Is this something you resonate with? Putting certain things off day after day? If so, you’re not alone.
Now Presenting, ADHD, and putting things off.
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Hi. This is Now Presenting ADHD, where we look at common ways Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can present in individuals, explain what the root causes can be, and connect the experience to real humans. I’m your host, Jaye Lin. I’m an ADHD coach, instructor, and generally nice person.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reevaluating the things I’ve been putting off for later. And boy are there things I’ve been putting off for later.
I made ice cream a few months ago, and the canister for that is one of the few containers in my kitchen that aren’t dishwasher safe. A few weeks ago, I finally revealed to a few friends that the canister has been soaking in my kitchen sink for months, because I couldn’t get myself to wash it.
Another thing was that I haven't exercised in months, because I can’t seem to find the physical space or time to do my VR exercises, the only thing that works for me.
And my current setup for my dog was not working, because his crate and playpen were in my living room, which, beyond cutting down on the space I can use for my VR exercises, meant that he could not properly calm down after getting home from daycare, because he could sense that I was nearby, and wouldn’t be able to calm and self soothe knowing I was nearby and I could totally be playing with him.
All of these were things I knew I wanted to get done, but somehow wasn’t able to move forward with, due to generally not wanting to do it, or due to constraints that I didn’t want to deal with. As days went on, I continued putting it off, saying that it was something I would do later. But when is later?
Is this something you resonate with? Putting certain things off day after day? If so, you’re not alone.
Now Presenting, ADHD, and putting things off.
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Putting things off, or procrastination, is something all humans do. With ADHD, procrastination tends to be multiplied, for many reasons, including lower working memory, cognitive inflexibility, and tendencies to chase activities that provide us with dopamine. All of these factors can lead us to more frequent overwhelm, greater difficulty navigating that overwhelm, and more difficulty with staying on task. This means it’s harder for us to get started, and it’s harder for us to continue going, than it is for neurotypicals.
But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. To take a step forward, it’s important for us to examine what it is about each thing we are procrastinating on doing, and what is making us avoid it. After all, there are many things we don’t procrastinate on doing. There are so many things that we run toward doing. So what is it about the things we put off that make them more difficult to do?
Let’s start with the ice cream canister I mentioned earlier. Initially, it was because I didn’t have the spoons to wash anything by hand, so I put it off for the first day, and it got more scary as time went on. Each time I looked at it, I felt shame and disappointment in myself, and yet, I still couldn’t get myself to clean it. Every week, I made a plan to clean it. I would load all my dishes into the dishwasher, use the run-off water while the tap got hot to fill my water filter, water all of my plants with the filtered water, then use the hot water from the tap to clean the ice cream canister. But by the time I got to the end of the process, I found myself running late to something, or I didn’t have the energy to keep going. I avoided the ice cream canister for another day. And then another. And then another. It started to smell and get really gross, and that made the task more unpleasant, and thus, harder for me to get to it. Not cleaning the canister also meant that I couldn’t clean my sink, because there were always things in it. The sink started to get really gross and smell, making the task more unpleasant, and I felt more shame. It was a snowball effect of feeling terrible.
In this scenario, the shame I felt about not doing it was making it feel impossible to do.
But a funny thing happened. Within two hours of my shamefully admitting to my friends that my ice cream canister was still soaking in my sink, I found myself standing at my kitchen sink, filling a pot with water to cook with. I stared at the tap, and realized the water could run hot by the time I got enough water to cook with. And, after releasing my shame with my earlier confession, I found myself washing my ice cream canister, just like that.
What happened between the months I spent avoiding it, to me picking it up and doing it?
Activation, or getting started, tends to be harder for us, because of cognitive inflexibility, which also makes it harder for us to stop working on something so we can do something else. Activation is also harder for us due to our lower working memory, because it can be overwhelming to figure out the order we want to do things, and that overwhelm has the potential to shut us down so we avoid thinking about it altogether.
In the case of the ice cream canister, I felt like I couldn’t just start cleaning it. The water had to be hot first, or I wouldn’t be able to effectively clean the slippery fats off the surface. I can’t just run the water until it’s hot, because that would be wasting water. So I had to have enough water missing from my water pitchers so I could fill them with the runoff water. And while the water is hot, it’s the perfect time to run my dishwasher, so that has to be done at the same time. If these factors aren’t exactly perfect, then I can’t go forward. But keeping all of that in my head felt like a lot of work on days where I didn’t have a lot of cognitive energy to spend. And it felt like a lot of commitment I had to have in order to complete this one simple task.While that working memory overwhelm is overcoming us, another ADHD factor comes into play, emotional dysregulation. Maybe not doing the dishes right away is something that I’ve felt shame about for my whole life, which is true, by the way. Maybe I feel inadequate, and that I’m bad at cleaning. Maybe more awful feelings come up, like how I think my parents love my sister more, because she was always able to keep things tidy and do what she was told. A whole can of worms can open up, emotionally, when we approach doing these things, and we get flooded with an entirely different kind of overwhelm.
Many of us get past this multi-factor overwhelm by reaching for our daily dose of dopamine. Creativity and optimization are big dopamine getters. So instead of going forward and washing the one canister, I’d sit down and work out a plan on how to maximize the process. That’s where the water filtering, plant watering, loading the dishwasher, and other additional steps come in. Aside from the optimization dopamine from this, it can also feel like it was ok for me to put it off for so long, because what I am going to do with this maximization will be better than if I tidied up on a regular basis. There might be an underlying fear that if I wash the ice cream canister and there are still other dishes to be washed, I won’t feel good about the result, especially with how awful I feel about not doing it for so long. It has to be amazing, or it will be a failure.
