A while ago I decided to write this post about the ins and outs of procrastination. I turned it into such a big thing, it was like a huge hurdle I needed to jump over. I kept thinking: what will you think? I must get it right. And so, I put it off … for a very long time… but finally here it is.
Procrastination is one of those hallmark ADHD symptoms. Everyone procrastinates occasionally, but for those of us with ADHD struggling to get started or putting things off – procrastination is something we struggle with almost every day.
Still, we often don’t know what’s stopping us from getting started or finishing that task that has been sitting on our to-do list for days. So, before jumping in with strategies and hacks to deal with procrastination, let’s look at what procrastination is.
Procrastination makes us feel pretty sh*t
ADHD procrastination is a complex combination of neurobiological and psychological aspects. I think this is important to understand because knowing that there’s a neurobiological component to why we struggle with getting started helps us deal with the self-blame and shame that comes with not being as productive as we would like to be. Understanding this can silence that annoying voice at the back of your head taunting you with words like “lazy”, “incapable” and “failure” and replaces it with the knowledge that how your brain is wired plays a big role in procrastination. You are not lazy.
To understand the complexity of this phenomenon we also need to dig into some of common psychological themes that play a role in ADHD procrastination.
Dopamine is the secret to “jump power”
Let’s start with the neurobiology. Dopamine plays a crucial role in motivation and drive – you can think of it as the “get your bum off the couch” neuromodulator.
Imagine the task is a hurdle we need to jump. To jump the metaphorical hurdle, we need a good dose of dopamine. Imagine dopamine powers up our jumping ability. The more dopamine you have – the more you’re powered up – the easier it is to jump the hurdle. However, in our ADHD brains, our dopamine system is compromised so we don’t have that good dose of dopamine needed to jump over the hurdle which is why it’s more difficult for us to get started – to (often literally) get off the couch.
An extra boost of dopamine would go a long way to helping us “get up and go”. Stimulant medication helps increase our dopamine but not everyone can or wants to take medication and so what else can we do?
Our internal motivation is challenged, and so it makes sense to look outside. For us, finding external motivators – like your hurdle-jumping coach giving you a pep-talk before the race or your friend cheering you on from the side-lines – is often the help we need to boost our motivation and drive. External motivators could be joining a group where people are counting on you or doing something with a friend who can cheer you on or setting up an accountability partnership. When I’m struggling to exercise, I sign myself up for an exciting but suitably big (and scary) goal.
Almost everything we do requires us to move, and movement starts in the part of the brain called the motor cortex. When you’re struggling to start a task one way to get over that hurdle is to fire up the motor cortex, i.e., get moving. Turn up the music and dance in the dining room or jump up and down in your study. Movement like this boosts dopamine too and (now you know) more dopamine means more drive and motivation to get started.
Our self-talk can talk us straight out of getting going
Now for the psychology. Our internal self-talk plays a big role in our motivation to do things and how much we can procrastinate. Often just below our consciousness are negative beliefs and those taunting voices I mentioned before, saying things like “it’s too difficult”, “I have failed before”, “I’m not clever enough”, “it needs to be perfect” or “I’m never going to get this done”.
If jumping a hurdle wasn’t difficult enough, such thoughts make the hurdle seem so high we avoid it all together. If the “task” seems too big or too important or both, we become overwhelmed and that also leads to avoidance.
Big and difficult tasks seem like hurdles that are too high to jump. Over time we develop invisible scripts – thoughts and beliefs – that act to mentally raise our perception of the height of the hurdle we need to jump and become roadblocks to getting started (or finishing) tasks. We call these scripts invisible because we’re not (always) conscious of them. Two common cognitive “hurdle raisers” for those of us with ADHD are fear of failure and perfectionism.
It is important to consider those deeper negative beliefs and invisible scripts but freeing ourselves of these can take time – time well spent but time none-the-less – and sometimes we just need to get going.
What am I afraid of?
The thought of jumping that high hurdle may come with a fear of failure, and underneath that fear is often a deeper fear of rejection. Perhaps we don’t want to let others down, perhaps we fear being seen as incompetent or unreliable, or that others will be critical or disapprove of us if we fail. When you find yourself procrastinating, a good place to start is by asking yourself: “What am I afraid of?” And then ask yourself: “What would happen if I succeed?”.
Perfect is often not done
Sometimes we worry that if we don’t clear the hurdle with perfect form, it will reveal our flaws, making us less likeable… more vulnerable. Sometimes invisible scripts are internalised during childhood and now drive us to always want to do things perfectly. Mine was: “If you’re going to do something, do it well or not at all”. Sound familiar?
In thinking we need to be excellent in everything we do, we place undue (unreasonable) pressure on ourselves. As a result, we become so overwhelmed and anxious that we never start. Often perfectionism does not just stop us from starting but also stops us from finishing. We get stuck in a loop of revisions – redo on repeat.
Most things in life just need to be “good enough”. More often than not, when we focus on being good enough, we often do our best work. Try giving yourself permission to do an “okay job”. As the CEO of a company I worked for would often say, “done is better than perfect.”
There are a number of ways we can “hack” ADHD procrastination to get going like that bopping around your living room to music. One psychological strategy you can use to help with procrastination and overwhelm is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Once you have decided what degree of discomfort is tolerable, commit to take that small step. Lean into it. Try using the “10-minute rule”. It is the average amount of time most people with ADHD say they can tolerate an uncomfortable task. Set yourself the goal of just doing something for 10 minutes. Perhaps the task is to write a report. It’s daunting. The report is going to take longer than 10 minutes, but the small – tolerable – step might be “I’m going to open my laptop and just read through the brief for 10 minutes”.
First, we need to accept that everyone experiences some discomfort in doing things they find difficult – everyone has to jump the hurdle. How much discomfort though? Too much perceived discomfort leads to avoidance. Imagine I asked you to step into an ice-cold shower and said you needed to stand there for half an hour. You might think I’m nuts. But how much time would be tolerable? Perhaps 30 seconds of discomfort? Lower the hurdle by breaking the tasks down into smaller manageable steps. Small enough to tolerate the discomfort. Then accept this discomfort and lean into it
Accept then commit. Once you’ve spent the set amount of time, you can then decide whether you want to keep going or not. Once you’ve opened your laptop and read through the brief you might do more than 10 minutes – and that’s great – but remember your commitment was for 10 minutes. If you stop then you’ve fulfilled your commitment. Now stopping is not procrastinating, it’s an informed decision.
Jump the hurdle
Back to our hurdle. For those of us with ADHD, procrastination is one of the biggest struggles we face in our daily lives. It’s not something we conquer once and we’re free, but with greater understanding of the neurobiology factors, and understanding and awareness of our own psychological factors, coupled with ADHD friendly strategies we can get better at getting things done. We can jump those terrifying hurdles.