHD-related procrastination that has been successful for other adults with ADHD!

The first strategy: Take breaks

Taking breaks from working on a task can help ADHD adults feel refreshed and ready to tackle the project again.  Taking breaks is important because it gives your brain time to rest, making you more energized when returning to work.  Your brain needs this time away to allow you to handle better what comes next! 

The second strategy: Set deadlines

Setting time limits or reminders may be beneficial for individuals with procrastination issues.  It’s vital to schedule time off so that ADHD brains can relax from the constant barrage of stimulation.  You’ll need structure and flexibility, therefore planning.

The third strategy: Create a ritual 

Individuals with ADHD can profit from establishing rituals around what’s essential, which will help them curb procrastination since it becomes a part of their identity, which later becomes a part of their diagnosis.

What’s a Ritual?

A ritual is a step you do in a specific way every time you want to accomplish something.  For example, if part of your ADHD ritual is writing in a journal every day, that step becomes automatic, and the procrastination doesn’t occur because it’s become part of who you are.

The fourth strategy for overcoming ADHD-related procrastination: Creating an accountability plan

Accountability is created through social pressure to motivate you to finish your tasks as an adult with ADHD.  Knowing someone is keeping an eye on you might be the motivation needed to get started.  This accountability might not be an everyday strategy but could come in handy when you’re doing a launch or have a project deadline for work. 

Accountability with a friend 

If you have a friend who also has ADHD, ask them if they would be willing to help hold each other accountable for certain ADHD related tasks or goals that are important to both of you.  If it’s someone with ADHD, they will likely struggle with similar concerns and jump on the idea. 

Emotional support for people with ADHD is vital

Having someone you can count on is great for emotional support.  A big part of procrastination can be about how our mental health is going in times of procrastination.  Checking in with ourselves on how we’re feeling emotionally can break the procrastination cycle. 

Accountability days 

You can trade days when you check on each other to make sure that everyone is doing their job. That way, you’re both getting a chance to support the other person in different ways, which helps keep the balance in the relationship. 

Technology resources to help with accountability 

If you don’t have someone who has ADHD to hold yourself accountable, there’s always the option of using a productivity app.  There are various tools out there that can assist you with keeping track of what has to be done and when it has to get done.  Some individuals may prefer the technology option because social pressure may make them feel uneasy. 

The fifth strategy: Matching energy levels to tasks

Prioritisation of tasks and matching them with your mood and energy levels as there is.  Understand your energy flow.  When your energy levels are highest, schedule the most difficult work when you’re awake and attentive.  The same goes for when you lack energy; pick tasks that don’t involve lots of attention. 

Pair low energy tasks with enjoyable activities 

You can even pair low energy tasks with something you enjoy, an example doing the dishes with headphones listening to your favourite podcast.  Your food choices influence your mood.  Exercising regularly helps to keep your emotions in balance.

The sixth strategy: Overcoming the fear of failure 

Adult ADHD Fear of Failure Adult fear of failure is common and natural when you’re stressed out.  There may be so much anxiety linked with starting the activity that these emotions create an additional roadblock. 

Watch out for perfectionist thinking

The worry of not performing the task perfectly, a lack of perfectionism, and a fear of failure can all contribute to procrastination.

Breaking tasks down into small bite-size steps

Breaking a task into small steps helps. Think about starting with the most important part first and then work on the smaller tasks one at a time.  Your brain will reward you for completing the step for every completed step, which contributes to a positive feedback loop.  Your attention span will not be as stretched with small steps, which means less stress or anxiety. 

Take action on procrastination

If you suffer from ADHD-related procrastination, it can be hard to feel happy when you are bored.  People with ADHD need to take care of themselves and find ways to enjoy being engaged in tasks so that they don’t rely on avoidance strategies like procrastination. 

Reach out and stay connected – we would love to hear from you

This article outlined how procrastination is a unique challenge for people with ADHD, as well as the diverse causes of procrastination and how adult ADHD procrastination can impact your life.  We also went through a range of ideas to help those with adult ADHD and others who procrastinate, to seek support, build more focus and productivity.  We hope these ideas will help!  What strategy did you find most helpful to overcome procrastination?  Please contact our team with any questions about how we can support your success as an adult living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Shannon Bowman is the Director of SJB Clinical Consulting Pty Ltd and Create Balance Psychotherapy & Counselling. Shannon has a clinical interest in treating trauma, PTSD and ADHD.  He has a lived experience of ADHD and is a passionate advocate for those affected by it.  He is accredited as a Mental Health Social Worker, AMHSW Australian Association of Social Workers, https://www@aasw.asnau psychotherapist BACou and registered EMDR practitioner with EMDR Association of Australia https://emdraaorg/.

Daniel Van der Pluym is a Psychotherapist Coach and founder of Deeper Potential Coaching, as well as co-founder of Create Balance Courses. Dan is interested in helping people overcome self-limiting beliefs and challenges, to create meaningful pathways towards a life of higher fulfilment. He has a lived experience of anxiety and depression and has overcome a number of challenges with being focused and reaching positive outcomes in his own life journey.  Daniel Van der Pluym is an associate member of Australian Psychological Society (APS), a member of Meditation Australia, holds an honours in Psychology, a meditation teacher and a Certified Life Coach. 

References 

Niermann, H. C., & Scheres, A. (2014). The relation between procrastination and symptoms of attention‐deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in undergraduate students. International journal of methods in psychiatric research23(4), 411-421.

Binkovitz, L., & Thacker, P. (2015). What does molecular imaging reveal about the causes of ADHD and the potential for better management?. Current Psychiatry14(9), 34-42.

Ferrari, Joseph & Sanders, Sarah. (2006). Procrastination Rates Among Adults With and Without AD/HD: A Pilot Study. Counselling and Clinical Psychology Journal. 3. 2-9.