Procrastination: Is My Brain the Reason I Can’t Get This Done?

Procrastination: Is My Brain the Reason I Can’t Get This Done?

An ADHD focused look at how brains and motivation work together.

By Dr. Hart and the creator of

Stamp like representation of brain filled with many objects in each gyrus
Sometimes Brains Are Messy.

The first part of this is just explaining what executive function is, so if you just want to do the checklist, skip down to ?Step 1?.

Folks with executive function difficulties often worry about whether they are procrastinating a task out of laziness, mental health struggles, or if they are simply being a jerk. Executive functions are critical getting-things-done infrastructure, so if the problem is brain based rather than laziness, knowing what they are can be really important! Here?s a quick review:

Emotional control is your ability to manage your feelings– not just after the fact, but when you are having the feelings. If you?re having trouble identifying and managing your emotions and how your emotions sit in your body, you can have a harder time focusing and thinking clearly.

Working memory is the part of our brain that allows us to dial a phone number without having to look it up again halfway through, process the sentence that a friend just told us, and work through data sets. It?s essentially the ?sketchpad? of our brain that allows us to integrate information and react. This is how we are able to sequence what we need to do, and when working memory isn?t working well people tend to say they?re having trouble focusing or are absent-minded.

Inhibition is the skill set we need to not charge forward with a previously learned response that might not be necessary at the moment. This is what helps us adapt to what is happening, shut out unnecessary information, and pay attention to what will actually help us move forward.  When this isn?t working well, people tend to get overwhelmed by ?background noise? or have trouble not doing every single thing that pops into their head.

Initiation is the ability to start a task. And well, you clicked into a blog about procrastination so we can probably assume you?re having some trouble with this one.

Set Shifting is how we change what we?re paying attention to as needed. Basically this is the part in ADHD that sets the ?hyperfocus? loop going- this is the thing that hits the difficulty with transitioning activities, and also sets people up for ?I can only do this thing in this exact way? type of rigidity.

Fluency is how you think of things in the same category without repeating responses. Folks who have trouble with this often have trouble finding the word that they?re looking for, and generally struggle with organization and initiation of tasks

Planning and prioritization: this is a function skill that relies pretty heavily on working memory and fluency working together with inhibition. Much of prioritization is knowing what you can ignore, and planning means that you need to have a mental sketchpad available.

Self Monitoring also known as ?insight? is how well you assess your own performance. This function is really important for being able to improve your performance over time, and so if it?s not working well you will often need outside help to see where you are getting stuck.

These functions can get screwed up in a number of different ways from developmental genetic issues like ADHD to physical trauma like concussions to illnesses. They also overlap in a number of ways, and that might make the coping skills you need more varied than you’d think.
Everyone struggles with executive function issues sometimes, but some of us may struggle with these things more than others. These brain tools are highly impacted by stress, self care, and community.

OK! Now that we?ve got an idea of what might not be working and a good solid idea that these things are brain things and not personal failings, let’s get into the flowchart part of this!  When you are having trouble getting The Thing done, use this to see why you?re having trouble and what to do next.

           (here is the caveat that this is aimed at adults and older teens, and may not be the appropriate tool for all forms of procrastination or all people, and is pretty heavily geared towards ADHD and anxiety)

Picture of a person handwriting a list on top of teal diamond and tan square, with teal banner reading "procrastination guide how to get  from I know I need to to I started it"

Step 1: Do I honestly intend to start the task despite my lack of success?

–          Yes: It?s a brain problem, head to the next question.

–          No: Be honest with yourself and anyone expecting you to do the task. If you?re overcommitted, don?t enjoy the thing you got signed up to do, or are just trying to maintain appearances, this is a great time to reevaluate your priorities and boundaries. It is far better to call the folks depending on you and say ?Hey, I know I said I would do X but I have found I?m unable to do that now. I wish you best of luck in finding someone to do The Thing? than for them to find out too late and scramble to replace you in that task.  You can end it there or go on with something like ?and I am happy to help out with this-other-thing-I-actually-like at time-frame-I-can-actually-commit-to.?

Step 2: Am I fed, watered, well rested, exercised? Have I taken the things the doctor said to take?

–          Yes: next question

–          No: Guess what? Those things are critical to executive function. Make sure your body and mind have what you and your care team have talked about as baseline selfcare. Taking care of you is a solid way to start taking care of business.

Step 3: Does the idea of starting the task make me feel scared or anxious?

–          Yes: Anxiety brain. Figure out what you?re worried about first. Are you taking The Thing to an overcomplicated or unrealistic scenario? Are you too busy thinking up every possible scenario that could happen? Is this you avoiding relying on other people? Are you afraid you?ll fail?

