Procrastination Explained: Causes & Symptoms
If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done, right? Procrastination.
We’re all intimately familiar with procrastination – whether it’s a term paper, the dishes, or an important deliverable – procrastination is the tendency to delay (and delay and delay) tasks until it absolutely needs to be done. If you’ve consecutively hit snooze on your to-do list, you’re not alone: Experts say that around 20% of adults experience persistent procrastination.
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting millions worldwide, characterized by various symptoms including impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. However, many may not know that the common experience of procrastination can be a symptom of ADHD. While procrastination is a common behaviour for neurotypical individuals, it’s a much more complex behaviour with multiple potential causes for those who are neurodivergent.
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What is procrastination?
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. At its core, it is an issue with self-regulation.
Just do it! Don’t put it off! Procrastination is the thief of time!
We’ve heard and seen every motivational quote about procrastination framed on a wall. But for those living with ADHD, procrastination can be caused by symptoms of the condition and may be especially related to inattention. There are various strategies and interventions for folks living with ADHD to manage their procrastination, but it’s unfair – and frankly inaccurate – to chalk it up to “poor time management” or “laziness.”
The two types of procrastination
Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing tasks or actions. It’s often thought of as a single behaviour, but there are actually two types of procrastination.
Passive procrastination involves putting off tasks or responsibilities without engaging in any other productive activities. For example, when was the last time you spent hours scrolling through your phone watching the latest social media dance and barnyard animals doing cute things instead of working on something due the next day? No judgment – the animals spark joy for us too. However, passive procrastination can be particularly problematic for individuals with ADHD since it can exacerbate symptoms of inattention and impulsivity. Research by the Behavioural Science Institute has shown that passive procrastination is a compensatory behaviour for people with ADHD to avoid tasks that they feel are beyond their abilities.
Active procrastination involves putting off tasks or responsibilities by engaging in other productive activities. Maybe instead of working on that project due tomorrow, you’ve discovered a dusty corner of a room that needed a quick tidy-up, which then led to another corner, another room, then 5 hours later you have a spotless, spic-and-span home.
While active procrastination may arguably be a more productive form of procrastination, the consequences are still clear: missed deadlines and incomplete projects.
Procrastination and neurodivergence
We must stress that procrastination is not unique to neurodivergent individuals, as it can be a common behaviour for anyone. However, we live in a culture where procrastination is often minimized and dismissed at school, home or in the workplace – unknowingly invalidating a symptom of a genuine condition many adults live with. The more we accept that procrastination can be a symptom of ADHD, the more we can help develop strategies for those living with ADHD to manage the behaviour while building a culture of empathy.
You have options for getting help
If your tendency to procrastinate feels overwhelming, it's important to seek support, such as working with a therapist, exploring assistive technology, or requesting accommodations in professional academic or work settings. By understanding the connection between neurodivergence and procrastination, we’ll continue building a more inclusive and supportive environment for neurodivergent individuals.
What causes procrastination?
Procrastination can have multiple potential causes, including psychological, environmental, and biological factors. Some causes of procrastination can be linked to ADHD, depression, present bias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Present bias: Present bias is the tendency to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term goals. Individuals who struggle with present bias may find it difficult to complete tasks that don’t offer immediate rewards or consequences. For example, using a credit card to purchase something and having it negatively impact your finances later.
ADHD: As we discussed earlier, individuals with ADHD may experience challenges with planning, organization, impulse control, and emotional dysregulation – all of which can contribute to procrastination. People with ADHD may also procrastinate due to avoidance because they anticipate a negative experience.
Depression: Individuals with depression may experience low motivation, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. This can make initiating or completing tasks challenging, especially when it leads to negative thinking patterns and feelings of hopelessness.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Individuals with OCD may experience intrusive thoughts or compulsions that interfere with their ability to focus on tasks or initiate action, such as being overly focused and getting stuck on small details or striving for perfection. People with OCD often procrastinate to avoid potentially triggering situations or scenarios that will require a great deal of effort.
