Stop Procrastinating

What Causes Procrastination? And What Causes It to Stop?

What causes procrastination? Overwhelm, perfectionism, lack of clarity, and other reasons contribute to the near-universal experience of putting off important tasks until the last minute.

Malte Mueller/Getty
Malte Mueller/Getty

“Why do we put off doing things knowing we’ll feel a lot better as soon as we tackle them?”

Procrastination is an age-old problem that is amplified in people with ADHD. From executive dysfunction to emotional regulation challenges, ADHD symptoms and traits increase the likelihood that we’ll procrastinate and put off tasks — especially ones that tax or tire or bore or overwhelm our ADHD brains. What’s more, those same symptoms and traits create hurdles to overcoming procrastination. Strategy after strategy proves to be no match for ADHD procrastination, according to ADDitude readers.

In a recent ADDitude poll, we asked nearly 1,000 attendees during Dr. Michele Novotni’s procrastination webinar, “Which of the following strategies have you tried to combat your procrastination?” Here are the answers they gave:

  • Break down tasks into smaller steps: 22.46%
  • Create a timeline and/or deadlines: 20.84%
  • Rely on external tools (e.g., alarms, productivity apps): 17.41%
  • Minimize distractions (e.g., body double, accountability partner): 14.04%
  • Reframe negative self-talk: 10.41%
  • Use rewards or increase task appeal: 12.05%
  • Other: 2.79%

Comments and questions from webinar attendees provide deeper insight into what causes procrastination, its connection to ADHD, and the strategies that have actually helped combat procrastination:

ADHD Procrastination Cause: Overwhelm

I live day-to-day with this ‘anxiety fog’ as a result of my procrastination. I may not know specifically what needs to be done, just that I need to do something. This weighs on me, creates guilt, and takes away from activities that are supposed to be enjoyable. I realize that the ultimate answer is to avoid procrastination – but how?”

“I have a hard time staying motivated to get through all of my backlog because it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. If I finish one task, my ‘reward’ is the next set of tasks. I just want to give up.

“My big issue with being overwhelmed is sticking to the small steps. I look at a big problem and my eyes glaze over. I can’t even start.”

“I have a few tasks/projects that are extremely overdue. The longer I put them off, the harder they are to get done.

“I’ve procrastinated on tasks that I’ve dreaded, thinking I can’t do them. But afterward, I realized the task was actually quite easy.  Now, when I feel that dread, I try to remember how I felt when completing the similar task before.”

ADHD Overwhelm Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Causes: Paralysis, Decision Fatigue, and Task Initiation Challenges

My therapist said I’m ‘frozen.’ As a world-class procrastinator for most of my life (I’m 90), I know I can’t afford to waste time. It’s incredibly precious and I’ve still got a lot to accomplish. And even though I know this, I am still frozen.”

“I am a graduate student and have a really hard time getting started with my (mountains of) reading. But once I get started, time flies by. What are some ways I can ease the transition?”

One person I know lights a candle at her desk to signal ‘now I am working.’ When the candle reaches a certain level, she can take a break.”

Breaking things down is sometimes more complicated due to decision fatigue and overwhelm. I feel my brain has too little computer ‘RAM’ to take everything into consideration and compute a rational decision.”

“If I only had one thing to tackle, I know I could do it, but when there are 20 things, it feels impossible.”

Decision Fatigue Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps:

ADHD Procrastination Cause: Perfectionism

I procrastinate because of fear of failure. I feel that fear of failure even more the longer I procrastinate, which paralyzes me. Any tips for that?”

“Planners, time blocking, reward programs — they didn’t work because they were too loose for my autistic brain, but too regimented for the ADHD part of my brain that felt like a failure when it wasn’t perfect.”

“I have the time to do something, but I am just not ‘ready’ to do it because I don’t feel like I can do it perfectly, so I will wait until I am ‘inspired’ to do it perfectly.”

“I took years to finish undergrad because I saw my final thesis as this insurmountable task that would expose me as a fraud.”

I am a big fan of the strategy of committing to perform a task poorly, which I discovered when trying to write a report. Just write, I tell myself, even if I know it’s bad. It is much easier to go back and rewrite, as my mind quickly finds a way to make it better.”

