Dealing with ADHD-powered procrastination

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

Episode 19: Overcoming ADHD-powered procrastination 

Telling someone with ADHD “just do it” is like telling a person with a clinical mood disorder to cheer up. This ‘rule’ falls firmly in the “Don’t” column of supporting ourselves or someone we love, with their ADHD-related challenges.

If we suspect or know definitively we have ADHD, we know we are masters at task avoidance and task initiation, if the thing we are supposed to be doing isn’t something we are organically interested in doing. 

In my clinical practice, often people who struggle the most with ‘procrastination’ are also quite emotionally exhausted and chronically overwhelmed (regardless of whether or not they have ADHD). 

People with ADHD have the added challenge of being are also biologically low in the neurotransmitters our brains need to light up with focus. Our adaptive and protective brains are forced to find strategies that give us a break and clear a way to get it done – like procrastination and the pressure of an impending deadline.

As an invisible brain-driven behaviour with a secret function, procrastination forces the burst of adrenaline we need to help us focus.  The adrenaline jumpstarts our activity level by fuelling our dopamine pathways to fire, which brings our brains default mode network (DMN) functioning into action.  

Our brain switches from default mode (our ability to just function without really thinking about it), into the task positive mode (the ability to focus on a specific task), so background distractions dim. When we have ADHD, the DMN never really turns off, which is why we are so distractible in the first place – we are more likely to notice everything in our periphery than someone without ADHD.  

The next layer: Our emotional brain

Procrastination is a great example of the complicated communication between our higher thinking brain (also called our cognitive brain) and our emotional brain (our limbic system). Our higher thinking says, you should just do the thing, and our emotional brain says, nope don’t feel like it. Trouble is, despite both messages originating in our nervous systems, they are really speaking two different languages. 

So these two systems wired into our functioning as humans just keep talking over each other.  A little bit like a toddler perhaps, figuring if they get louder you will finally pay attention? On the outside, that ‘louder’ is often what we lable as ‘anxiety’ or ‘procrastination.’

This complicated brain functioning frequently shows up in everyday life.  For example, there are a lot of people doing things for work, and studying things in school, that they actually really aren’t interested in at all

For example, our cognitive brain says, “I should do my accounting homework.”  But your emotional brain says, “But I hate math and accounting. It’s so boring.” 

So to get a break from the pressure of trying to study something that is incredibly boring, your brain will dive into the things that are interesting to you, taking up both work and spare time, which leaves no time for doing the important or ‘adulting’ tasks of life, or to pay attention to our relationships.

And, we know that causes trouble in our relationships. 

The obvious solution might be to find work, and school subjects that we are organically interested in. We know that’s easier said than done (but totally possible with the right support). 

If this sounds familiar, the solution for you potentially doesn’t involve downloading a time management app or learning new strategies for self-control. It has to do with managing our emotions in a new way.  If you have ADHD, procrastination for you isn’t the same as it is for people without ADHD.  And it’s important for the people who love and support you to really understand that. 

Internal problem, internal solution!

Sometimes we procrastinate, not because of the executive function issues with ADHD, but because our brain is unable to effectively regulate its own emotion signals (which can be the impulse or focus related symptoms of ADHD, or not – just regular ole emotional overwhelm and avoidance).
One strategy is to find a better reward than avoidance — one that can relieve our challenging feelings in the present moment, without causing harm to our future selves. Usually we say as strongly as possible, that ALL interventions for ADHD are out in our environment – not inside of us. The one exception is when we have emotional stuff driving our behaviour – essentially avoiding things that are initially hard or unpleasant in the moment, because it seems overwhelming to tackle it. 

The role of self-compassion

​Often people who are really hard on themselves scoff at ‘self-compassion,’ thinking that being hard on themselves is the only way they get anything done at all.

In contrast, a 2012 study found an illuminating relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination.  Procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion, which suggested in the study that self-compassion provided “a buffer” against negative reactions to self-relevant events.  

We know self-compassion supports motivation and the fuel for personal growth.  Not only does it decrease psychological distress, which this study confirmed as a primary culprit for procrastination, it also actively boosts motivation, enhances feelings of self-worth and fosters positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative.
Instead of shying away from understanding how to bring a self-compassion practice into your life, consider that it’s actually the thing that can help free you to do the things you truly want to do. Essentially, it’s a commitment to meet your challenges with greater acceptance and kindness, rather than rumination and regret.

Wanna practice?

Put distractions out of easy reach.

Try this: focus ONLY focusing on the “next action”, rather than the whole thing you need to do. This helps calm our nerves, and provides a buffer against ADHD-powered overwhelm.

If you are well into your ADHD treatment journey consider there are some habits you can change, one of which is waiting for ‘the mood’ to do something. Don’t wait to be ‘in the mood’ to do a certain task. Also remember, a dopamine release comes with anticipating something good (like how good it will feel to get going) … and therefore continued motivation follows action. Get started, and you’ll find your motivation follows.

Make distractions inconvenient! Delete the social media apps from your phone. Enable 2 factor authentication for all of them if you can. It’s annoying enough to slow you down. 

Have you tried ‘body-doubling’? It works wondrously well for kids and adults alike.  Basically, if your nervous system has another (calm) one alongside it, doing similar tasks – it’s just much easier to get it done. For example, you can tell your kid until the cows come home to go to their room and do X, but somehow they’ve forgotten by the time they get to their room. But if you go with them, sit on the bed, while they are to do the task, it’s much easier to get it done.  It’s not efficient (and it means parents need to manage their time differently), but who said having kids was ever going to be efficient? 

Body-doubling for homework time.

Set yourself up for success the night before: If you want to go to the gym before work but you’re not a morning person, sleep in your exercise clothes. Set out all of your next day clothes. Put your medication beside your toothbrush. Another great experiment is visualizing Future You. And how happy Future You will be tomorrow, because today you did the thing today. 

Tend to your health – if you feel like you’re treading water every day, and really struggling, maybe it’s not supposed to be this hard. Talk to a professional that can help you understand what might be going on with your brain.
Start paying attention to the negative self-talk in your mind. If that voice in your head was a little Ted Talk, would it be motivating to listen to you all day long? (Like no wonder we’re feeling defeated….). 
Finally, you are not an island unto yourself. You might’ve had to do it by yourself a lot growing up (shout out to all the emotionally neglected adult children out there), but part of becoming an adult it’s not just about being self-sufficient, but it’s about understanding our interdependence with othersFiguring out who the right people are to trust and rely on and allow yourself to lean on, are important developmental tasks of adulthood. 

​Talk to others you trust about how you are feeling. And by people you trust I mean people who don’t make you feel shitty about yourself. Get help from others who seem to be doing it well emotionally. If you don’t have those people in your life, please do reach out for support and treatment from a professional therapist trained specifically in ADHD

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Fuschia M. Sirois (2014) Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion, Self and Identity,13:2, 128-145, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2013.763404

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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

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