How procrastination can impact your life
We should preface that procrastination is not inherently good or bad. How you navigate procrastination, and the strategies you put in place to manage it, can lead to positive or negative feelings. If you’re moving a deadline to complete another important task, you’re giving yourself permission and the space to adjust accordingly. And for some, working under pressure can be an advantage in increasing motivation and efficiency.
However, if procrastination is a persistent symptom leading to undesired results or feelings of being overwhelmed, there’s a range of consequences attached to it – both short-term and long-term:
More stress: rushing to finish tasks causes anxiety and tension
Less productivity: time spent avoiding work instead of doing it
Missed deadlines: more obvious in school or work environments
Poor work quality: not enough time to review or revise
Hurts mental health: fuels anxiety, depression, and more
For those living with ADHD, the consequences of procrastination can be particularly significant, impacting academic and work performance, relationships, and overall well-being. Finding ways to manage the behaviour to minimize its impact is important.
Are you feeling overwhelmed?
It’s common for someone with ADHD to get caught in a never-ending cycle of task-deadline-procrastinate-panic. Why does that happen? One major reason people with ADHD have trouble completing a task is due to how hard it is to begin a task. A neurodivergent brain doesn’t see a straight line when presented with a task and often overthinks. This combination of high standards, alternative routes and weighing every single possibility can lead you to feel frozen.
The most painful part is that while you are frozen, you also visualize how well you could do. If this sounds familiar, one of the greatest tools you can begin implementing is to underwhelm yourself. You aren’t going to clean the whole kitchen; you’re just going to clean the sink. You aren’t going to write an entire book; you’re just going to write a paragraph. You aren’t going to learn how to sew and start a new wardrobe in one night; you’re going to watch one video on setting up a sewing machine.
Although your brain might trick you into thinking it only dines on large wins, it actually will happily gobble up some daily crumbs. Giving yourself space to “underachieve” will also have the side effect of moving you forward when you’re stuck. So, go underwhelm yourself daily!
Tips for reducing procrastination
There’s no doubt that procrastination is challenging to overcome – it’s so easy to put off! Watching your favourite TV series is much easier than filing your taxes. As someone with ADHD, sometimes procrastination doesn’t even feel like a choice but more a situation you end up in time and time again. That said, there are strategies that you can apply to reduce procrastination and improve your productivity:
Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps: Large tasks can be overwhelming, so try spreading out the work into mini-goals. This can make them feel more achievable and help you build momentum when you complete them.
Set specific goals and deadlines: Be clear with your goals and deadlines to help you stay focused and motivated. Also – be realistic. If the task is something you’re good at, then you know it won’t take too much time.
Use visual aids and reminders: A magnetic calendar on the fridge. An oversized to-do list on your office desk. Sticky notes. These tools can be reminders to help you stay on track and illuminate the dates, deadlines and tasks you’re trying to work through.
Manage distractions: Consider getting an app that locks you out of your social media. Hit snooze on pop-up notifications. Or simply stay out of your e-mail and put your phone away when you need to set aside dedicated work time.
Practice self-care: Exercise, meditation, and spending time in nature can help you manage stress and improve your overall mood and well-being, which in turn can reduce procrastination.
Body doubling: Having someone else be physically or virtually present during a task you want to accomplish helps promote accountability. It can also help you feel more comfortable knowing their presence and support are there throughout the task.
Additional options for those living with ADHD
For individuals living with ADHD, there are additional strategies that can be helpful, including:
Use of medication: Medication can help individuals with ADHD manage symptoms such as impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity, which can contribute to procrastination.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT can help develop skills such as organization, time management, and problem-solving, which improves productivity and reduces procrastination.
Technology: There are specific apps, timers and reminders developed with the neurodiverse user in mind to help you stay organized and on track.
Consider exploring an ADHD diagnosis through Frida
Procrastination is a common struggle. But if you find it’s a persistent problem, it might be worth considering whether you have ADHD or another neurodivergent condition. Take our 2-minute ADHD assessment to see if you are presenting any symptoms.
Remember, procrastination isn’t some personal failure or character flaw. It’s a common and treatable symptom often rooted in an underlying condition. At Frida, we can help guide you through a diagnostic ADHD assessment and get you started on a treatment plan.