From Procrastination to Productivity — How to Overcome ADHD Inertia
It's a familiar scenario to us all; we wake up in the morning with great intentions for the day. We're going to do all the laundry, vacuum the house, finish that project that's been on the to-do list for three months, and still have enough time to cook dinner.
Then, before we know it, it's seven in the evening and we only managed half of one of those things... and dinner hasn't been started! We spend the rest of the evening berating ourselves for hardly managing to do anything, telling ourselves we will definitely do better tomorrow. When tomorrow rolls around, the whole cycle begins again.
Why does this keep happening?
Some might think it's to do with time management, but surprisingly, procrastination is actually an issue with self-regulation.
Those of us with ADHD have a chemical imbalance which makes it hard for the different areas of our brains to communicate well with each other. This results in less ability to self-regulate our thoughts, emotions and actions.
One way that manifests in the real world is in procrastination. We know what we have to do, and we understand its importance and urgency, we just can't bring ourselves to do it. It's the gap between intention and action.
Neurotypicals procrastinate too, of course, but for the ADHD brain it's just that much harder. A large amount of self-control is required to begin and sustain the effort toward completing a task. Regulating, directing and controlling our thoughts and emotions is one of the most challenging aspects of ADHD, and sustained effort is incredibly hard for the ADHD brain.
Here are 5 reasons why we procrastinate, and what we can do about them.
1. Our Emotions
The ADHD brain has a hard time regulating emotions, and can be easily overwhelmed by them. Things may be even more emotionally fraught if anxiety is also present, as it is in many of us with ADHD. Worry about unrelated things can be incredibly distracting and derailing when trying to get something done.
Similarly, overthinking the task or worrying about the outcome can also be things that prevent us from starting. Furthermore, having the sustained mental strength to break through all the "what if" scenarios we create is harder for ADHD brains than neurotypicals.
Thankfully, we can help tackle this in a few ways:
Do something essentially mindless
Try doing something that uses just a small part of the brain whilst doing the task. The goal is to find something to occupy the part of your brain that would otherwise occupy itself with anxious thoughts.
Examples include balancing on an exercise ball for a seated task, or listening to music for a more animated one. Experimentation is needed to find something that distracts just enough to prevent anxious thoughts, but not so much that it distracts from the task itself.
Write down anxious thoughts
Getting anxious thoughts out of our heads and onto paper can help us validate them, yet also set them aside to deal with later. If they're still troublesome, discussing them with a loved one or therapist is helpful.
Try a short burst of high-intensity exercise for ten to twenty minutes before starting a task. Not only is the exercise itself a diversion from anxious thoughts, it will increase dopamine levels. Dopamine not only reduces anxiety, but also improves attention span, motivation, and the ability to learn.
2. Our Need for Interest or Excitement
Dopamine is our brain's "feel-good" hormone, and those of us with ADHD have a natural lack of it. Studies have shown that the tolerance for boredom and frustration, and the ability to sustain mental effort over time, are diminished in the ADHD brain.
It's far harder for us than it is for neurotypicals to resist scrolling through social media and endlessly hitting the 'like' button, or binge-watching a series online, than it is to push through those temptations and do that not-very-pleasurable-thing-we-need-to-do, because of this exact chemical imbalance.
The trick here is to get that hit of dopamine in a healthy yet productive way. Here are a couple of things to try:
A burst of high-intensity exercise right before you start the task that needs to get done is a great way to minimise the risk of being tempted away. If that hit of dopamine has already happened, the ADHD brain is less likely to continue to seek it.
Building in a meaningful reward is also a good way to stay on task and avoid temptations. If a distraction occurs, the reminder of that big reward at the end is often enough to refocus and avoid getting derailed. If it's a long-term task, having multiple 'milestones' along the way can be helpful, with smaller rewards for completing each step.
Temptations may well prove to be just too big a distraction sometimes, and that's okay. With ADHD, the struggle is real, and it's normal to fail sometimes, even for neurotypicals. Rather than feeling bad about it, try learning what might have happened differently so that next time it's a little easier to stay on track.
3. A Lack of Focus or Sense of Urgency
As those of us with ADHD know all-too well, focus is a very difficult thing for us to find and maintain. This is to do with the imbalance of hormones in the brain, making it much harder to sustain effort towards a goal.
But sometimes it's hard to even find what the goal is in the first place. It's as if the task is a jumbled mess of puzzle pieces, and it's hard to know where to start without the ability to see the bigger picture.
