Procrastination Strategies

Procrastination: Strategies to Get Kids with ADHD Started

Trying to help your child to get started on homework or to study can be a humbling experience. Nightly, all across the country, thousands of parents ask their children the same question, “Did you start your homework yet?” That question is so often answered with “Not yet, but I’ll do it when I get to the next level of this video game,” or even, “I’ll start it after I check my Instagram account. Don’t worry, Mom!”

As parents of children with ADHD, we too often find ourselves cast in the role of “procrastination prosecutor,” so the question bears asking, “Could it be that procrastination isn’t such a bad thing after all since many students don’t seem to see a problem with it?”

My experience has been that when it comes to schoolwork, there are two types of procrastination– functional and dysfunctional.

Functional procrastinators always manage to get their work done and don’t seem to stress over their tendency to put things off. Let’s say your son has a math assignment due on Friday. He doesn’t start it until 9 pm on Thursday night, but he completes it even though he has to stay up late. This type of procrastination is functional.

But what if your daughter was given two weeks to write a research paper that was due on February 25th and she did not start it until late on the 23rd? She still needs to write her thesis, gather research, create an outline, etc. Although she somehow manages to get it done, the quality is suspect at best, she’s stressed out of her mind, and you are furious with yet another last minute project. That’s dysfunctional procrastination. In essence, your daughter knows what she needs to do, but cannot make herself do it.

Interestingly, the ability to regulate your emotions in order to jump over that hurdle to get started is rooted in executive function. That’s why so many students with ADHD procrastinate so much. And unfortunately, procrastination, especially the dysfunctional type, produces two results: lower grade point average and stress.

The question is, why do individuals procrastinate in the first place?

New research using brain imaging conducted in the last two years reveals that procrastinators, teens and adults alike, are under the faulty impression that they must be in a good mood to tackle the uninteresting task, such as homework. So, when weighing what to do next – homework or video games – video games win out. The more pleasurable activity will always trump the other task because individuals believe it will repair their mood. The problem is that this approach almost never works and in the end, procrastinators are disappointed in themselves when they realize how much time they’ve wasted. They actually feel worse later on when they miss a deadline or have to deal with negative feedback, such as an angry parent.

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada is a leading researcher on the topic of procrastination. He states that emotion is at the core of procrastination. He and his colleagues suggest that the first step is to help procrastinators realize how their attempts to fix their mood are actually sabotaging their efforts.

Simply knowing that you are at a fork in the road and that you have two choices – to do the task at hand or to avoid it by doing something much more pleasurable – is a good first step. The reason people usually do the “something else” is because they are trying to engage in what scientists call “mood repair.” They often pick the more appealing task because it obviously makes them feel better, but in the end, they feel worse because they’ve accomplished nothing. So, realizing when you are about to procrastinate is very important, because when you know you’re at that fork in the road, you can take action. So the next question becomes “How do you get yourself to actually take such action?”

Here are a few strategies to check out:

One approach researched by Fuschia Sirois from Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec is called “time travel.” Sirois studied 4,000 people and found that those who could project themselves into the future and think about how it would great it would feel to finish a task were more likely to ward off procrastination.

And it wasn’t only good thoughts they were trained to imagine. They also thought about how awful they would feel if they gave into the “I’ll do it later” syndrome. Visualization is a common strategy used for athletes and it can be just the ticket for procrastinators, too.

Experts in the area of procrastination say that an individual must make the “barrier to entry” almost nonexistent. In other words, you must make the threshold for getting started incredibly low so that you are almost positive you can be successful. For example, let’s say that you want to clean out your closet, but you’ve put off the task for months because it’s so unappealing. This time, instead of moving it to another day on your to-do list, you tell yourself, “Okay, I’m going to just walk into my closet and line my sandals up. That’s it. Sandals only!” Research shows that even the worst procrastinators can improve significantly by creating simple action items to get started. They feel a lot better when they’ve done something, even if they haven’t completed their ultimate goal, such as cleaning out the entire closet.

