Procrastination--It's an emotional response

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As parents of children with ADHD, we run into issues with motivation A LOT and part of that picture is the issue of procrastination.  In my last post (March 11, 2019), I talked about the motivation equation.  Interestingly, a recent New York Times article (Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control) by Charlotte Lieberman)  delves into the question of what procrastination really is.

We generally understand that procrastination is putting off something that you don't want or like to do.  Why you might procrastinate can have many reasons.  It may be the task is difficult or overwhelming or it may be you've had a bad experience in the past and so don't want to potentially relive the experience. 

Why we procrastinate over and over is largely because we get an immediate sense of relief when we put something off that's difficult.  "Phew.  I don't have to face that now."

But here's the really interesting part:  When you get immediate relief from avoiding a task, it reinforces the seeming effectiveness of avoiding the task.  You reward yourself with relief.  Think about the classic study of Pavolv's dogs and conditioned responses.  That study showed that when we get a good feeling from something (i.e. relief), we do it again.

Of course relief is a short term gain.  We know in the long run, procrastination doesn't provide relief at all,  and in some cases it can be quite harmful.

In the New York Times article, Dr. Hal Herschfeld states, "To make things worse, we’re even less able to make thoughtful, future-oriented decisions in the midst of stress. When faced with a task that makes us feel anxious or insecure, the amygdala — the “threat detector” part of the brain — perceives that task as a genuine threat... Even if we intellectually recognize that putting off the task will create more stress for ourselves in the future, our brains are still wired to be more concerned with removing the threat in the present. Researchers call this “amygdala hijack.”

So how can we help our ADHD children manage procrastination?  We need to help them find a reward that is better/feels better than relief.  The New York Times article gave the following suggestions and I've rewritten them below to come from a parenting perspective:

These first two may be a bit tricky for younger children and might be better used soon after a procrastinating incident than in the moment.  Though in the moment is best if the child is developmentally able to reflect on their thinking as these options suggest.

Self-Forgiveness and Self-Compassion
I've often heard my daughter say, "I just can't do this.  I just don't want to do this."  My instinct is to tell her to stop whining and just get it done.  But the suggestion here is to help her not get frustrated with herself when procrastination is pointed out.  I need to help her not beat herself up over procrastinating.  Allow for it as a mistake, talk about how to avoid it next time and move on. 

The Body Scan
When you recognize that your child is procrastinating, help them do a body scan.  What does procrastinating feel like?  Where does your child's mind go when alerted to the fact that they are procrastinating?  Ask them to keep their attention on the feelings in the body that procrastinating is bringing up, do they start to change with effortful focus?

The next two suggestions are much better suited to younger children...

The What If's
Breaking a task into pieces is important, but not always helpful enough.  In addition to breaking a task into manageable pieces, help your child think through what it would be like/feel like if they took the first step, did the first action, said the first word necessary to start the task.  This can lead to actually starting it.

Reduce Temptation
If there are certain things that often stand in the way of getting a particular task done, try to remove those obstacles.  What are the distractions?  Who are the distractions?  What about time of day or week? Set up tasks for success as much as possible.

Let me know what you think of these suggestions?  Do you think they're manageable for a child?  Have you tried something you think works well?  Comment below...