David Baxter PhD
Avoidance Procrastination: How to Stop Procrastinating with ADHDby Sharon Saline, Psy.D., ADDitudeMag.com
August 28, 2022
That dreaded task — whether paying taxes, contesting an insurance claim, or scheduling that dentist visit — is so onerous or potentially shame-inducing that you delay doing it as long as possible. This is called avoidance procrastination and it is common in individuals with ADHD.
Cleaning out your car, returning phone calls, filling out paperwork — it’s easy to rattle off dreaded tasks we despise, but it’s much harder to motivate ourselves to complete them.
Most of these tasks start small, say following up on an email, and then grow (in our minds or in real life) to overwhelming proportions as time marches on, deadlines slip by, and late fees begin to mount. In time, we find ourselves alone — staring up at a dark, impending mountain that triggers feelings of impending doom and inevitable failure. “I’m just going to fail, so why bother?” “I’m not sure I can do this.” “I’ve done this before, and it didn’t work out. Why would it be any different this time?”
Success! You avoided the task. But instead of celebrating, you berated yourself with negative self-talk for your inability to do the activity you can’t stand: “Others can do it. Why can’t I do it?” “I’m never going to measure up.” “I can’t do things.”
What Is Avoidance Procrastination?You convince yourself to avoid a dreaded task but feel terrible for skirting it. The guilt is real, but you can’t stop repeating the same behaviors. This vicious cycle is called avoidance procrastination, and it is common in individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
It’s not that the task is actually terrible; you just have an incredibly distorted perception of its difficulty or unpleasantness. Avoidance procrastination or “procrastivity” (a combination of procrastinate and activity) paralyzes you with dread and fear of several things: embarrassment, failure, discomfort, disappointing yourself or others, etc.).
This is because people with ADHD have what I call “not-now brains.” Many have real challenges with focusing on anything other than the present moment. Everything is “now” or “not now.” Because the “now” moment feels terrible and endless, it’s tough to imagine that things will feel better once you finish a hated task.
Often, it’s problematic to start a task because it seems too big, and that “bigness” feels unpleasant or overwhelming. This could be due to the cognitive elements, energy required, or emotional weight of the dreaded task. Perhaps you say things to yourself like: “This is too complicated for me to accomplish,” “I’m too tired to take this on right now,” or “If I don’t do this right, something terrible will happen.”
If you are wondering how to stop procrastinating, it’s simple: Follow these nine steps.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 1: Break It DownThe Number One solution for avoidance procrastination is breaking down a task into tinier, manageable pieces.
For example, decluttering is an issue for many people with ADHD. They convince themselves to delay or dodge the task because they don’t know where to begin, there’s too much clutter, it’s a waste of energy, or life is just too busy. They are right; decluttering is too big. It needs to be broken down into smaller chunks. Start with one closet or your sock drawer or deleting emails that aren’t directly addressed to you.
Take a moment and consider a task you dread and why it’s so unpleasant. How can you break it down? If you can’t break a task into small enough steps that you can do, then the pieces aren’t tiny enough. Ask for help if you don’t know where to begin. There’s no shame in doing this. Everybody has things on their to-do lists that they avoid.
Breaking down tasks is no easy feat. “Now/Not-now” brains struggle with the executive function skills needed to start and finish a task — namely, initiation, time management, organization, planning, motivation, and prioritization.
In addition, ADHD brains naturally have lower amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure center. It’s hard for a neurotypical brain to work up excitement about cleaning the litter box; it’s going to be twice or three times as hard for an ADHD brain to do such a low-dopamine task. The benefit of a cleaning litter box for maintenance can seem inconsequential or boring.
You are naturally much more motivated to complete high-dopamine tasks such as gaming, exercising, or meeting a friend for dinner. Something that’s interesting and rewarding. If the litter box gets to an unbearable level of toxic odors, then you’ll be more motivated to clean it because the reward is inherent and immediate. The bad smell will go away.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 2: Prioritize the Urgent and ImportantYour list of dreaded tasks most likely dwarfs your list of pleasurable tasks. In this case, you need to prioritize. Do a brain dump by writing down everything you have to do. Create a brain dump notebook and decorate it with stickers or different color markers to enhance its appeal.
Rank each task’s urgency (“What will happen if I don’t get this done soon?”) and its value (“How important is it to get this done soon?”).
You can do this by using the Eisenhower Matrix decision-making tool, which determines what tasks deserve our immediate action, our long-term attention, our delegation skills, and so on. Just be careful not to mark every task urgent. Because cortisol floods and activates ADHD brains to engage in an activity when the deadline fast approaches crisis levels, it’s easy for people with ADHD to live in the urgent and important quadrant. However, this quadrant is best reserved for emergencies and crises. Otherwise, you will feel drained and tapped out 24/7.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 3: Make a PlanWhen you repeatedly complain, ruminate or delay, you hurt yourself. Just talking, thinking and revisiting how you’re supposed to get something done does not help you move forward. Without taking the next step of creating a plan, you’re developing a negative story about your inability to do something and thus increasing your anxiety and your insecurity. This is a form of self-sabotage.
Many people with ADHD skip this step because they feel it’s not fun, or it seems like a boring waste of time. Plus, making the extra effort to create and follow through on a plan is not what avoidance procrastination tells us to do. Avoidance procrastination says that we don’t need lists and that preparing is stupid. But it’s not stupid! The right-sized list helps break down unpleasant tasks into smaller pieces.
Remember when you needed to write a research paper in school and surrounded yourself with a stack of open books? You had to search from book to book to find the best facts or quotes to include in your paper. It took hours to gather enough content and many more hours to write it up.
