Inevitably, things get put off -- pushed to the side to deal with later -- and the snowball effect of procrastination becomes a painful part of daily life. Problems with prioritizing thoughts and actions, distractibility, disorganization, feeling overwhelmed, and anxiety can all lead to these persistent struggles in getting started.
Here are some ideas to help you break the procrastination cycle.
Understand the Causes of Your Procrastination
One of the first steps is developing an understanding of the reasons you put things off. Once you get a better handle on why you procrastinate, you can create a more effective plan to gain control over it.
Does the procrastination occur most often when it is a large task that is lengthy, complex and too overwhelming to organize? Is the avoidance related to tasks that are simply tedious, boring, and unappealing? Do you tend to delay on tasks you don't feel competent in doing? Do you find that the issue is related more to time slipping away from you? Do you tend to have difficulty getting motivated until things are urgent and you are "under the gun"? It is also important for you to identify any potential barriers that could influence your follow-through with a task, including exploring any negative thoughts and feelings that may contribute to your procrastination.
Simplify a Large Task by Breaking It Down into More Manageable Segments
If you tend to find yourself stuck or overwhelmed when faced with a large, complex task, try breaking that task down into smaller, doable parts. A large project can feel like an insurmountable mountain to climb, but when you chunk that project down into smaller steps, the "looming" mountain becomes like a group of hills that you can more easily tackle.
Sometimes, ADHD-related impairments can make it hard to visualize the whole project and how pieces might fit together. If you find this is a challenging area for you, don't be afraid to ask for help. Get assistance from someone you trust to help you think through, organize and plan the steps. Jot down a list of the things you will need to complete each step.
An ADHD coach can be a great support in helping you break down, plan, and prioritize. A coach can also partner with you to set attainable goals for yourself and help you monitor progress on those goals on a regular basis. Many adults with ADHD find that they can become so engrossed in the details of planning a project that they never actually get to the project. Be aware of this and set time limits for planning.
Set Concrete Deadlines for YourselfOnce you have broken the task down into smaller, more manageable parts, it is also important to set deadlines for getting started on and completing each part. It is often easier to be successful when you work on smaller short-term goals that move toward the larger long-term goal of completing the whole task. It feels less overwhelming and it is easier to stay motivated, especially if you build in immediate rewards for yourself, treating yourself to something special for accomplishing each step.
Make Tedious Tasks More AppealingWhen you have to do something boring and tedious, you may find that anything else that is the least bit interesting will distract you away from getting started on that unappealing task. The trick is to make the task you have to do more appealing and interesting. Make it fun, make it a game, make it a competition, make it rewarding -- whatever increases the appeal of the task.
Some adults with ADHD find that waiting until the last minute helps propel them forward to finally get the task done. They may get themselves stuck in this pattern of increasing their motivation for boring tasks by putting things off until they become urgent. This emergency situation creates a stimulating environment that enhances alertness, focus and productivity, but it can also create stress, anxiety, and poorer quality work. Instead, try to build in this stimulation with immediate rewards, or by listening to music while you work, or by making the task more fun in some way.
Make a Small Commitment of TimeIt can often help you get over the hump of getting started if you consciously make a commitment to work on a task for a small amount of time. Commit to focusing on that task for 10 minutes. Sometimes you will find that once you begin, it is easier to continue for a bit longer. And even if you don't want to go longer than 10 minutes, you can commit to working for 10 more minutes tomorrow and so on, so that eventually you are able to complete the task even if you have to do it by small increments each day.
Be conscious of normal distractions in your day and proactively limit those types of distractions during the committed time frame you are giving yourself to work on the task. The point is to manage any distractions that may pull away from the task at hand. Limit the distractions that serve as the source of your procrastination. Turn off your cell phone, emails, Facebook, and anything else that may make it easier to avoid getting started and working.
Be aware of the times you say to yourself that you will do these "few little other things first" and then get to the important task. It is often these other "little things" that contribute to the cycle of procrastination. And though you may feel very "busy" -- and you may even be accomplishing a lot -- this pattern of behavior is a way to avoid the primary task that must get done.
Seek Training When NecessaryIf your avoidance of a task is related to not feeling competent to work on that task, seek the necessary training you need. Sometimes people put off starting those tasks they just don't know how to do well. Improve your abilities by seeking education and training on that task so you can do it more easily.
Replace Negative Thoughts With Positive OnesOur thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. When you find yourself stuck in negative mode, it can be hard to break out of the avoidance cycle. Visualize yourself being successful. Seek training for those tasks that you may be less skilled in doing. If you find that negative thinking is a major contributing factor in your avoidance of tasks, you may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy.
Use Positive Social PressureMaking yourself accountable to another person can often help keep you motivated to start a project. Make a commitment to your partner, a friend, a co-worker, etc. to complete the task. Tell that person your goals and timeline with the project. Sometimes this gentle social pressure can help propel you forward. Additionally, you may choose to work on the task with another person. Working with others and engaging in the give-and-take that occurs in social relationships may help keep you stimulated and engaged.
Rotate Between Two TasksIt's okay to plan to rotate between working on two tasks if you find that this technique helps keep you focused and motivated. This type of rotation can help give you periodic breaks from the less appealing task that must get done. Just be sure that the secondary task isn't so interesting that it pulls you away permanently from the primary task.
DelegateWhen appropriate, if you find that there are certain tasks that make you feel too overwhelmed and create too much avoidance, don't be hesitant to delegate those tasks to someone else.
Connect With Your DoctorIf you are having trouble managing symptoms of ADHD and find that focusing and organizing yourself enough to be able to get started on tasks is impairing your ability to get through the day in a productive way, be sure to connect with your doctor to share your concerns. Medication, when appropriate, can be an important part of your treatment plan. Though medication won't prevent procrastination, it can be helpful in increasing the ability to focus and organize your day -- and make getting started on tasks a little easier.
Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., MBA, Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2007.
Nancy A. Ratey, Ed.M., M.C.C., S.C.A.C., The Disorganized Mind: Coaching Your ADHD Brain to Take Control of Your Time, Tasks, and Talents. St. Martin's Press, New York, 2008.