The same principal works for students. I’ve found that many middle and high schoolers do not know how to set simple goals to help them get started, so they give into “mood fixers” such as Instagram, Twitter, or texting. Students can make behavior changes by focusing on one of two areas: time (setting a specific time limit) or task (finishing a simple duty). Here’s how they work:

Time: Set the timer for five minutes and say to yourself, “I’m just going to do this math for only five minutes.” Often, students find that they can keep on going after getting started.

Task: Give yourself something easy to do just to get started. You may say to yourself, “Okay, I’m just going to do the first problem on my math homework for now. Just one problem!” Again, merely starting reduces anxiety and gives students a small sense of accomplishment and confidence to keep on going.

Here are some examples of how students can lower the bar to reduce procrastination:

It’s Wednesday and you are tired. You have a Spanish test on Friday. You want to put off studying today and push it all to tomorrow, Thursday, which is what you typically do.In the past, this hasn’t really worked because you feel overwhelmed and stressed out. You end up staying up late and are exhausted the next day.You give yourself a very simple task that you know you can easily accomplish.You decide to study just five vocabulary words since learning vocab is the easiest thing for you.
You have an essay due for your English class and you’re feeling overwhelmed. You have good ideas, but getting them onto paper is hard.You think you need extra adrenaline to get it done. You decide to watch TV and to start writing right before bed when you’re pressured to finish.Instead of viewing the essay as “all or nothing,” you figure out what you can easily do to get started.You set a simple task for yourself – to write the first sentence before you eat dinner.
Chemistry is a tough subject and you need extra help from your teacher. Meeting with her after school would be beneficial.You are starving and want to go to Chipotle, but you also don’t know how to solve those darned chemical equations.In lieu of getting help with the whole assignment, you ask your teacher for help with the first question only.You meet with your teacher for just a few minutes, ensure that you understand how to do the work, and then bolt to Chipotle.

In the end, recognizing when you are in “mood repair” mode and then creating easy tasks for yourself to get started really works!

The act of forgiveness is another strategy that really works. It’s typical for people to become demoralized when procrastination is the norm. When this behavior occurs frequently, students (and adults) usually get angry with themselves for lack of initiative. But studies show this negative dialogue makes the problem worse. In a 2010 study by Dr. Michael Wohl at Carlton University, college freshmen who had the habit of engaging in self-doubt were randomly put into two groups prior to an exam. After the test, one group was instructed in the art of forgiveness. Instead of beating themselves up for putting off studying, they forgave themselves. The students who forgave themselves procrastinated far less than the other group when it came to studying for the next exam.

I once worked with a college sophomore, Sarah, who had failed out of James Madison University due to her poor time management skills. She was a solid student in high school, given that it was a very structured environment, but once she had so much free time in college, havoc ensued. She was a dysfunctional procrastinator and these habits ate away at her self-esteem. When I started working with her, she had transferred to Old Dominion University. Although things were better at her new school, they still weren’t great. Sarah was actually trying very hard. She would often plop herself down in the library for two and sometimes three hours straight, but she got nothing done when the time was up. In a nutshell, she was overwhelmed and underprepared. She had no strategies to get started even though she was in the right environment (the library).

Sarah soon came to realize that she needed accountability in the form of a timer and breaks. She set the timer for never more than 30 minutes and worked diligently during that time period. She allowed herself short breaks of 5-10 minutes to check her text messages and get a drink. Sarah learned that her phone was a tempting distraction. She always turned it completely off and got back to work. Sarah also became accountable to others in her class. She set up study sessions via FaceTime (never for more than 30 minutes) to review the day’s lecture or study for a test. She found that when she had an “appointment” with a peer, she was likely to follow through.

What worked for Sarah may not be the ticket for everyone, but I bet every student can find one tip in this article that will work for him or her. Try just one strategy first and stick with it for 21 days to see real change.

Ann K. Dolin, M. Ed., is the founder and president of Educational Connections and is the author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework.
Phone: 703-934-8282 – Website: