"I'll Do It Later, Mom. I Promise!" 3 Procrastination Fixes

Children with ADHD often all into a vicious cycle of procrastination. Here's how to get them in gear — without guilt.

ADHD student managing time to study for a test but struggling with procrastination.

How to Get Started: Lower the Bar

Example 1: Start Studying

Feeling: It's Wednesday and you are tired. You have a Spanish test on Friday. You want to put off studying today and push it all to tomorrow, Thursday, which is what you typically do. Problem: In the past, this hasn't really worked because you feel overwhelmed and stressed out. You end up staying up late and are exhausted the next day. Strategy: You give yourself a task that you know you can easily accomplish. Solution: You decide to study just five vocabulary words, since learning vocab is the easiest thing for you.

Example 2: Start An Essay

Feeling: You have an essay due for your English class and you're feeling overwhelmed. You have good ideas, but getting them onto paper is hard. Problem: You think you need extra adrenaline to get it done. You decide to watch TV and to start writing right before bedtime, when you're pressured to finish. Strategy: Instead of viewing the essay as "all or nothing," you figure out what you can do easily to get started. Solution: You set a simple task for yourself— to write the first sentence before you eat dinner.

Example 3: Start Your Homework

Feeling: Chemistry is a tough subject and you need extra help from your teacher. Meeting with her after school would be beneficial. Problem: You are starving and want to go to Chipotle, but you also don't know how to solve those chemical equations. Strategy: Instead of getting help with the whole assignment, you ask your teacher for help with the first question only. Solution: You meet with your teacher for just a few minutes, ensure that you understand how to do the work, and then run to Chipotle.


Getting your child started working on homework or studying for a test can be a humbling experience. Nightly, thousands of parents ask their children, "Did you start your homework yet?" Children answer: "Not yet, but I'll do it when I get to the next level of this video game" or "I'll start it after I check my Instagram account. Don't worry, Mom!" Procrastination is a nightmare for any parent — but it can get even worse when your child has ADHD.

So we parents become "procrastination prosecutors." It is a tough job. There are two types of procrastination — functional and dysfunctional. Functional procrastinators manage to get their work done and don't seem to stress about putting things off. Let's say your son has a math assignment due on Friday. He doesn't start on it until 9 p.m. on Thursday night, but he completes it, even though he has to stay up a little late. This is functional procrastination.

On the other hand, your daughter was given two weeks to write a research paper that is due on February 25, and she doesn't start it until late on the 23rd. She needs to write her thesis, research, create an outline, and so on. Although she manages to get it in on time, the work is sloppy, she's stressed, and you are furious about another last-minute project. That's dysfunctional procrastination. Your daughter knows what she needs to do, but cannot make herself do it.

The ability to regulate emotion in order to get started is rooted in executive function. That's why so many students with ADHD procrastinate. Procrastination, especially the dysfunctional type, produces two results: a lower GPA and stress.

Why Do Kids Procrastinate?

Research using brain imaging, conducted in the last two years, shows that procrastinators, teens and adults alike, believe that they must be in a good mood to tackle an uninteresting task, such as homework. When they consider what to do next — homework or video games — video games win out. The more pleasurable activity will always trump the other task because it will improve the mood. This approach almost never works, and, in the end, procrastinators are disappointed in themselves when they realize how much time they've wasted. They feel worse later, when they miss a deadline or have to deal with an angry parent.

Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada, is a leading researcher on the topic. He states that emotion is at the core of procrastination. He and his colleagues suggest that helping procrastinators realize how their attempts to fix their mood are sabotaging their efforts is the first step.

Knowing that you are at a fork in the road and that you have two choices — to do the task at hand or to avoid it by doing something more pleasurable — is important. So how do you get your child to see that he is at a fork in the road?

1. See It, Feel It

One approach, researched by Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., from Bishop's University, in Sherbrooke, Quebec, is called "time travel."

Sirois studied 4,000 people and found that those who could project themselves into the future and think about how great it would feel to finish a task were more likely to ward off procrastination. It wasn't only good thoughts that they were trained to imagine. They also thought about how awful they would feel if they gave in to the "I'll do it later" syndrome. Visualization is a common strategy successfully used by athletes, and it can be just as effective for procrastinators of any age.

Next: Procrastination Strategies

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TAGS: Deadlines and Procrastination, Homework and Test Help

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