Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stop “Circling the Airport”: Procrastination, Part Two

“Productive procrastination” is a popular survival tactic among my clients. They enjoy feeling busy, and they fool themselves into thinking that of course they are busy, they’re not procrastinating, they’re getting so much accomplished, so how could anyone say they’re not working? They delude themselves into thinking, “Let me just do these other little things first. That way I’ll be able to focus completely on the important thing because I won’t have all this other stuff hanging over my head, so I’ll really do a better job.”

Procrastinators often wait to begin a task until they’ve run out of time, until they have painted themselves into that proverbial corner, literally creating the “high stakes” situation that their brains need. Part of the problem for those of us with ADHD is that the attention system of our brain is often “sleepy” or lethargic when not fully aroused, so we go from stimulus to stimulus, from issue to issue, seeking ever-immediate gratification and completely forgetting whatever it was that we were initially considering. We can’t sustain the interest and effort and ability to focus on a single issue that, as adults, we’re expected to have, so we’re on to the next idea before completing the original one.

We’re so easily lured into unrelated activities, in fact, that people suspect our motives, calling us irresponsible and lazy, undependable and even self-centered. Well, some us probably are, just like some people without ADHD are. We’re human, after all, so we’re subject to the same human flaws as everybody else. For years we’ve also been told we’re all those things, so some of us probably believe it, perpetuating the self-destructive myth even further. But for most of us, it’s not irresponsibility or laziness or selfishness that lies at the root of our behavior. It’s biology. And it’s usually compounded by a lack of understanding about how to compensate for it.

We’re called stress junkies with our need for high stimulation, but it’s that very stress that actually focuses us. With it, we somehow prioritize better. We can suddenly sequence the steps we need to follow, and we can sustain the effort we need to complete the task at hand. We can stop “circling the airport,” as one client put it, where “I see the target, I know that I’m circling, but I can’t seem to land.” With the right stress, we know that we can land, so we seek the stimulation that allows us to do what we must. Like anybody else, we like to feel good, and we choose reward over punishment every time. The problem comes when we feel good about the wrong things. Then the pleasure turns to pain when we realize we've disappointed those we love and failed to live up to our best intentions.

Although it sounds paradoxical, good stress and an aroused attention system help us make the decisions that usually frustrate us into avoidance. When we can’t imagine where to begin, we don’t begin at all, doing everything else that we can think of to avoid the pain of being overwhelmed. Last-second stress turns us on, though, and in the frenzy of the rush, we can suddenly make the choices that paralyzed us earlier. How many term papers were written that way, how many exams passed, how many guestrooms and bathrooms and patios renovated for guests about to arrive? Being out of time has always forced people into action, but those of us with ADHD have a whole personal history to remind us how we get by.


Here are some more strategies to try—but be sure to add your own personal touches to suit your own personal circumstances.

Co-coach your way forward.

Find someone who has similar goals, and work out a co-coaching relationship. Both of you, however, must be willing to do the following:
• Set up mutual goals and guidelines for the relationship.
• Be sure the co-coaching includes only what is appropriate. If it’s about work, stick to work issues.
• Be consistent in your contact with your coaching partner.
• Be honest and open to suggestions, and trust your coaching partner to have your best interests in mind.

Use a witness.

Clients often benefit from the mere presence of someone to help them start or complete a task. This seems to work well with tasks that have been put off for a long while or that are emotionally charged, such as doing the income taxes or clearing the house of clutter. Many of my clients don’t need the person to help them with the actual task. Just making the appointment and having them show up to sit in the same room with them is enough!

Use a model.

If you are asked to write a report or do a project and are stuck, get a sample or a model to work from. This will help you see the end product so you’ll know what is expected of you. It is a tangible way of having your goal in sight.

Match peak performance with priority projects.

Do you know your “peak performance” time of day? When do you get the most work done? When are you the most focused?

Know whether you’re a “morning,” an “afternoon,” or an “evening” person, and be sure to have your most important project in front of you at your best time. If you don’t, you’re apt to do a task of lesser importance, and exhaust your energy that way. I’ve had clients who were “morning” people but who ended up re-grouting their showers or balancing their checkbook during peak performance time. One devised a computer program that he wanted to market to banks, all the while putting his actual job in jeopardy.

You become the first thing you do in the morning.

A well-known author and friend of mine once said to me, “You become the very first thing you do in the morning,” meaning that if you do the thing that is most important to your career each morning, first thing, and if you make doing this a habit, you’ll be successful.

Take this advice to heart, as I did. It definitely worked for me when writing my book, and it has worked for many of my clients. It will work for you!

Make actions concrete.

Goals and plans are only wishes unless you establish a “when” for each individual step and action. Be specific on the breakdown of the steps you plan to take and the times you plan to do each one. Set a clear time and day for the completion of each.

Always have a back-up plan.

It’s typical for my clients to sabotage their first set of plans and then to give up completely. Don’t let that happen! When you mark out a schedule with start times and days to begin working on the project, set up several back-up times so you can’t escape starting work. For example, set a start time/day of Tuesday 11AM with a back up of Tuesday 2PM, and then the DO-OR-DIE start time/day of Tuesday 4PM.

Share your goals!

Tell someone about your goals for the day. Sharing what you want to do helps in making it happen! Accountability can create the necessary motivation, and help you to be more consistent.

Understand why you "circle the airport."

Some of my clients describe their tendency to avoid long-term projects as “circling the airport.” They know what they need to do, and they understand the importance of starting, but they just can’t seem to “land.” What ensues is a cycle of self-loathing that perpetuates the “circling.”

Understand what this is about. For some, it’s an issue of not knowing where to start. For others, it’s an issue of dreading what it will take to get the task completed—hours, if not days, of making up for having put it off. Simply knowing this can help you cut yourself off at the pass before you start to panic and circle again and again.

I end on the same note as last month. The only “best” strategies to defeat procrastination are the ones that work for you as an individual. The most effective strategies will probably be the ones you create on your own. Only a process of trial and error will reveal what works for you. Modify and customize these strategies until they are exactly right in your own life. 

Nancy Ratey