We all do, of course, but when people with ADHD procrastinate, they aren’t feeling momentarily lazy or giving in to a harmless, well-earned need to unwind. Procrastinating might qualify as a justifiable indulgence or a rare, sweet choice for the majority of people without ADHD, but for those living with it, there is nothing sweet about it. It comes layered with guilt and humiliation and an intuitive sense that you are letting others down.
For adults with ADHD, procrastination is a significant problem with a biological base, not an occasional reward for serious and consistent work or the result of a mood swing. And while you can learn to compensate for it, you can never change the biology in which your procrastination is rooted.
If you struggle with procrastination, you may find that working with an ADHD coach will help you to overcome this self-defeating behavior. Self-coaching with strategies that have helped others may also help you take control of your time, tasks, and talents. Try any of the following strategies as a start. Through trial and error, my clients and I have created all kinds of strategies, some of which might also give you ideas. Add your own personal touches to suit your own personal circumstances. Once the strategies begin to work, you can practice, practice, practice until they become new habits, a part of your brain's "machinery."
Keep the goal in mind.
One of the hardest struggles for my clients is keeping their goals in mind. If you can’t see your goals, you’ll be more likely to get off track. Devise methods to keep the goal in mind, and to see, and track, progress. Mark your goals with colored markers on a monthly calendar and post it where you will see it throughout the day, in the kitchen, perhaps, or over your workstation or desk.
Separate the set-up from the task.
Eliminate the confused feeling of “Where do I start?” by separating the set-up from the actual task. For example, place a blank word document with the title “Year End Report” on your computer desktop, but don’t start the report until later. You can do the same for paying bills by stamping and addressing envelopes at one time, but writing the checks and mailing them later. Doing the set-up as a separate task can make the task less daunting.
Establish and meet the minimal goal.
Start by defining the smallest possible goal that will accomplish something meaningful on the project or task. Call this the “minimal” goal and schedule a time to complete it. At the scheduled time, do only what you stated as minimal, even if it’s simply opening up a file and looking at the project for 10 minutes! That’s what I mean by minimal! This allows you to approach a tiny aspect of the project without becoming overwhelmed.
Limit time spent on making plans.
Do you tend to spend hours making detailed plans with the best of intentions, but never seem to get around to implementing them? Set a timer for 10 minutes, and allow yourself to write down only the basic things you need to do, not every single detail. Work on daily goals rather than scheduling every single minute. Then get moving!
Use rewards as good stress.
Most of my clients work well under pressure, so try to use this insight in a positive way. Set a lunch or dinner date with a friend, or plan to go to a movie. Tell your friend you can’t go until you’ve finished three hours of work on your project, or until you’ve cleaned your house, for example, and say that if you don’t finish, you must cancel. This is not meant to be a punitive exercise, but one to fire you up to get the work done.
Create false deadlines.
If you’re avoiding starting a long-term project, find someone you respect (and fear a little!) and set several mini-deadlines for handing in parts of the work. It can be your supervisor, boss, or a trusted advisor. For example, tell them, “I’ll turn in a draft of the first part of the report by next week.”
Many times this false deadline can stimulate you enough to get the work done. This strategy needs to be used carefully because it’s meant to create positive energy, not make you more stressed, so be realistic and don’t over-promise!
Beware of "productive procrastination."
A majority of my clients fool themselves into thinking they’re being productive by getting other projects of lesser importance off their plates first. Generally speaking, they can be incredibly productive doing everything BUT what they are supposed to be doing!
Beware! You are fooling yourself! Understand that much of this has to do with a sense of immediate gratification! See it for what it is. Use those small projects as rewards for actually working on your most immediate priority.
Remember the pain of the past.
A typical pattern my clients fall into is saying to themselves, “Let me clear my desk of other work first, then carve out time over the weekend for project X,” when history dictates that every time they do this, they put X off until the night before it’s due. This tactic might have worked in high school, but you know it’s not serving you anymore. Know that your brain will fool you in the moment and convince you that this time you’ll actually accomplish it. Ask others around you to remind you of the pain of the past. It’s one way you can stop this self-destructive cycle.
Create “safe” high stakes for yourself.
People with ADHD often wait until they’ve boxed themselves into the corner before they finally start a project. I know this about myself, so I’ve used the knowledge to my advantage. I take my laptop computer and drive to a parking lot or to a park bench. I turn on my computer and basically play a game of chicken with myself. I sit there staring at the battery drain, and without fail, when it hits 73%, my brain kicks in and I start to write like a maniac until the battery drains. Then I head home. Doing this always guarantees me roughly two hours of writing.
Keep daily lists.
Keep it simple in the beginning. Start the day by writing down your primary goal. At the end of the day, list as many things as you remember doing that day, and put a check next to each one that was connected to your goal. It will give you a clear picture of the relationship of your goals to your actions. It will also show you the kinds of things that pull you off course, so you can learn to identify barriers.
It bears repeating that the only “best” strategies are the ones that work for you individually, so the strategies that are most effective will probably be the ones you create on your own. If something seems “almost there,” modify it until it’s exactly right in your own life. And don’t forget that trial and error will reveal what’s best—which means don’t give up!