Tips for Teens: Why is it so Hard to Stop Procrastinating?

“Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” – says the ADHD brain. When you have ADHD getting started on homework or sitting down to study can be hard – really hard. Many teens with ADHD feel like their brain struggles to gear up and focus on the assignment. Others feel so overwhelmed by the essay, project, or upcoming test that they don’t know where to start. Some know where to begin, but put off getting started because they worry that they won’t be able to do the assignment well enough to meet their high standards. With all of these negative feelings coming up, the natural reaction is to avoid the assignment, project, or upcoming test all together.  This avoidance strategy works initially. For a while you do feel much less anxious and less stressed, but before you know it you’re in trouble. The test is in an hour and you haven’t studied, or the big project is due tomorrow and you haven’t gotten started. Your stress and anxiety skyrocket. Even if you do make the deadline, it’s only after pulling an all-nighter or handing in work that you know isn’t your best. You promise yourself that you won’t procrastinate again, but within just a few days you’re back in the same spot.

Everyone procrastinates sometimes. It’s human nature. But when you procrastinate so often that it prevents you from reaching your full potential and adds stress and anxiety to your life, then it’s a problem. You’re not alone. Most people with ADHD (and many people without ADHD) struggle with procrastination. The good news is that you can break the procrastination cycle with two steps: first identify the ADHD tendencies that cause you to procrastinate and then make some relatively simple changes that will help you overcome these challenges.

Common ADHD tendencies that lead to procrastination are listed below. Think about which of these apply to you – for some people it may be all five and for others it may be just one or two.

  • Seeking Instant Gratification. With ADHD comes a tendency to prioritize things that are fun in the moment over things that are less enjoyable now but come with a delayed reward. Working on assignments and studying for tests are both activities with delayed payoffs. Sometimes the delay is very long, like when you study for months to prepare for the SAT. Other times it can be a relatively short, like when you start working on an essay a few days before it’s due. In many cases the delayed payoff for your effort can be big – like excellent scores on the SAT! But when you have ADHD it’s hard to be motivated by a delayed reward even with big payoffs. So, instead of getting started on things you logically know you need to get done, you’re likely to do something immediately fun and rewarding instead – like playing videogames or chatting with friends.
  • Feeling overwhelmed. When you have ADHD you can easily feel overwhelmed by longer assignments and exams that require a lot of preparation. It can be hard to know where to start or how to break the assignments or study plans down into smaller manageable chunks. No one wants to feel overwhelmed, and when you procrastinate you’re able to avoid this feeling – at least for a short time. Unfortunately, when you procrastinate you ultimately feel more overwhelmed in the long run.
  • Time management. Estimating the amount of time it will take to complete an assignment or study for a test can be difficult when you have ADHD. You’re more likely to underestimate the amount of time you will need, and you may have trouble paying attention to the amount of time that has passed once you start working. Both of these ADHD tendencies make it difficult to get started early on projects and manage your time well so you’ll finish by the deadline.
  • Self-confidence. When you’re not confident in your ability to write a strong essay or get a good grade on a test, then it can be very difficult to get started. Self-defeating thoughts start to creep in, your anxiety goes up, and an already challenging task becomes even more unappealing. Many people with ADHD struggle with self-confidence, especially when it comes to school, so it’s not surprising that this might be causing some difficulties now.
  • Distractions. With ADHD it’s very easy to get distracted by almost anything, especially anything with a screen. Before you know it you’ve been sucked into your phone for an hour and genuinely have no idea how much time has passed! Once you’re distracted by your phone or computer it can be even harder to switch gears and get started on the work you’ve been avoiding.

Did you see yourself in any of these tendencies? Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings over the next few days as you get started on assignments or procrastinate instead of getting work done. See if you notice any other tendencies popping up. Once you’ve identified your own patterns you’ll be ready to take action and make some changes.  In my next post I discuss some simple steps that will help you stop procrastinating so you can turn in assignments on time, with less stress, and earn better grades!

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