Perfectionism Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Causes: Lack of Motivation and Consistency

My clients often have the issue of endurance. They may take the first or even second step. They then will say that they get overwhelmed by the idea that they will need to do these things forever.”

“So, I can plan, take baby steps, and all that. My issue is consistency on these baby steps every day.

There are lots of great virtual body doubling groups out there., for example, allows people to work virtually one-on-one, too. (It is paid but they allow you to do a few sessions each week for free).”

“They’re not for everyone, but task lists help me tremendously. The physical act of marking through a line on a list is rewarding.”

Poor Motivation Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Cause: Distractions

My phone is a major part of my daily job because I work in social media. It’s ALSO a huge distraction. I find myself getting stuck in other apps and not doing my actual work on the phone.”

“Advice for not going down the rabbit hole of the Internet when trying to complete a task?”

“While writing papers, even if I enjoy it, I end up being distracted by one piece of information and veering off, and I find it difficult to get back on task/subject.”

My main distractions are my own thoughts. How do I cope with that?”

“I heard about ‘anchor points’ recently and I think it is a really great method. You pick a very specific task to focus on (ex. tidying the kitchen sink or your bed). When you inevitably get distracted, you remind yourself to go back to your anchor point.”

Distractions Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Cause: Implementation Problems

I create a beautiful plan or schedule, but I cannot execute it. At the end of the day, I end up going off of intuition. I cannot grow with this method. Ritalin doesn’t help anymore.”

“I know many of these [procrastination] strategies and interventions, but my ADHD brain has SO much trouble implementing them. It’s a real conundrum.”

“Does anyone else deal with ‘rebellion’ from the plans or structure they create for themselves?”

“Do you have any suggestions for making calendar entries stick? I have tried scheduling time with myself for tasks (like status reports at work) but often choose to procrastinate when the time arrives.”

Implementation Problems Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Cause: Getting Lost in the Weeds

“I’ve tried to break tasks down and create timelines, but then I get bogged down in setting out the timeline in too much detail!

I become overly obsessed with getting every detail to the point where that ends up taking all the time. It’s like the Hydra — every time you cut off a head, a new one grows.”

“What if you over-prepare for a task and don’t start because there’s always more [to prepare]?”

“What do you do when you have ADHD and OCD and you hyperfocus on small details — font size, heading numbering, etc. — instead of the content?”

“I’ve been using Google Assistant to help keep me on track and cognizant of the time a task needs to start and be done.”

Getting Lost in the Weeds? Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Cause: “I Work Better Under Pressure”

“Many of my college clients complain that they just aren’t motivated to start a paper or project until the due date comes near. That’s when they rush to get it done. Most of them get As or Bs, so the cycle continues.”

“Historically, my most productive work days were the three to four days before I left for vacation. Amazing how many things got done.”

“A deadline *I* set does not help. I do not have the same sense of urgency for my own deadlines.

I get it done under pressure, but I feel exhausted afterwards, and of course, that doesn’t make me feel productive or responsible.”

Better Under Pressure? Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Causes: Lack of Clarity and Time-Estimation Challenges

I am bad at estimating time for task. After I go over the time frame I initially set and compare it to how long I really took, it discourages me.”

“My procrastination can manifest as a false belief I’ve got lots of time, even when it’s not true. ”

“I know what needs to be done, but can’t figure which to do first, so I do nothing.”

Time Blindness Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

ADHD Procrastination Cause: Boredom

“Do you have any tips for someone who sometimes procrastinates on short term tasks simply because they feel like it’s routine and boring, and that they can be done anytime?”

How can I maintain motivation when something stops feeling like a novelty and isn’t urgent (like cleaning out a room or any other necessary long-term project)?”

“Because I procrastinate on paying bills, submitting medical invoices, and other paperwork, procrastinating is actually costing me money because I do what I enjoy first instead of what is tedious, but earns me money. How can I be best inspired to do what I hate first?

It helps me to settle into a process, especially with routine, mundane tasks. if I approach the task with calm, it can be at least tolerable if not actually enjoyable.”

Boredom Contributing to Procrastination: Next Steps

To learn more about ADHD procrastination and to hear expert solutions for combating it, listen to the ADDitude Expert Webinar “How to Combat Procrastination in the New Year” by Michele Novotni, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on January 5, 2023.

What Causes Procrastination? Next Steps

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.