What if you had first created a document listing the books and the page numbers where specific information lived? You could have organized your notes on one subject in one document and another topic in a different document. Instead of the time-consuming process of scanning resources as you wrote, you could have quickly scanned the docs to gather whatever information you needed.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 4: Make Your Plan SmallerI have a client who used to make to-do lists with 40 or more items each. He crossed off two or three things he did each day but felt like nothing was accomplished. Defeated, he would avoid the other items on the list.
A list with a million little to-dos only increases avoidance procrastination because no one wants to tackle a list of a million little things. It’s intimidating, overwhelming, and doesn’t promote a sense of achievement.
I told my client to brain dump all his to-dos. Then he selected five from the list that he wanted to complete. He listed those on a separate sheet of paper. He placed his original brain dump out of his eyesight and only focused on the five-item list.
The following week, he admitted that the shorter list worked much better because when he crossed off two or three items, he no longer felt bad about himself. He had accomplished something.
If you get stuck while narrowing your lengthy to-do list, focus on the most urgent tasks and do those first. Then go back and select five more things that may not have a time element but are important to you.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 5: Schedule & Set a Time LimitAvoidance behavior ushers in dread. You genuinely don’t like doing the task, so you need to set aside a specific time for it because that window will not miraculously appear in your day.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll say, “I finished dinner. I need something to productively occupy my time. I’m not going to spend an hour on social media. Instead, I’m going to clean up the mud room because that seems like a good idea.” Haha.
Turn this avoidance around. Schedule the task for when your brain is fresh and awake, perhaps in the morning or around lunchtime. Or, if you regularly get a second wind after dinner and feel inspired before watching your show, do it then.
I also encourage setting time limits for doing a task. Here are some time-management tips:
- Use a timer. Work on a task for 15 minutes, one hour, whatever feels right. When the timer goes off, say, “I’m done.”
- Use an accountability buddy. This can be a partner or trusted friend who will help you focus on your intentions. You can call, FaceTime, or Zoom so they are talking with you and encouraging you along the way. As you decide to box up the winter gloves and mud boots, they will keep you company and on track.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. This is a very effective method for time management. You work on a task for 20 to 25 minutes, taking a short break (5 to 10 minutes) between each set. After completing three work intervals, you can take a longer break (usually 20 to 30 minutes). The program keeps you going by monitoring your time.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 6: Do One Thing at a TimeTo tackle avoidance procrastination, complete one task at a time and allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment over completing it.
For example, if you need to declutter your kitchen, start by clearing all of the counters or just one.
Look at your counter and see what’s on it that isn’t needed. Then make a list. Where will the mail go, old newspapers, trash, etc.? You can say, “Today, I’m only going to do mail and trash.” It’s okay to limit your activities by you capacity.
Next, gather some storage boxes and garbage bags. Get to work by sorting through the stuff. Whatever is not mail or trash stays until tomorrow when your plan is dealing with that.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 7: Delegate & Develop a RoutineDelegation helps when you feel overwhelmed. Imagine it’s dinner time, but you can’t make dinner because the kitchen is a mess, and the table is dirty. There’s nowhere to eat and nothing to eat on because the dishes are dirty. Where do you start?
Remember: Do one thing at a time. Maybe you order pizza and while you wait for it to arrive, you work on the dishes and have your children, partner, or roommates help you clean the table.
Delegating tasks gives you some reprieve, and it could lead to a new routine or habit. Maybe whoever cooks dinner doesn’t do the dishes in your family. Perhaps whoever sets the table also clears it.
You can develop a routine for yourself, too. Maybe you do the after-dinner dishes before you watch television. Create a routine that makes sense and keeps you engaged. Game-ify it with music, dancing or talking with a dear friend.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 8: Reward YourselfAdults with ADHD, unlike children and teens, have to create their own rewards. Put the have-to’s before the want-to’s and stick with it. The want-to is both your incentive and your reward.
Make a list of “want to” tasks for when your “have to” tasks are complete. Do you want to watch the next episode of “Bridgerton,” play Wordle, or go for a run? Great! Spend 30 minutes doing something you don’t like to do and earn something you enjoy as a reward.
Conquering Avoidance Procrastination Step 9: Replace Shame, Self-Sabotage, and “Shoulds” with SupportAll people struggle to do the things they don’t find naturally interesting or rewarding. The difference is that individuals with ADHD have difficulties with motivation, persistence, initiation, and completion, making dreaded tasks much harder to accomplish. (Remember the deficit of executive functions?) ADHD brains also must deal with the emotional side of avoidance procrastination. This manifests as self-sabotage, self-loathing, and shame.
We create “I should do this” messages in our brains. But when you don’t want to do what you think you should do, you interfere with whatever progress you are making. You tell yourself that “It doesn’t feel like I’m doing it the right way,” or “I’m not doing enough,” or “I’m not doing this task as fast as I should,” and so on.
Often you call yourself “lazy.” But you are not lazy! Laziness implies that you don’t want to do something because you don’t care, which is different from caring about something but being unable to do it.
It’s difficult to bring yourself to do something on your own. If you feel stuck, reach out to a trusted friend or family member. Maybe a friend can come over for a cup of coffee and talk you through a task or just keep you company while you work on it? If proximity is a problem, you can schedule a Zoom, Google Meet, or FaceTime call with a friend.
I do this with my writing group. In the beginning, we share our goals. Then we simultaneously work on our projects with our cameras and volume off. Knowing that we support each other helps us get through any onerous tasks. And at the end of our meeting, we each say what part of our goal we accomplished.
Using the steps above and understanding how you procrastinate and what you tend to avoid will empower you to complete your most dreaded tasks.
This weekend, think of a task you hate and break it down into small chunks. Then work on it for 10 minutes, give yourself a sticker or a pat on the back and go on to something else.