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How To Go From Procrastinating To Productive, Even When You're Incredibly Frustrated

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Do you see a pile of unfolded laundry, turn around, and run away? Are you feeling like your get-up-and-go took off and left for Bermuda? If so, you share something in common with many other adults with ADHD: avoiding unpleasant activities that lack interest.

That is until you can’t put them off anymore. Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing the "have-to" thing.

You’re tired. The task seems insurmountable. It’s boring to stop what’s fun. Whatever the reasons are, many people right now are feeling resilience fatigue, and struggling with productivity.

Here are my organizing tips for ADHD adults who are ready to pick themselves up and pivot to more productivity.

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Shifting your perspective to give yourself a chance

While procrastination can be debilitating, the negative self-talk about your lack of motivation, disorganization and overwhelm can be downright toxic. When your inner critic rages at you for all of the things you aren’t doing, and all of the ways that you don’t measure up, gathering up whatever strength you have to initiate anything seems impossible. You may feel hopeless and stuck.

Here’s the good news: You can change your circumstances by shifting your perspective. Instead of repeating what’s wrong with you, or what you can’t do, what would it be like to think about something that you are good at? Something that you like to do? 

What’s one small action that you could take to begin?

Utilize incentives to get moving

On a recent weekend, the temperatures soared into the eighties in Massachusetts. I had no choice but to tackle my closets. I needed shorts and tee shirts instead of my turtlenecks and corduroys. Moving my clothes twice a year is one of my all-time dreaded tasks, but it has to get done.

To make matters more complicated, this year I decided to get rid of stuff that I haven’t worn in the past three years or more. It was torturous. But by Sunday, I had two kitchen garbage bags full of clothes to sell or give away. Sure, I felt good, but it was super tough going at times. I even cried once.

How did I manage to accomplish this? By breaking the onerous chore into separate categories: shirts, pants, skirts, sweaters, and socks, and doing one type of clothing at a time. By rewarding myself with breaks outside, a long bike ride, phone calls with friends, and an iced coffee with a cookie. Incentives were key. I’m sharing this story not to brag, but to make a point.

Everybody struggles with doing unpleasant, boring tasks sometimes.

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The three types of procrastination

Perfectionism: “I have to get it right or I won’t do it.”
Avoidance: “I hate doing this thing, it seems impossible, so why bother trying?”
Productive: “I’m going to do other things that need to get done and feel good but stay away from the bigger thing that I don’t like.”

3 Procrastination tips for ADHD adults

1. Reflect on your own patterns of procrastination.

Take some time to consider the ways that you procrastinate. Do any of the three types of procrastination (perfectionism, avoidance, productivity) resonate with you in particular? Does more than one? Which thoughts or beliefs come up for you when you think about why you might procrastinate? When you understand your patterns of procrastination, you’ll feel more empowered and be more effective at reducing your delay tactics.

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2. Break big tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Procrastination is often related to anxiety and a failure mentality. The best way to combat procrastination is to break things down into small, doable chunks that seem more manageable. Breaking things down into parts makes them more manageable to attempt because you are asking yourself to do a tinier task.

Think of something that you are putting off. How can you break this down into little parts and which one piece can you start with? If you still can’t initiate, the part isn’t small enough.

Instead of putting all of the socks together, what about just folding one shirt? You might think this is ridiculous, but that’s okay; it’s just your inner critic trying to thwart you again. Activate your inner coach instead, and tell that voice to take a seat and zip it while you experiment.

This trial approach builds your confidence one step at a time because you are performing something instead of avoiding it.

3. Keep the tasks engaging.

Keep yourself engaged in a task by adding something fun to it–music, talking with a friend, co-working. It’s tough for unmotivated ADHD brains to get started on something that seems tedious and boring. What can you do to liven things up a bit? Change the order of tasks, take timed movement and snack breaks, switch locations for working, offer yourself an enticing incentive or find an accountability buddy.

Create realistic goals that you can actually meet and want to achieve. 

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3 Organizing tips for ADHD adults

Organizing tasks can be especially daunting for many adults with ADHD. Where to begin? Creating a system and a routine for dealing with your stuff can help you. Here are three organizing tips for ADHD adults to help get you started:

1. Find or make homes for your belongings.

My dad always says, “Everything has its place.” I think this helped him know where to put things so he could remember where they were. When you are trying to cope with that pile of gloves, hats, and winter scarves, ask yourself: Where can these things live? Use bins or baskets if putting stuff into drawers doesn’t work.

2. Sort through the clutter with labeled piles.

When dealing with the mail or sorting through a cluttered closet, mark four bags. One is KEEP, one is TRASH, one is GIVE AWAY and one is MAYBE. Sort through your belongings, and, if you need assistance, ask a supportive friend or family member to be your advisor via FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype.

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3. Move past the negative self-talk.

And finally, reframe the negative names you call yourself. Replace "messy," "sloppy" or "being a slob" with "chaotic" or  "cluttered," which are much less pejorative.

Instead of seeing yourself as someone who is messy, what about reframing yourself as a "pile person?" Maybe you just like your piles. That’s okay, as long as they don’t overwhelm you or lead to hoarding.

Acknowledge your achievements

Motivation benefits from encouragement, so notice your progress! Instead of “why haven’t you finished that?” try acknowledging what you have accomplished with “I’ve gotten started. I threw away the junk mail. Cool.” 

Lean into your inner coach to keep trying and growing.

When you specifically acknowledge your efforts, you nurture your positivity and promote the change you desire. The ideal positivity ratio should be three positives for every negative statement. Is this what you are giving to yourself? Start today by catching yourself doing something you’re proud of, and pivot from disengagement to productivity.

Wait, what is that sound? Oh, I think I hear that junk drawer calling your name right now! Good luck, and remember to set up your incentive — your "want-to" list. You got this!

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Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator and has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences, and mental health challenges and their impact on the school and family dynamics for more than 30 years.

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This article was originally published at Dr. Sharon Saline's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.