ADHD and procrastination

September 22, 2019 | ADHD Insights | ADHD, ADHD & Me, Expert Insight

ADHD and ProcrastinationWe all procrastinate. We all find excuses to put off long, complex or boring tasks. For those with ADHD, the consequences of procrastination can be significant. We asked specialist Dr. Carol Weitzman, Director of the Connecticut Center for Developmental Pediatrics in Westport Connecticut and the Medical Director of the CT ADHD Center, and a Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, to shed some light on the link between procrastination and ADHD.

Disclaimer: the information contained on this website does not constitute medical advice. If you have concerns about your own health or the health of someone else, you should speak to your doctor.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is the delaying or postponing of the beginning or completion of tasks. This can happen even when the person knows that the consequences of this will lead to unpleasant or negative consequences.

Is procrastination a sign of ADHD?

Nearly everyone procrastinates at times, particularly for very difficult or uninteresting tasks. Approximately 20% of people are chronic procrastinators – there are many people without ADHD who procrastinate.

However, people with ADHD who lack critical executive functioning skills (the ability to memorize and retain information) are more likely to procrastinate. Several studies have indicated a relationship between ADHD and procrastination.

How is procrastination different between people with and without ADHD?

There are many reasons why people may procrastinate. The reasons can range from a fear of failure, perfectionism, feelings of depression, task aversion and executive functioning deficits. Deficits in executive functioning are the most common reason why people with ADHD have difficulty with procrastination. To complete a task, especially one that needs to be done over time, such as a long report or project, there are many skills that are needed to do this that revolve around these executive functions. These might include:

  1. Future thinking and planning – the ability to look ahead and make plans to meet one’s goals both in school/ work and social life
  2. Managing one’s time – for example, estimating how much each step in a task or project will realistically take, and not overestimating our ability to do something at the last minute or underestimating how much time it will take to complete a portion of work.
  3. Organization of materials – for example, preparing for a mathematics exam, a person would need to prepare a number of materials and remember to bring a calculator, ruler, pencil, eraser etc.
  4. Getting started – having difficulties starting long tasks in the first place; finding reasons or excuses not to start a task.
  5. Not getting side-tracked and distracted by other tasks or stimuli that may be more interesting
  6. Not remembering the long-term goals and interim steps that need to be taken to complete the task.
  7. Lack of flexible thinking that may be needed to revise and reshape work plans and to move between planning and action phases of project work.

Over time, people with ADHD develop habits of waiting until the last minute, over-investing in their ability to do this well, believing that they work better under pressure and lose their motivation when projects do not go well.

It is important to remember that many, if not most people, resist big projects that are not highly motivating. For example, if someone likes building things and plans to build a gazebo, often they have no trouble getting started as this is fun and something you want to do. Contrast this with writing a long report on a topic of limited interest, or for adults, doing their taxes or writing year-end reports, etc. For people with ADHD, who have often experienced failure and lack critical skills to accomplish these tasks, it is often difficult to find and sustain motivation.

What are the impacts of procrastination for people with ADHD?

The impacts can be enormous and include poor school or job performance, poor self-esteem and sense of competency, problems between kids and their parents, missed opportunities, and mental health problems like depression, anxiety and stress.

Can a person’s environment affect how much they procrastinate (e.g. home versus school or office)?

Yes, completely. The amount of distraction in a setting can contribute considerably to the ability to maintain focus on work. Establishing a work environment that is distraction free (or reduced) is critical to building strong and effective work habits.

Second, within those settings, it’s important to examine how that environment promotes or impedes productivity. Is the work environment cluttered and a source of distraction? Does the space need to be re-organized? Does it need cues to maintain motivation like pictures of people, inspiring quotes, etc.?

Interested in learning about effective strategies to manage procrastination? Read Dr. Carol Weitzman’s latest blog.

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