For people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), procrastination tends to be a stubborn problem. “I don’t know anyone with ADHD where procrastination is not an issue,” said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
That’s because this is the nature of ADHD and its neurological underpinnings. It’s difficult for the brain of someone with ADHD to get stimulated unless the activity is interesting, there are major consequences or there is a sense of urgency, he said.
“For people with ADHD, there are two time zones: Now and Not Now. If it is not happening now, the ADD-er will tend to procrastinate until it gets closer to the ‘Now’ zone.”
Individuals may feel stuck about where to start. Kim Kensington, PsyD, a procrastination expert and psychologist and coach who specializes in adults with ADHD, gave the following example: “I haven’t scheduled my annual physical exam because I keep thinking I want a new doctor, but that requires researching on-line which entails… and then I stop.”
There’s also issues with working memory, she said, or “constantly forgetting the thing I just meant to do before I started doing something else and on and on!”
But behavioral strategies can help. Below, ADHD experts who also have ADHD share how they push through procrastination and get things done.
Setting up mini goals
For Olivardia creating mini goals helps to move a task into the “Now” zone. For instance, if he has one month to complete a book chapter, he schedules a block of time every week to work on it.
Psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, NCC, uses the app “Errand.” It lets her manage tasks and projects, set alarms, set priority statuses – low, medium or high – pick deadlines and put tasks in specific categories.
Focusing on enjoyable tasks
Sarkis, also author of several books on ADHD, works on tasks she really enjoys. “If there are tasks that don’t help me reach a goal or provide some sense of satisfaction, I delegate them or decide if those are tasks I really need in my life.”
Focusing on the end result
For Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD, shifting focus helps. “Instead of focusing on what I should do, I remind myself how lousy I’ll feel if I put it off.” She tells herself: “I can choose to procrastinate and feel badly about it, or…I can choose to get it done and feel good about it.”
Working a short time
Olivardia eases into tasks by initially committing to 15 minutes. “More times than not, once I start, I am likely to want to continue.”
Kensington has a similar strategy: a 40-second rule. “I have found that if I can get myself — or my clients — to spend a concerted 40 seconds trying to start the task, that is usually enough to identify or even get past the initial obstacle.”
Performing tasks during optimal times
Sarkis works with her internal clock. She performs tasks that require more brainpower in the mornings, because that’s her most productive time. Then she winds down in the afternoons.
When Kensington has paperwork to do for a client, instead of waiting until she gets home, she does it right after their meeting. Similarly, if she can make one call, then she’s more likely to make more calls because she’s gained momentum.
Using a timer
When he’s working Olivardia sometimes uses a timer to simulate pressure. “This might help me feel like I am racing against the clock, which might [make] some anxious, but actually helps me focus and feel a sense of urgency.”
Kensington has someone come over once a week to go through her mail and any other administrative tasks. If she’s really stuck, she also calls a friend and asks them to help her figure out her next steps.
Olivardia has an accountability buddy. “I might email a friend at the beginning of a task to let him know that I am now beginning the task and that I will email him after an hour and let him know how much progress I have made.”
After Matlen eats breakfast she takes the clean dishes out of the dishwater. She also does a final “sweep” of her kitchen before going to bed.
Pairing pleasant activities with unpleasant ones
While Matlen does paperwork, she listens to her favorite music. After completing a task, she checks it off her to-do list (she loves lists). “It sounds simple and silly, but it’s very satisfying.”
According to Sarkis, “You have four choices when doing any task: Do it and don’t enjoy it; do it and enjoy it; don’t do it and enjoy it; don’t do it and don’t enjoy it. The choice is yours.”
Just remember not to beat yourself up about your procrastination. It has nothing to do with being lazy or weak, Olivardia noted. ADHD is a disorder that affects your executive functions. Instead try to “accept that [procrastination] is an issue and be strategic about it.”