The Relationship Between ADHD and Chronic Procrastination

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Procrastination involves a tendency to delay a task or decision that needs to be completed by a specific deadline. Everyone procrastinates sometimes. When faced with a task that we just don't want to do, many of us will put it off until tomorrow, setting it aside until we feel less overwhelmed with all our other responsibilities or simply waiting until we have more energy to tackle the task on a new day.

Problems can begin to occur, however, if you find that you're putting off these tasks, again and again, never getting to them "later." This appears to happen quite often in people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for a variety of reasons.

This article discusses why people with ADHD tend to procrastinate and the impact it can have on their lives. It also covers some of the different ADHD symptoms that contribute to procrastination.

The Link Between ADHD and Procrastination

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that leads to symptoms such as inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9.4% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD.

While the condition is most frequently diagnosed during childhood, it can affect adults as well. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests that the prevalence of ADHD among adults is 4.4%. However, it is not uncommon for adult ADHD to be undiagnosed and untreated.

People procrastinate for a wide variety of reasons, including the desire to engage in more interesting activities. For people with ADHD, procrastination is often strongly influenced by the symptoms of their condition.

While common, procrastination is not recognized as an official diagnostic symptom of ADHD. In a 2014 study, researchers had expected procrastination to be connected to impulsivity but instead found that it was connected only to inattention.

Some research indicates that procrastination often serves as a compensation strategy for teens and adults who have ADHD. When faced with a challenging task, procrastination offers them a way to stop dealing with an unpleasant problem that they may feel is too difficult for their abilities.

The factors that contribute to procrastination are complex and varied but problems with executive functioning often play a key part.

What Is Executive Function?

Executive functioning skills are the mental skills that are needed to plan, organize, initiate, and complete tasks. These skills include things such as working memory, time management, and self-control.

When confronted with a task, people with ADHD may struggle to make decisions about how to begin and how to monitor their progress. They might leave the task momentarily only to get distracted by something else. All of these factors mean that tasks keep getting put off, sometimes until the last minute. In other cases, they might not get done at all.

Effects of Procrastination With ADHD

Many adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with chronic procrastination. This procrastination can cause problems at work when job responsibilities aren't completed until the last minute.

It can cause financial stress at home when balancing the checkbook is constantly delayed or when bills are paid late. And it can cause problems in relationships when you continue to put off others, making them feel unimportant.

Procrastination can also lead to negative moods and emotions as well as low self-esteem. This failure to complete tasks can lead to feelings of frustration, guilt, and shame. Such emotions also contribute to the tendency to put off tasks.

Evidence also indicates that people with more serious ADHD symptoms experience more procrastination as well as internalizing symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

Researchers suggest that helping people address procrastination may be helpful for reducing some of the negative internalizing emotions that sometimes occur in ADHD such as guilt, sadness, shame, depression, and anxiety.

ADHD Factors Contributing to Procrastination

There can be a number of ADHD-related factors that lead to chronic procrastination, including distractibility, forgetfulness, disorganization, and problems with prioritizing, sequencing, and time management. In addition, if you have experienced repeated frustrations on certain types of tasks, you may naturally avoid those tasks to avoid the negative feelings that working on those tasks can bring up.

Here are some of the factors that can be at play in the relationship between ADHD and procrastination.

Problems Getting Started

For an adult with ADHD, just getting started on a task can often be very difficult, particularly if that task isn't intrinsically interesting. When you're so distracted by outside stimuli, as well as internal thoughts, it can be hard to even make it to the starting line.

Sometimes just figuring out where or how to start is the challenge. Problems with organization come into play as you struggle to prioritize, plan, and sequence tasks that need to be done to get started and stay on track.

Getting Sidetracked

Once you finally do get started, you may find that you quickly become sidetracked by something else more interesting, so your original task gets further delayed. It can be very difficult when you have ADHD to regulate your attention.

Once you're able to get your attention focused on a task, you may find that it's hard to sustain that attention as your mind wanders. It can be hard to stay alert, motivated, and on track when you aren't very interested or stimulated by the task at hand.

You may find that when tasks are particularly tedious or boring, you delay getting to them until the very last minute, at which point you either feel such pressure that you are able to motivate yourself to finally get started and complete the task, or you get stuck not completing the task at all and have to face the consequences.

Last-Minute Propulsion

Interestingly, for some people with ADHD, putting off things until the very last minute can create an emergency-type situation—an urgency of sorts—that helps propel you forward to successfully get the job done.

The ​fast-approaching deadline (and the immediacy of the negative consequences that will follow if the deadline isn't met) may help you to focus and complete the task.

The problem is that this urgency can create quite a bit of stress and anxiety, too. And the stress can take a tremendous toll on you as well as those around you.

Inevitably, these last-minute rush jobs also tend not to be as high quality as they might have been without such procrastination.

Sense of Paralysis and Feeling Overwhelmed

On the other hand, you may experience a painful sense of paralysis when faced with a task or project—wanting to get started, but unable to make progress forward in any manner.

You may experience a crushing sense of pressure. As much as you know that you need to get the job done, you just can't get moving.

Impaired Sense of Time

Sometimes, it's the impaired sense of time that leads to problems with getting tasks started. If you have trouble estimating the time it takes to complete a task, you might put it off, thinking you're still allowing enough time to get it done.

ADHD can make it difficult to track the passage of time as well, so you may find that those deadlines sneak up on you before you know it.

Fear of Failure

Sometimes there can be so much anxiety associated with starting the task that those feelings create an even greater obstacle. The fear of not doing the task correctly, fear of imperfection, and fear of failure can all add to procrastination.

A Word From Verywell

ADHD and procrastination often go hand in hand. Recognizing the relationship that exists between the two is helpful for understanding how they interact. It's also a good first step to finding ways to ultimately overcome your tendency to procrastinate.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.