  • Try the three questions technique for worst, best, and most realistic outcomes
  • Feel your feelings. If you?re going to go worst case scenario, do it- but do it realistically. Odds are pretty good that you not doing The Thing isn?t actually going to end with you being a social pariah living in a dumpster in your least favorite climate for the rest of your life
  • Set a timer. Wallow in the anxiety for your timed allotment, then get started.
  • Try the Freeze frame technique linked here.
  • Meet with your care team to talk about other ways your anxiety can be reduced

–          No: next question

Step 4: Do I know how to start the task?

–          Yes: next question

–          No: ADHD brain. Time to make an order of operations list, ask someone else for help, or read the instruction manual.

Step 5: Do I have everything I need to start The Thing?

–          Yes: next question

–          No: ADHD brain again. The first step in that order of operations is to gather all the materials up to prevent that mid-task-panic of ?oh no, I was supposed to do/add xyz to make this work?

Step 6: Why am I having a hard time switching from my current task to this thing I am supposed to be doing?

–          I?m having fun doing what I?m doing! Having fun is actually a super important part of your health so as long as The Thing is not time sensitive, enjoy! If your task is time sensitive, next question.

–          I have to finish what I?m doing: Might actually be a problem with set shifting. Does the task actually need to be finished before starting the thing you need to do? Are you getting trapped in a behavior cycle? Most of the time task switching is good for you. Even if you’re the type of person who really struggles with picking back up where you were, this might be a prioritization issue. Make sure that what you are doing makes sense in terms of the immediate and long term consequences.

–          The next task will be boring/boring-er than the current task. Good news, y?all. Being bored is actually a critical part of helping increase creativity, so it might just help first task get done better. That?s the last thing an ADHD brain wants to hear though, so let?s also bring out the coping skills of reframing. What would make it exciting? What would completing The Thing help you feel better about? What are you looking forward to about your procrastinated task being done?Can you do The Thing better/faster/cooler ?

–          I might not have enough time to complete the task. First, functional time blindness or inability to truly estimate how much time a task actually takes is a huge component of all sorts of mental health issues, so time yourself. Whatever you?re procrastinating probably won?t take as long as you?re thinking. To avoid getting stuck in another set shifting loop, consider using the pomodoro method , or if you?re more prone to inhibition issues, using something like the forest: stay focused app or other tech that helps you ignore additional distractions.

–          I just want to make the person who asked me to do it angry: Time to check back in with question one and those intentions at the beginning. If you are intentionally trying to make someone mad at you, that?s not a healthy pursuit. Whether that is how you were taught to communicate or you trying to get a point across, you may have a lot more success with nonviolent communication techniques.

Step 7: Have I already procrastinated so badly that I now cannot finish the task in time?

–          Yes: You probably just got caught in a guilt/perfection cycle, aka ?since I can?t do it perfectly I wont even start? . Having part of something done is almost always better than none of a thing. Consider asking for an extension, for help doing the task, or just getting as far as you can. Repeat to yourself ?some is better than nothing? or ?done is better than perfect? or ?I am doing what my brain is capable of in this moment, and that is what I can get done?

  • If this is a situation where partially done will not assist with class, team, personal goals, etc- it?s okay to not succeed every time. Use this as a learning experience to help you make a plan to avoid the challenges that you had this time.
  • If you didn?t fully understand the material for a class or team function, doing part of the work may help you better understand the topic for the next time the thing comes up.
  • The rest of the world is happy to institute their zero tolerance policy on failing to finish things on time, and sometimes that is a negative feedback loop because it can teach folks with executive function issues that even when you try, it?s not worth bothering. Consider whether the value of doing The Thing is only worth doing in the context of doing the task the way other folks need it to be done- sometimes you?ll find a lot of beauty in starting and doing things in your own way, on your own time.  

–          No, there?s still a chance to finish on time. Please remember that functional time blindness! There are only two real times, now and not now. Get yourself doing part of it, even if that?s just opening a document and titling it, just taking the basket to the laundry room, just writing a schedule. If you don?t start now, set a timer, a reminder, and ask for some accountability help to make sure you start doing the task on time.

Step 8: I?ve completed the checklist and still don?t know what?s wrong!

–          Were you totally honest with yourself? Take another look. (remember that self monitoring piece? You may need to talk through it with a friend)

–          Are you overwhelmed? Are there actually too many things to do right now? When you write a to- do list, don?t ever put more than 3 things on it. You can write down more than 3 things in the order of operations list from step 4, but only look at 3 things at a time so that you?re not getting distracted by how many other things might need to be done later. If you?re having trouble prioritizing, ask for help!

–          Still mystified? Talk it out with a professional helper like a counselor, tutor or an organizational coach. 

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