Whilst everyone puts things off to the last minute sometimes, for people with ADHD procrastination is a very common trait- a mindset. As ADHD is characterised by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, it is easy to become distracted and avoid tasks- especially if you do not enjoy them- and when this is repeated constantly across several areas of your life, it can lead to criticism from others, failure to complete tasks on time and contribute towards low self-esteem.
I’ve always been a great procrastinator and have often described it to friends as having a sort of hierarchical system in my brain for tasks- tasks I enjoy will always jump ahead in the priority line over tasks I dislike. Similarly, tasks that I am anxious about will be left until the last minute while I mull them over.
Rather amusingly, this entire project- the reason I set up a blog, Facebook page and Twitter account, came up with the idea of writing 31 articles in 31 days, wrote a list of 31 titles, then wrote those 31 articles… was all because of procrastination.
In late September, I had a presentation to do for my Master’s degree, I was well prepared as I had already carried out all of the research and analysed it. All I had left to do was make a PowerPoint to present the work and write my speech. As a teacher, my day to day job is to present to an audience and I am a confident public speaker, that didn’t worry me at all. I had really enjoyed the research and had actually done far more reading than had been required and far more in depth than was needed in my field studies. I am also quite adept at making a good PowerPoint- I often thought my teaching degree should have come with some sort of qualification in PowerPoint skills because we had to make so many of them. There shouldn’t have been a problem, but there was. I was anxious that I would pass this part of my course and worried that my efforts in research would be rewarded, so anxious that I did not want to think about it, so I found ways to distract myself- like clearing out every cupboard in the house and writing 31 blog posts about ADHD.
This is not new for me, I could recall many occasions during my undergraduate degree where I put off writing essays or completing assignments until the last minute, some I even worked on the day they were due in and printed off ten minutes before hand in.
This year I procrastinated when renewing my passports. It expired in May 2017 and I had been visiting friends in the US in October 2016. My intention, the sensible approach, would have been to renew my passport when I came home in October in preparation for a holiday in Spain the following February 2017, but I didn’t. I kept putting it off until two weeks before a trip to the USA in April when it had to be renewed or I would not have been allowed into the country. I booked a same day appointment for my passport and thankfully renewed it on time. A far more costly way of renewing my passport than if I had just sent the forms off in October.
Procrastination is a feature of my everyday life. If I am going on a night out, I will not begin to get ready until the very last minute- I have timed how long it takes me to have a shower, fix my hair, put on makeup, put on clothes and check I have everything. I will not start to get ready until the last possible minute and even then, I will push it sometimes. I’m not a girly girl that spends hours on my hair and makeup, but I always look presentable, it is nothing to do with lack of care or being sloppy. For years I told myself that the reason I got ready late is because I don’t like sitting around- and that is true- I can think of nothing worse than waiting! But as I have got older and I have reflected more, I realise that part of my procrastination is a dislike of waiting but the main part is to do with social anxiety- I am anxious about going out, meeting people, attending the event and so I try to put it off for as long as possible.
I have many other examples I could give you but to sum up, there are a multitude of tasks that I will put off and avoid in daily life across the board. Despite this, it is only recently that I realised the link between ADHD and procrastination.
A member of my ADHD support group told me about an incident of his procrastination:
“Stopped by police for speeding, fined and had to produce MOT and insurance etc. at a police station. Turned up at the police station with the documents after great effort to find them, running late and could not find parking spot. Parked on no waiting area, went into the police station and when I came out there was a parking fine. Whole thing ended with points on my licence, a massive fine and loss of a day’s work… The procrastination bit was because I had been putting off getting a new MOT, so I also had to pay a fortune for a short notice MOT test before I could go to the police station.”
Another friend told me,
“Signed up for a procrastination workshop at University to help with studies, put off going and then never went. True story.”
This kind of extreme procrastination is known as ‘Chronic Procrastination’ and is common in ADHD for some of the following reasons:
Problems Getting Started
Getting started on a task can be difficult, particularly if that task isn’t interesting. Distractions from outside stimuli and internal thoughts can also make the task hard to start.
People with ADHD can have problems with organization and struggle to prioritize, plan, and sequence tasks that need to be done to get started and stay on track.
After starting, it is easy to become side-tracked by something more interesting. It can be difficult to regulate attention or maintain focus on a task for someone with ADHD or sustain attention as the mind wanders.
Staying alert, motivated, and on track when you aren’t interested or stimulated by a task you may delay starting until the last minute. At that point you either feel so much pressure that you are motivated to complete the task, or you fail to complete it altogether and must deal with any consequences.
Some people with ADHD put things off until the last minute because it can be exciting, and having a deadline approaching can help them to focus on the task. This can create stress and anxiety that can eventually have detrimental effects on their mental health and the work they complete at the last minute may not be as high a quality as it could have been given more time.
Sense of Paralysis and Feeling Overwhelmed
Some people with ADHD can experience a sense of paralysis when faced with a task or project where they want to get started but cannot. They could also experience a crushing sense of pressure as they know that they should start but cannot.
Impaired Sense of Time
Some people with ADHD find it difficult to track the passage of time so may put off tasks because they think they have enough time to complete them, or not allow enough time to complete a task. This can lead to tasks being completed late or not at all as time runs out.
Fear of Failure
If a person has experienced failure in a particular task in the past they may avoid it in the future because of the negative feelings and fear or failing again. Anxiety surrounding the start of a task, fear of failure or imperfection can all cause a person to put the task off.
This obviously has massive implications for children with ADHD in schools, as they may struggle to start their work and then find they have not completed enough in the same time as other children or fail to start at all.
This could be another reason that children become very chatty in class, ask to go to the toilet, say they need to visit the water fountain or report that they feel sick.
Giving them some reassurance at the beginning of a task, helping them get on their way by talking it through with them or providing a frame for them to work from could be beneficial, as would checking on them regularly throughout a task to make sure they keep on track.
Children with ADHD are not being ‘difficult’ or avoiding work, they genuinely can find the process stressful and working with them to ease that stress will make life in the classroom far more productive.
Sources and Reading
Low, K (2017) ‘ADHD and Chronic Procrastination: Understanding Procrastination in Adults with ADHD’ [online at] https://www.verywell.com/adhd-and-chronic-procrastination-20379