How Can I Stop Procrastinating?

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Reader’s Question

I am suffering from something I can only describe as ‘procrastination disorder.’ I actually started writing this email two months ago and have put off finishing it until now.

All my life I have procrastinated boring tasks such as cleaning my room and doing homework. I am aware that most kids do this to a certain degree, but I took it to a whole new level.

I would never do homework, ever. The teachers just gave up because, frankly, there was no way to force me. The only result would be an explosive tantrum, in which I would throw chairs in my teachers’ faces (yes, it happened several times).

I would never clean my room. I would start and then get bored three minutes later, push everything under my bed, and eventually my mom had to do it. In my teens, I decided to be more responsible and did not let my mom clean my room. As a result, it once took eight months for me to pick up a few clothes and some papers that were on the floor. Processing that in my head is hard. I procrastinated eight months over something that took at most five minutes to do.

Now I live on my own and all my ‘silverware’ is plastic so I can toss it out because, to be honest, I will not clean more than twice a month. In the first two and a half months I slept on the floor, because spending ten minutes to put my bed together was way too boring.

I get this overwhelming feeling of boredom and the small task at hand becomes excruciatingly tiresome (in my head).

But, I am not lazy. I am a bodybuilder and workout five times a week. I have started two companies and I am only 22 years old. And I have no trouble with things I perceive as boring if it’s helping someone else, like cleaning up a friend’s place after a party.

At first I thought it might be the ‘new’ ADD diagnosis I read about: sluggish cognitive tempo, or something. But my brain processes information faster than the average person, so I don’t think that is it.

I am completely hopeless when it comes to mundane tasks, and I don’t know how to change. I’ve tried to change, but it won’t happen.

I do literally fear this will ruin my life. Even though I always have the money, I will often put off paying my bills until way past the due date. Spending those three minutes transferring the money in front of my computer is just too boring, even though I am browsing there anyway.

Psychologist’s Reply

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You sound very frustrated with yourself. Procrastination can be one of the most maddening things to experience. It is characterized by the sense of being almost unable to do the tasks that one needs to do, in a timely fashion.

Procrastination can definitely exist within a larger problem, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but can also exist without it. I will say that if you have ADHD, you would likely have noticed significant problems meeting the demands and expectations of school, relationships, or work due to chronic impulsivity, inattention, or hyperactivity. In other words, symptoms and problems need to occur so often, for so long, and to such a degree that they result in a trail of problems. Forgetting things; losing track of possessions; severe disorganization; and difficulty maintaining systems of tracking your money, homework, or tasks are some of the behaviors that often accompany ADHD. As an example of impairment, a person with ADHD might miss payment deadlines with bills so often that his or her credit rating suffers. Also, people with ADHD usually get negative feedback from others. Others are typically as frustrated with the person with ADHD as he or she is!

Of course I cannot diagnose or rule out ADHD for you over the Internet. It is important to note that ADHD is also difficult to diagnose in oneself, despite the criteria being widely available and easily understood. There is a lot of information out there about ADHD, and a lot of misinformation! If you have considered this as a diagnosis for yourself, it is best to consult with either your doctor or a mental health professional.

Whether procrastination is part of ADHD for you or not, it sounds like it is interfering with your peace of mind at the very least! You described an ability to respond to the needs of others, for example helping your friend clean after a party. You also shared that you work out five times a week, which takes both energy and discipline. Starting two companies takes creativity and persistence. So, we know that you have many positive qualities from which to draw to solve this problem. Something I wonder about is how you feel as you think about the tasks that you have to accomplish. In the case of cleaning your room, maybe you felt angry at the obligation. With bills, maybe you feel anxious or worried about seeing the details of your bank account and balance. And with putting together the furniture, maybe you were unsure how to do it and anticipated a frustrating or confusing task, that you might not be able to complete. I am guessing on all of these, of course, just to illustrate some reasons that people procrastinate. Obligation, power struggles, anxiety, and frustration, are some of the common reasons why people put off tasks.

Perfectionism can also go hand in hand with procrastination. The desire to do something perfect or just right can make a task feel bigger or more overwhelming than it actually would be if one settled for ‘good enough.’ In other cases, a task postponed becomes bigger and more arduous, even if only in the mind, than it ever was to begin with.

According to a book by Neil Fiore, Ph.D. called The NOW Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], there are several thoughts or self-statements that promote procrastination. Fiore explains procrastination as a habit related to many variables, and offers good ideas for combating procrastination. For example, he suggests each of the following counter statements that can help people shift from being ‘procrastinators’ to ‘producers.’

  • Replace “I have to” with “I choose to.”
  • Replace “I must finish” with “When can I start?”
  • Replace “This project is so big and important” with “I can take one small step.”
  • Replace “I must be perfect” with “I can be perfectly human.”

From what you have described, the “I have to, but I don’t want to” statement is one that seems to match with the feeling of being bored with mundane tasks.

Finally, I want to remind you that we all have quirks, faults, and areas of strength and weakness. If you are experiencing only mild consequences from the tendency to procrastinate, you might consider accepting this as part of yourself, part of your ‘style,’ part of the way you work. You mention that you worry that procrastination will ruin your life. If it is impacting you significantly or bothering you a lot, then obtaining some help beyond what I can give might be a good idea. Reading some self-help books about procrastination, such as the one mentioned above, could be helpful. In addition, a counselor could work with you to find strategies that can be tailored to you to help you do things differently.

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