What If It’s Not Procrastination?

By Linda Walker

struggling to focusNothing’s more frustrating than to plan to complete a certain task only to discover you don’t “feel like it,” you’re “not in the mood,” or you’re blocked, “drawing a blank.” You’ve spent time you’ll never get back, and you have nothing to show for it. We hear adults with ADHD are poor time managers, but when you make the effort, when you do what you’re supposed to do… it would really be nice if you accomplished what you planned. After all, it’s not like you have nothing but free time the rest of the week!

Even when you do everything they say

You dismiss it as “writer’s block,” or not being “in the zone,” and juggle appointments, staying late, again, to make up for the unproductive time you wasted. It’s so frustrating because you followed every time management expert’s recommendation: you broke your project into manageable chunks, you planned time to work on those tasks, you blocked off appointments in your agenda so no one could ask you to do anything else, you eliminated distractions (maybe you even hid out at a coffee shop to avoid phone calls and emails) and it still didn’t work. Hours have slipped through your fingers, never to be recovered, and you have nothing to show for it.

Mention this to most people and they’ll dismiss it. “You’re just having a bad day. It happens to everyone.” When it happens again, people wonder why you’re “procrastinating.” After all, you didn’t get it done today, so you’re rescheduling it for tomorrow, or the next day. It sure looks like procrastination. And they’ve got great advice for that too! They tell you, “Always do the toughest thing first.” Someone else confides that their secret is, “Always do the easiest thing first.” Another offers the always helpful, “Just do it.”

But when it happens regularly, they begin to look at you sideways. “Maybe you’re blocked because you’re not facing your fears?” Or the old favorite, “Maybe you don’t really want to succeed; are you sabotaging yourself?” Maybe you’d even believe them, if it wasn’t for the fact that sometimes, you’re not sure why, the stars align and everything clicks. You’re able to get things done, faster and better than anyone else. Obviously you can do this. You start to wonder if you’re crazy.

You can’t tell if you’re not managing your time properly, if you’re procrastinating or if you’re secretly self-sabotaging! What you do know is that nothing seems to work, at least it never works well enough that you can count on it.

You’re missing the real reason

What if I told you that you’re missing the real reason for your inconsistent performance? You’re not lazy, procrastinating, or even crazy. You’re not “afraid of success.” No, the real problem is that your energy levels are not optimal for the activity you have planned. Everyone’s energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. However, adults with ADHD are particularly susceptible to variations in brain energy. Concentration or mental focus requires a lot of energy, so if you plan to tackle an activity that requires your full attention at a time when your energy levels are low, you’ll struggle. You’ll find it impossible to focus, difficult to control your urge to fidget and a complete waste of time to attempt to “will” yourself to concentrate anyway.

Most people underestimate the importance of matching your energy levels with the demands your activities place on your brain. Unaffected, the prefrontal cortex can function well enough through a range of energy levels. However, as an adult with ADHD, your impaired prefrontal cortex is sensitive to even slight variations. The effect of a drop in energy is so dramatic, just understanding your own energy cycle so you can schedule tasks to match the appropriate energy level well lets you reliably finish whatever you plan rather than having to reschedule because you “weren’t in the mood.”

Scheduling the right activity at the wrong place in your energy cycle is like throwing perfectly good time out the window. I had one client, Diane, who had taken the plunge, leaving her job to start her own business. Within six months, she was desperate. Consulting contracts weren’t coming in because she was really struggling to complete and deliver her proposals. Funds were running low and she was wondering if she was cut out to be a business owner. She contacted me to help her to overcome her procrastination; she really needed to be able to prepare and submit proposals on time.

Once she explained the situation, I recognized that her main problem was not actually procrastination. It became obvious that because she was unaware of her energy patterns, she was attempting to work on her proposals at the wrong time of the day. In fact, her time allocation was completely off.

In the week following mapping out her peak energy cycles she called at 6 pm in a panic. She’d been trying unsuccessfully for the last four hours to complete a proposal for a potential client despite a next-day deadline. In the past, if nothing else worked, she’d count on the deadline to get her focused enough to complete the proposal, but today even that wasn’t working.

I helped her see that proposals require a lot of mental energy and that she’d have better results if she scheduled this work at a time when her energy cycle was high. She decided to tackle the proposal the next day during her peak energy time, and the next morning called me back, excited because she’d just completed her proposal, with ease, and it had only taken her 45 minutes! She had time left over to check her figures, have it edited and deliver it by the end of the day.

She loved the feeling of being “in the zone.” She got more done, in less time, and turned out better quality work. No surprise, really, that she got the contract.

