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The Black Hole of ADHD Procrastination: Why We Put Things Off and How to Stop

Woman with ADHD using a wall chart calendar and sticky notes to track daily tasks
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Adults with ADHD may struggle with procrastination - a defense mechanism to avoid boredom, stress, or self-criticism. Terry Matlen explores why we continue to procrastinate, despite having repetitive negative results. Want to beat the habit? Terry also shares 5 tips to stop this self-sabotaging pattern.

Many of us are all too familiar with the “black hole of ADHD procrastination.” In my experience, this is frequently misunderstood, and we’re sometimes accused of being lazy or unmotivated. We may even internalize those words and feelings until we believe them. And that’s not good — internalization can lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and stress in our relationships.

After many years of working with adults who have ADHD and living with ADHD myself, I know that these negative criticisms couldn’t be further from the truth. Adults with ADHD are dying to get things done. But sometimes, we don’t know where or how to start.

Let’s look at why ADHD adults struggle with procrastination and what we can do to stop it. 

5 Reasons we fall into the “procrastination black hole”  

There are several common reasons why adults with ADHD struggle with procrastination.

1. Boredom

If a task is rote or, in the least bit, boring, someone with ADHD may run for the hills. I find that people with ADHD seek stimulation. And there's little stimulation in filing papers, paying bills, cutting the grass, or washing clothes.

Many ADHD brains will do almost anything to avoid a tedious chore. Some people argue that procrastination helps them come up with creative solutions.

While that can be true, many of us may procrastinate to the point of sabotaging our relationships, careers, or finances – without anything to show for it!

2. Too many distractions

One of the symptoms of ADHD is inattention, or being easily distracted, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

We fully intend to organize our linen closets or garages. But, as soon as we start, our eyes and brains may wander.

Soon enough, we might be thinking about that novel we always wanted to write or spending an hour (or three) on social media.

And if there's a looming deadline or a very dull task ahead? You can bet we'll procrastinate by tidying that linen closet from months ago.

3. Not knowing where to start

Researchers who study ADHD now suggest that the condition may involve a deficit in executive functioning, according to a report in the Archives of Clinical Psychology.

Simply put, those of us with ADHD may struggle to figure out how to get from A to B. Our roadmap is missing! In turn, this may cause some of us to shut down.

For example, think about paying bills. First, you need to find them. Next comes checking account balances to cover the payments. Then you need to gather checks, envelopes, stamps, and anything else you might need to get your payment in. And that's before you do the paperwork.

Some of my clients say they get that far... then forget to mail the check!

4. Disorganization and poor time management

We are more likely to procrastinate if a project feels like disorganized chaos.

Figuring out the first step — whether it’s working out how to organize your surroundings or finding specific tools you need — can feel overwhelming. For many of us, the mental shutdown is inevitable.

5. Memory trouble

I don't know how often my clients have fretted over their poor memory. I, too, am not gifted with a great memory. In fact, some research suggests that deficits in working memory may be connected to ADHD.

What does a poor memory have to do with procrastination? One obvious way is that we may forget to complete a chore. (Distractions and executive functioning impairments are in play here, too.)

Before we know it, a small task may become enormous. The thought of even getting started may become stressful. And then, we may realize we've forgotten where to put the items we need to complete the task.

The common symptoms of ADHD, in my opinion, play a huge role in why procrastination can be a big headache for those of us who live with the condition. That’s why I spent time thinking about how to manage the issue.

5 ADHD-friendly ways to manage procrastination 

After years of personal and professional experience, I've developed strategies to tackle each underlying reason for procrastination. See if these tips work for you.

1. Bored? Take steps to make it bearable 

The first step to dealing with boredom is to take frequent breaks. Set a timer and take a break every half hour or so.

Try to liven up the activity by playing music or dancing while you work. You might also find chatting with a friend on the phone helpful, as long as it won't derail you.

Another option is to look for an “accountability partner.” Tell a friend what you need to work on and see if they will work on something at the same time. Check-in with each other every 15 minutes or so to help keep yourselves on track.

Try having your friend come over to work on their project in person so that you feel "friendly pressured" to stay on task. Find someone who isn't judgmental and understands your ADHD challenges.

For example, you could work on your taxes while your friend writes thank-you notes.

2. Distracted? Make a step-by-step plan

If distractions often derail you, start by making a plan and writing it down. Write out each step!

For example, let's say you want to clean the basement. List everything you need: garbage bags, cleaning equipment, and a location to put stuff. Do you want to have a garage sale? Donate unneeded items? Write it all down.

Better yet, put a check box next to each step to help keep you on task. It feels great to check those boxes when you complete each step.

A crucial part of avoiding distractions is sticking to your plan. Stay in one place, and avoid falling into the habit of running upstairs to check on other things.

Work systematically on your plan, and consider breaking big steps into smaller ones. Will you first pick up things off the floor? Or clear off flat surfaces? One tip I often share is to look at one corner of a room and work clockwise from there. You can get one small area done at a time before moving on.

Lastly, remember to take breaks!

3. Lost? Focus on the bigger problem 

When figuring out a starting point, I “go inward.”

Ask yourself, “What must I do to feel better?”

You may even feel the stress of disorganization physically. Listen to your body and think about what you need to do first. Is it decluttering your dining room? You can have calm family meals without unpleasant visual distractions. Or is paying your bills a bigger priority? This could clear your mind of worries about utilities being shut off.

Much of the time, the task giving us the most stress is the one we want to do the least. But you'll still be stressed and anxious if you complete every other task except the "worst" one.

Try to write down your first step and then your next step. You can make this fun by using colorful pens and pretty paper.

4. Disorganized? Channel your hyperfocus

If you’re procrastinating because you’re disorganized, get that handy paper pad out again. It's always helpful to write down a list.

Ask yourself, “What is holding me back from jumping in and getting this done?”

If you lack the tools, list what you need to buy. If you're hesitating because the chore seems too overwhelming, break the task down into smaller steps.

Work in 25-minute intervals followed by a 5-minute break. Once you've completed four 25/5-minute intervals, have an extended rest of 15 to 30 minutes. This is called the Pomodoro Technique.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, channel your hyperfocus into one aspect of the task. For example, if you're organizing a room, choose just one small part to work on. Try not to feel stressed about the whole room. This might mean just picking up papers and neatly stacking them until you figure out a plan for them.

You may need to add extra steps when a space or chore is holding you back. Do you need to set up a filing system to manage your papers? Consider hiring a professional organizer to help. I did this for my home office. It was one of the best investments I ever made.

5. Losing things? Give them a home

It’s easy to lose things we need to complete a task. Searching for them becomes another task on top of the ones we already have! And if we can’t find them, buying replacements is a task that can derail everything even further – if frustration doesn’t make you throw in the towel first.

When I hired a professional organizer years ago, she taught me something that has stuck with me all these years: Make a home for everything! Scissors, stamps, brooms — every item gets its own space.

Once I got into this habit, finding my “stuff” became easy. I didn't have to rely on my memory to find envelopes, dust rags, or garbage bags.

The takeaway

Procrastinating can be challenging to tame, but with the tips above, anyone can get started. Take the time to find new ways to manage this common and frustrating part of living with ADHD. In my experience, it’s well worth it!

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 

NPS-ALL-NP-01027 JUNE 2023

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