ADHD and Chronic Procrastination

Understanding procrastination in adults with ADHD

Procrastination – the habit of temporarily avoiding or putting off a task – can be a serious problem for many adults with ADHD. Holly Harris

Everyone procrastinates. When faced with a task that you just don't want to do, many of us will simply put it off until tomorrow. You might end up setting it aside until you are feeling less overwhelmed with all your other responsibilities. Or you might simply wait until you have more energy to tackle the task on a new day. Problems can begin to occur, however, if you find that you are putting off and avoiding these tasks again and again and again and never getting to them "tomorrow."

Many adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with chronic procrastination. This procrastination can cause problems at work when job responsibilities aren't completed until the last minute. It can cause financial stress at home when balancing the checkbook is constantly delayed or when bills are paid late. And it can cause problems in relationships when you continue to put off others, making them feel unimportant.

Problems Getting Started

For an adult with ADHD, just getting started on a task can often be very difficult, particularly if that task isn't intrinsically interesting. When you are so distracted by outside stimuli, as well as internal thoughts, it can be hard to even make it to the starting line. Sometimes just figuring out where or how to start is the challenge. Problems with organization come into play as you struggle to prioritize, plan, and sequence tasks that need to be done to get started and stay on track.

Getting Sidetracked

Once you finally do get started, you may find that you quickly become sidetracked by something else more interesting, so your original task gets further delayed. It can be very difficult for someone with ADHD to regulate attention. Once you are able to get your attention focused on a task, you may find that it is hard to sustain that attention as your mind wanders.

It can be hard to stay alert, motivated, and on track when you aren't very interested or stimulated by the task at hand. You may find that when tasks are particularly tedious or boring, you delay getting to them until the very last minute, at which point you either feel such pressure that you are able to motivate yourself to finally get started and complete the task...or you get stuck not completing the task at all and have to face the consequences.

Last-Minute Propulsion

Interestingly, for some people with ADHD, putting off things until the very last minute can create an "emergency" type situation -- an urgency of sorts -- that helps propel the person forward to successfully "get the job done." The fast approaching deadline (and the immediacy of the negative consequences that will follow if the deadline isn't met) helps them to focus in and complete the task. The problem is that this urgency can create quite a bit of stress and anxiety that can take a tremendous toll on a person, as well as those around that person. Inevitably, these last-minute rush jobs also tend not to be as high quality as they might have been without such procrastination.

Sense of Paralysis and Feeling Overwhelmed

On the other hand, some people with ADHD can experience a painful sense of paralysis when faced with a task or project -- wanting to get started, but unable to make progress forward in any manner.

They may experience a crushing sense of pressure. As much as they know that they need to get the job done, they just can't get moving.

Impaired Sense of Time

Sometimes it is the impaired sense of time that leads to problems with getting tasks started. If you have trouble estimating the time it takes to complete a task, you might put it off, thinking you are allowing enough time to get it done. ADHD can make it difficult to track the passage of time as well, so you may find that those deadlines sneak up on you before you know it.

Fear of Failure

There can be a number of ADHD-related factors that can lead to chronic procrastination, including distractibility, forgetfulness, disorganization, problems with prioritizing, sequencing, and time management.

In addition, if you have experienced repeated frustrations on certain types of tasks, you may naturally avoid those tasks to avoid the negative feelings that working on those tasks can bring about. Sometimes there can be so much anxiety associated with starting the task that those feelings create an even greater obstacle. The fear of not doing the task correctly, fear of imperfection, fear of failure -- all can add to the procrastination.

Luckily, there are some strategies you can use to help overcome chronic procrastination.

Read: Strategies to Overcome Chronic Procrastination


Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Adults and Children. Yale University Press Health and Wellness, 2005.

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