Most people don’t pay attention to fluctuations in their mental energy, treating each hour of the day as if they were all the same. Unfortunately, while this may not dramatically affect most people, adults with ADHD are working at a real disadvantage when they don’t match their activities to their mental energy patterns. Many ADHDers also have habits that affect their energy patterns, making it difficult to stabilize and recognize their own energy patterns.

To improve your effectiveness:

  1. Adopt ADHD-friendly strategies to understand, identify and stabilize your energy patterns
  2. Take note of your predictable energy pattern fluctuations  and how they affect your ability to focus, your need to move and your periods of exhaustion throughout your day;
  3. Optimize your mental energy  by matching the type of energy necessary for each task to the best time to complete it;
  4. Engage in healthy habits that energize your brain
  5. If you still struggle to put this puzzle together, get the help of an ADHD coach who understands how ADHD affects energy patterns and how your energy patterns impact your ADHD.

Coach Linda Walker, PCC, helps adults with ADHD improve their productivity at work, achieve work-life balance and prevent burnout. The author of With Time to Spare: The Ultimate Guide to Peak Performance for Entrepreneurs, Adults with ADHD and other Creative Geniuses, she is also the creator of The Maximum Productivity Makeover and Thrive! The Natural Approach to Optimal Focus and Effectiveness.

Is That the Best You Can Do?

Creative Geniuses, including adults with ADHD, often use procrastination, sometimes even intentionally, to get things done, at least those things that don’t pique your interest.  For days, perhaps even weeks, you try to coax yourself into completing a task you’ve committed to or have to do.

Each time you sit down to do it, you’re distracted by something more pressing, more important or, let’s face it, more interesting, and despite your effort, you don’t make a dent in it until…

At the last minute, mere hours away from the deadline, you swing into action!  With adrenaline pumping, you’re able to focus like a laser and plow through the project or task.  You’re “in the zone.”  Nothing keeps you from getting it done, not the ringing phone or emails arriving, not your colleagues or your hunger, family commitments fall by the wayside as does everything that normally distracts you.  You’re a machine!

Most Creative Geniuses recognize themselves in the above description, and even tell me how amazing it feels when they are able to achieve this level of focus, even hyper-focus.  Many admit it’s their standard approach for anything they do.  And they insist the work they produce is great.  But is it?

Or if it is great, have you ever wondered how much better you’d be able to do if you were able to achieve the same level of focus without waiting until the last minute?  Could you go beyond great and be amazing, perhaps even be the best?

For Creative Geniuses, time is often elastic; when you’re in the zone, you’re three times as productive as most people but you can’t accomplish a boring task in a month of Sundays!  No wonder you’re usually a poor judge of how long something will take to complete.

In fact, you may even rely on external signals (your boss screaming, “You haven’t started yet!?”) as an indication of when to start working.  Unfortunately, it’s half-past the eleventh hour and there’s no time to review or do a final check, so even if your work is good, it’s far from the best you could have delivered.

If you think there are benefits to procrastination, consider these questions.  Even if you’re “getting by,” ask yourself, could you do better if you started earlier?  Are you tapping into your true potential when you use this procrastination strategy to get things done?  How much better could your work be if you’d had the time to put your best effort into it?

Many Creative Geniuses tell me, “If it wasn’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done!”  If you rely on that approach, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.  Maybe it’s time to consider learning some alternative strategies.

How to Overcome Procrastination with ADHD

I was reading an article on How To Overcome Procrastination by Tai Goodwin of The Examiner.

She mentions the biggest sources of procrastination as fear of success, fear of failure and fear of work. For ADHD adults and entrepreneurs I would also add a very important source of procrastination: Boredom!!!

The expectation of boredom causes you to avoid the task as your brain cannot energize when faced with a boring task. Despite your “turbo brain” when faced with a boring task, you turn the key but the motor won’t start.

Of course there are many other causes of procrastination, such as overwhelm, holding limiting beliefs, and problems focusing on one task at a time but we won’t get into those right now.

Tai offers solutions that I often use with my clients:

  • Stop using the excuse that you have too much to do
  • Keep your eyes on the benefits once it’s done
  • Use accountability to ensure you keep your word
  • Use the power of three tasks. Most people can’t get much more than 3 to 5 tasks done each day. Identify the 3 tasks you’ll focus on and don’t derail
  • Celebrate!

Solutions to procrastination problems require that you look at the source of the procrastination and you address that. If you have fears, face your fears. Consider how likely is it that what I fear will take place? How can I minimize the likelihood? If boredom is what’s keeping you from getting going, inject interest, novelty, competition, anything to make it fun or interesting.

Enjoy what you accomplish! Celebrate!

What tasks do you procrastinate?