Visualise the finished task
Getting a clear idea of how the finished task should look can help with focus. For example, taking a picture of the wardrobe when it's organised properly will show exactly what 'complete' should be. It's then easy to see what the end result should look like, making it easier to get there the next time the wardrobe needs tidying.
Make the task interesting or challenging
If we find a task interesting or challenging, it can give us the ability to hyperfocus—we are able to focus intently, to the point of excluding everything else. Sadly, it's almost impossible to enter this state on demand. It only seems to happen with things that are either interesting, entertaining, challenging or under a last-minute deadline.
We may not be able to enter a hyperfocused state on demand, or get a rush of adrenaline from a tight deadline, but by making a boring task more interesting and setting ourselves time limits, we can artificially create the conditions that make hyperfocus and engagement much more likely.
If a task just isn't getting done because there's no time limit—and therefore no sense of urgency—invent a game out of it and make it against the clock. You can 'compete' against another person or go for a personal best.
For example, I turned all the household chores into 'quests,' putting post-it notes above the locations of the tasks (the bin, the laundry basket) with quantifiable objectives, time limits, and rewards for completion.
Procrastination is the inability to complete a task to a specific time, and time-blindness is a lack of awareness of the passing of time. Having a good sense of time involves knowing what time it is now, how much time is left, and how quickly time is passing. It's one of our executive functions, which are impaired in those of us with ADHD. The ability to complete our tasks for the day involves having a good sense of time. So, how can we improve it?
Understand the time horizon
This is an important concept that can help with time-blindness. The time horizon is the ability to project into the future to plan ahead. Children's time horizons are only about an hour, but they increase as they age into adults.
For neurotypical people, time horizons of several years ahead are common, but those of us with ADHD tend to have much shorter time horizons. Being more aware of time in general can help us extend our time horizons.
Beware of time-sucks
For all of us, there are certain activities we can immerse ourselves in for hours on end, with no idea how much time we're wasting. Screen time—phones, computer games, TV and streaming—is particularly bad for many of us. It's vital to avoid these known time sucks until the important tasks are done. Instead, use them as a reward for completion!
These are a great way to pull us out of whatever we're doing and refocus our attention. Set a few throughout the day for a few minutes before the start and end of major tasks or deadlines to stay aware of the passage of time. Pomodoro timers are great for this, as the continual mechanical ticking helps us focus throughout the task.
Learn to 'cheat' time
If we know we have to leave for work at half past eight, we don't get motivated to leave until it's half past eight—and then we're late. We can get around this in a few ways, such as changing the clocks so they run 15 minutes fast!
We can also assume worst-case scenarios—if it takes an average of 30 minutes to get to school, but 45 on a day when there's traffic, take that worst-case scenario and add a few minutes to calculate the time allowance needed.
5. Lack of Energy
Those of us with ADHD tend to have rapidly fluctuating energy levels and emotions. This can mean that we lack energy when we want to accomplish a task, so we tell ourselves we'll do it later when we feel more up to it. But then 'later' comes around and we find we're still tired and unmotivated.
Track your energy levels
We all tend to have times of the day where we have lower energy, and others when it's higher. Noting our energy levels throughout the day can reveal patterns over time—a useful Bullet Journal tracker. Scheduling the most challenging tasks for the times of day when we tend to have more energy can give us a chance of having the motivation to get them done.
Getting enough sleep
Sleep is an important factor in our energy levels. Setting alarms for bedtime and morning can help us stick to a regular sleep-wake cycle, something that's often a problem for those of us with ADHD. Read more about how ADHD affects sleep and ways to maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
What we eat also plays a role in our energy levels. Foods containing slow-release, "complex" carbohydrates are good for a steady release of energy, whereas foods containing sugar tend to give us a rush, followed by a crash.
Post-exercise benefits include increased concentration, ability to focus, attention span, motivation, and learning ability. When energy levels are sluggish, have a quick burst of exercise even if it doesn't sound like fun. Just five minutes is enough.
Doing the same sorts of things every day at the same kinds of times of the day will help even out energy levels and avoid sudden peaks and troughs in productivity.
It's hard for many people to avoid procrastination, and especially so for those of us with ADHD. But if you keep trying strategies and noticing what works, and continue to apply them over time, it's possible to improve our productivity and reduce procrastination.