Executive Function and Procrastination
It’s not uncommon to delay doing something when it is a situation that inspires discomfort. We all do that. However, chronic procrastination is a different matter. When putting things off becomes your primary solution, it can go beyond affecting your ability to get things done – it can affect your mental and emotional health as well.
Procrastination is one of the main symptoms of ADHD. And it persists from childhood on into adulthood, where its effects become more consequential.Factors in the ADHD brain that contribute to procrastination include:
- Constantly shifting attention – Compared to the neurotypical brain, the ADHD brain tends to perceive the world in rapid-fire mode. It takes in a little about a lot of different things very quickly, but doesn’t focus in on the details of any particular thing. In the context of a project with a number of different tasks,someone with ADHD has more difficulty focusing on just one to get started on.
- Distraction – Closely related to constantly shifting attention is distraction. The ADHD brain can easily gravitate to the task that seems interesting or provides that extra bit of dopamine. Think Internet, apps and social media as examples.
- Blocking – If one part of a task or project keeps them from getting started, it can block completion of the whole task. This “blocking” kills the motivation to go on.
- Time estimation – ADHD brains often have two general categories of time – “right now” and “sometime in the future.” This time insensitivity can mean it’s easy to underestimate how long a task will take. Which in turn means the individual is prone to starts it later.
- Reward in the rush – Waiting until the last moment to do something often provides a reward for the ADHD brain – that extra bit of dopamine – to get the task done. In this case, procrastination actually serves the purpose of delivering a reward to the stimulation starved brain.
The Emotional Side of Procrastination
But there is another side to procrastination – the emotional side. Research suggests that procrastination often relates to your mood and emotional mindset. It doesn’t happen because you’re lazy and unproductive or don’t know how to do something. It happens because you dread the emotional distress you anticipate.
It could be that you have already experienced this irritation and frustration firsthand and don’t want a go through it again. But you can also just have preconceived ideas about how bad what you’re avoiding will turn out to be. Either way, it makes you set the task aside, promising yourself to handle it later when you feel better able to manage those feelings.
The problem is that the negative emotions you associate with a given task don’t go away when you avoid that task. They feed on themselves and grow, rapidly.
Procrastination creates a cycle that’s difficult to escape, because the temporary reward of putting something off reinforces your desire to do it again — even though it creates more problems downstream with the accompanying feelings of anxiety, depression, shame and guilt. It creates a kind of negative, reinforcing cycle.
In this way, a procrastination habit can eventually complicate the emotional concerns that triggered it in the first place.
Tips for Breaking the Cycle of Procrastination
According to Crystal Raypole, a writer and editor for GoodTherapy, there are a number of points of leverage you have to break this negative cycle. These include:
Challenging patterns of irrational and inaccurate thoughts. These can easily contribute to procrastination.
- Over-generalization – Extrapolating one actual experience to all future experiences.
- Discounting the positive – Immediately discounting praise you might receive
- “Catastrophizing” – Exaggerating the potential consequences of your actions
- Mental filtering – Filtering out good aspects of a situation and only focusing on the negative
Be kind to yourself – you deserve it! Develop greater awareness of your self-critical nature and practice self-compassion.
Make it manageable. If you find you are overwhelmed by options and decisions, a good coping strategy is to learn to break complex projects into smaller sub tasks that you can get a better handle on.
Give yourself rewards. If you require something stimulating before you can tackle a project, arrange to engage in a limited amount of something fun before tackling the less interesting work. Then arrange to reward yourself once the task is completed. When you complete a chunk of work you have previously been avoiding, give yourself some time out to do something enjoyable and motivating before resuming.
And if this seems like more than you can take on yourself – at least initially – get help. That can be in the form of therapy, coaching or simply working with family members and friends who understand your struggle.