What Stops Me From Starting?
Why do you procrastinate? The problem is not poor time management. Procrastination stems from weak self-regulation of emotions and moods, which is a problem common in people with ADHD. But you can turn intentions into actions by finding your procrastination personality type and following these strategies.
Why Do I Procrastinate? Self-Regulation Is to Blame
You don’t procrastinate because you are lazy. Or unorganized. Or even stressed out. You procrastinate because you’re unable to effectively regulate your own emotions — a trademark symptom of ADHD. This is not a wild new theory; it is the finding from multiple research projects dedicated to studying procrastination.
“To tell the chronic procrastinator just do it is like telling a person with a clinical mood disorder to cheer up,” says Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at DePaul University’s College of Science and Health, and the author of Still Procrastinating: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done (#CommissionsEarned). “It has nothing to do with time management.”
Research shows that procrastination avoidance actually stems from one’s ability to self-regulate emotions and moods. According to Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, in England, “People engage in chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”
“The basic notion of procrastination as a self-regulation failure is pretty clear,” says Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University and head of The Procrastination Research Group, which has conducted extensive research on the subject. “You know what you ought to do, and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.”
Self-regulation — of emotions, moods, and time — is a battle people with ADHD fight every day. The wide-open space that lies between the task and the time to complete it can be especially broader and harder to close for people with ADHD than it is for neurotypicals.
Why People with ADHD Procrastinate More
Everyone procrastinates. People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) aren’t the only ones who stare at blank computer screens waiting for the keyboard to start typing automatically. Neurotypicals also stare into space and don’t know how to begin. They, too, put off going to the dentist until their toothache is unbearable. They, too, push the tall stack of papers to the back of the desk. Procrastination is a great equalizer.
But those with ADHD are masters at task avoidance. While waiting for inspiration, we eat, binge-watch, scroll through social media and do other activities that soothe our aching soul. My distraction routine usually means a dash to the kitchen for cookies, chocolate, or coffee. Even while working on this article, I had already polished my nails, eaten a bag of chips, and checked my e-mail since starting to write earlier this morning. Eventually, I realize I’m trying to disguise the feeling of failure.
Failure? Yes, indeed.
While everyone experiences the anguish of procrastination, the unfinished task may actually lead individuals with ADHD to experience physical and mental pain. Planning, prioritizing, motivating, organizing, and decision-making can cause a person with ADHD to become overwhelmed and shut down.
“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with your challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks,” says Dr. Pychyl.
Procrastination also exacerbates these negative emotions. Once the floodgates have opened, the negative voices come rushing through. We hear parents, teachers, friends, or ourselves saying we’re not good enough, smart enough, or capable of completing the task. Lots of self-control is required to begin and sustain the effort toward completion. Regulating, commanding, and controlling your thoughts and emotions is one of the most challenging aspects of ADHD.
How do I Fix My Procrastination?
To lessen the discomfort and stop procrastinating, you have to learn more about your procrastination personality type, ADHD traits, emotions, and moods. Then, acknowledge which ADHD traits exacerbate procrastination, and apply these practical tips to help you close the gap in getting things done.
Types of Procrastination
The following are six procrastination personality types. See which one you fall under, and remember it for the next step.
1. The Emotionally Exhausted: Intense emotions are interfering with your work. Your fears, worries, or anxiety about unrelated situations—or the outcome of the project—stop you from starting.
2. The Dopamine Desirer: You need a spark, a thrill, or a jolt to get motivated. You can’t say no to a night out with friends, a meet-up for coffee, or a trip to the mall. Until you have your fill of fun, your work won’t get done.
3. The Focus Finder: You need to see a clear picture of where you’re going with the task. The jumbled puzzle pieces won’t fit together until you see the bigger picture.
4. The Deadline Driver: Time doesn’t make sense until the cutoff point is near. A close deadline is the only way you can finish.
5. The Paralyzed Perfectionist: You can’t start until everything is perfect. Overly critical of yourself, you fear failure. Perfectionism paralyzes progress.
6. The Overwhelmed One: You have too many options, so you can’t begin. The choices are endless. Decisions are required. You’re convinced the job will never get finished. You’re immovable.
Now that you’ve identified your procrastination type, here are eight common emotions tied to procrastination avoidance and their accompanying solutions.
1. F.E.A.R (False Excuses Appearing Real)
We convince ourselves that our excuses are valid: I needed a snack to sustain my energy. My nails had to be polished because I was going to a party that evening. I had to check my email because one of them might be urgent.
Solution: Be honest with yourself.
2. Easily Overwhelmed
The options are endless when facing a task. Where is the starting point? We get stuck and stare into space. People with ADHD have frequent, rapid thoughts that cause us to feel bombarded.
Solution: Have paper or an app handy to download your ideas, so you can return to them later. Break your project into smaller pieces. Ask for help from a supportive friend, mentor, or therapist.
3. Overthinking Things
The same thoughts keep running through your ADHD mind. Breaking this pattern requires mental strength. We fall into the “what-if” trap, creating scenarios that torture us.
Solution: Be aware when you’re stuck in worry. View yourself as an outsider to your thoughts. Take a walk, go for a jog, practice breathing exercises and mindfulness.
4. Blind to Time
Time may not be the main reason for procrastination, but it is a factor. Procrastination is the inability to perform a task by a specific time. The concept of time is a reality we must face.
Solution: Set three alarms on your phone for each task. Find your Big Why: Why is getting the task done important to you? What is the reward? Meditate on a positive outcome.
5. The Desire for Dopamine
People with ADHD have a shortage of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone. Boredom is painful to the ADHD brain. The yearning for a night out is stronger than the desire to finish a demanding task. Turning down an opportunity for pleasure requires willpower.
Solution: Put responsibility before fun. Build your mental muscles. Plan for a reward after you finish the task. If you can’t resist the urge for stimulation, schedule a limited amount of time for a healthy, fun activity. Then return to the job and try again.
6. Fluctuating Energy Levels
ADHD emotions change rapidly, and so do our energy levels. Often we tell ourselves, I’m not in the mood. I don’t feel like it. I’ll do it later when I feel better. But when the time comes, we still feel unmotivated.
Solution: Know your energy flow. Schedule the most challenging work when your energy levels are highest, and you feel awake and alert. Food choices affect your mood. Pay attention to which foods help or impair you. Exercise regularly to stabilize your moods.
7. Distressing Emotion
We experience emotions intensely, and we have trouble regulating and managing them. Intense emotions adversely affect our executive functions. We harbor resentments, worry about loved ones, and fear future events. Unsettled affairs undercut our tolerance to complete a challenging task.
Solution: Write down or talk about what you can change and what you have to accept. Seek help from a therapist, physician, or ADHD coach if the distress, anxiety, or anger continues.
8. Hyperfocus or lack of focus
With ADHD, we focus too intensely or lack focus entirely. Hyperfocus makes hard work more comfortable. All systems are in sync, and you’re working efficiently. Lack of focus is mental anguish. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to access hyperfocus on demand.
Solution: Before you begin, clear your mind. Do something enjoyable or creative to ignite your spark. Try to work. If you’re still not inspired, come back to the task later. A change of scenery will get your juices flowing.
Finding the motivation to begin, and sustaining the effort to reach completion, requires intense self-control. With a bit of determination and a lot of desire, a person with ADHD can gain the discipline to improve her procrastination.
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