Stop Procrastinating

6 Ways to Get Started on That Project

How to get started on that dreaded project you’ve been avoiding at work or at home.

A tired man at work can't stop procrastinating due to his adult ADHD.
A tired man at work can't stop procrastinating due to his adult ADHD.

Imagine this. It’s Saturday morning and you sit down at your computer to work on a report for your job.

With a passel of paperwork and a cup of coffee at hand, you start typing your thoughts about the potential success of a new product launch. It’s not what you want to be doing on a Saturday, but you stick with it and get it done in an hour.

OK, you can wake up now. Adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) wish we could be so attentive to difficult tasks that don’t engage our interest. My albatross is writing.

When I say I will get a draft to an editor on Friday, he knows that means Monday. It’s not that I don’t have time to get it to him on Friday; it’s that I have a wicked hard time getting started. I boot up my computer, type in the title, save the document to a file, and sit and stare at the blank page. I am bored.

So I’ll call a writer friend and ask how her article is going, or I’ll throw in a load of laundry or run an errand. I got my taxes done one afternoon when I was supposed to be working on a piece.

[Take This Quiz: How Seriously Do You Procrastinate?]

If you have a desire to run away to a remote island when you think about starting a project, the following list of strategies, many of which have jump-started my clients, can help end your procrastination:

1. Be prepared.

It’s much easier to stop off at the gym after work if your sports bag is packed and in the car trunk. When I have trouble getting back into a running routine, I go to bed in my running shorts and tank top. It’s an immediate reminder, when I wake up, that running is at the top of my agenda.

If you plan to start a project in the morning, collect all the information you’ll need — papers, graphs, directions from the boss-and place it in your inbox or a folder that you can leave on your chair the night before.

2. Start at the beginning.

You’ve heard it before: Break each project into small tasks and define the first step that needs to get done. Then stick with it until the first task is completed. Often, this is all it takes to get excited about the rest of the project.

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For me, labeling a blank document isn’t enough of a first step, but writing a paragraph is. Figure out what that critical first step is for you, and complete it.

3. Get relaxed.

My client Stephen, an attorney, brews a soothing cup of his favorite cranberry apple tea and puts on a CD of Hawaiian music before he files briefs or writes letters. Other clients use breathing exercises or short meditations before beginning a daunting project.

4. Make it fun.

Put on a headset and dance while you vacuum. Sing while you wash windows, or skip when taking out the garbage. Instead of dust-mopping the kitchen floor, one of my clients sprays her socks with Endust and glides around the kitchen, pretending she’s an Olympic ice skater. When the crumbs are in a tidy little pile, she zaps them with an interplanetary laser gun — a dustbuster.

5. Eliminate distractions.

Many college students with ADHD find it easier to start their homework if they go directly to the library after class, instead of going to their busy dorm room. If noise is an issue — and you don’t have a quiet area in which to study — try noise-reducing headphones. They really work — anywhere.

If your racing thoughts are distracting you, write them down on a notepad to get them out of your mind and onto paper. On the job, let colleagues know that, when your office door is closed, you’re working on something very important. If you don’t have an office, grab a laptop and go to a conference room.

6. Beware of multitasking.

My rule is to have on my desk only what I’m currently working on. Out of sight, out of mind is a good approach — just be sure to add the unfinished task to your to-do list.

Studies have shown that those with ADHD do well working on two things that are familiar and simple, but are less efficient when tackling projects that are complex and unfamiliar. To smooth the transition from one project to another, stop the first project at a point where you can easily pick it up.

In my desperation to get this piece done, I stumbled on another strategy: Ask a friend to call you at a preset time to make sure you’re sticking with the work. When my editor asked me again when I would get the copy to him, I gave him a deadline and started to panic. I called a friend, who also has ADHD, and said, “Will you call me in two hours and make sure I’m still working on this article?”

When she did, I proudly told her I had written the first two paragraphs. It’s OK to ask for help, and it will be my pleasure to return the favor some day. Isn’t that what friends are for? To help jump-start our lives now and then?

How to Say Yes When Your Brain Says No

The reasons for procrastination may be deeper than you think. They may be linked to a fear of failure or of imperfection, or a host of other psychological roadblocks. Try these tips to clear those mental hurdles:

Think positive.
Don’t approach a dreaded task thinking, “This will take so long, and it’s already so late….” Instead, say to yourself, “I might not be able to finish this today, but I can do the first two steps.”

Light up your brain.
Rather than give yourself a reward after you complete a task, try doing something pleasant first, to “light up” your brain. Many people with ADHD find that, once their interest is piqued, they can apply that positive involvement to a less enjoyable task.

Go for a walk, listen to music—just be sure to set a timer for 20 minutes, so you don’t get too absorbed in the pleasant activity.

[Read This Nex: The Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Things Done]