But there lies the issue. We are expecting it to feel awful the whole time, but to remedy this, we are turning it into an enormous project, and thus, extending the amount of time we will feel awful, in order to get perfect results that aren’t even guaranteed. Do you see where things can go wrong here?
Once we stop optimizing on the plan and we start doing it, it starts to feel bad, because the dopamine from optimization starts wearing off. But because the plan optimizes for so many things, it requires a lot of commitment to complete it in entirety. Let’s say I decide to wash the ice cream canister but I don’t have space for it to dry, so all the parts are just strewn across my counters. It’s even worse than before! That overwhelm of anxiety that felt bad? It’s kicked way up. I feel exhausted from so much anxiety for so long, and then… avoid it. Now the kitchen looks even more cluttered than it did before!
This kicks off the cycle of anxiety. When we feel an overwhelm of anxiety, a common coping method is to avoid thinking about it. This makes sense in the short term, because the distress we feel with anxiety overwhelm is lowered slightly when we stop thinking about it. We instantly feel a sense of relief, which can be soothing. But while the short term effect of avoidance is positive, the long term effect is pretty negative, because the thing that caused us distress is never worked through. Each time our mind wanders to it, we feel that same overwhelm of anxiety, which gets bigger and bigger every time we avoid it. We may feel annoyed at ourselves for not just doing the thing. We can feel shame about not doing it. We can feel like it’s something we can never get past. That’s a lot to feel. And over time, after avoiding it long enough, it can grow into something that seems insurmountable, making it harder and harder to get it done as the days go on.
My friend, Coach Ron Capalbo, who you’ll remember as one of the guests on the Optimization Trap, had mentioned something to me last month, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. He said that in the best horror movies, the monster isn’t revealed until the end. Horror filmmakers know to do this Monster Delay because once the monster is revealed, it is no longer ambiguous and seemingly invincible. Our brains automatically start looking for the monster’s vulnerabilities, and our terror is adjusted down. Ron made this perfect analogy for anxiety. If we don’t know what we’re up against, we can’t defeat it.
So, in this scenario with the ice cream canister, a takeaway from the experience is to say that I tried to wash it, and I wasn’t able to do it. Or, in the horror movie analogy, I put together an elaborate plan on how to defeat the monster, but when I went out there to fight it with my eyes closed, I got too scared, and retreated back to shelter. The takeaway is that I can’t. I can’t be brave enough to face the monster. The monster is stronger than me. I’m not good enough. That’s how it can feel, but it’s not always accurate.
I recommend taking a look at the monster from a safe place. Look at it through the peephole. I wanted the canister to be cleaned so I could put it away and not look at it anymore. I wanted my sink to stop smelling. I wanted it to be done and out of the way. All the other things I put in place for the plan were not necessary. I could just wash it, dry it, and put it away. Sometimes, once we look at it straight on from a safe place, the monster isn’t so scary anymore. This was the case with my ice cream canister. I had finally shared with my friends that my ice cream canister was disgustingly soaking in my sink. They didn’t tell me I was disgusting. They were supportive, and asked what I needed from them in order to move forward. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to not think about the ice cream canister anymore. I let the water run hot, ran a hot soapy sponge over the surface, then wiped it dry with a towel, and put it away. The monster wasn’t actually that difficult to slay, and all it took was staring right at it.
Next, let’s look at when our brains release dopamine. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, dopamine is commonly released in two events: when we are anticipating a result, and when that result is confirmed. Dopamine drops in the middle area, in a space where we know that the results would work, but we haven’t yet completed it. Neurotypicals have a higher baseline of dopamine, which allows them to operate with higher working memory and emotional regulation in the middle area, giving them the motivating energy to complete the task. That drop in dopamine for us means it’s harder for us to stay focused once we know it will work and before we get results.
This means that we get a lot of dopamine when we’re optimizing, but during that optimization process, we confirm to ourselves that if the plan is followed through, we will get the result we want. Boom, dopamine drops. Then, without the motivating energy to push us through, we, at best, trudge through the task, until it feels too awful, and that’s when we bail. We never get the hit of dopamine that comes at the final result, because we never reach it. This is especially the case due to optimization, because the final result is much loftier than we originally planned. But it feels so far away that it might not feel worth it to continue trudging to get there.
One of the solutions to this that works for me is to approach things by sections, instead of optimizing the whole thing. This works great for areas of extreme disarray, like my kitchen. When my kitchen is so cluttered and weeks past the need for cleaning, optimizing for a perfect kitchen is really overwhelming, especially when I’m optimizing for efficiency. Put everything away at the same time, then washing all the dirties all at once, then wiping all the surfaces all at once. It feels like a lot. I would start doing some of it, but then lose steam, because it took me so much effort, and it didn’t seem to move the needle much.
But then I started doing one section at a time. I started focusing on a two foot by two foot section of my counters. Put all those things away, clean the dirties, and wipe the surface. That 2 foot squared area would be clean in a matter of minutes, and I would see the result, a beautifully clean section of my counter. And with it, a ping of dopamine for a small job well done. The results from that small section spurred me to do another 2 foot section, then another. I was able to get my entire kitchen to glisteningly clean in just an hour, because I kept building on the dopamine I was getting from cleaning.
This is what happened with moving my dog’s playpen to the bedroom. There were so many things I was optimizing on. I had to clean my room, and there were sooo many things I had to do to get that room to be clean. I had to unpack my suitcase graveyard, take the boxes of clothes I’d brought from my parents’ house and hang everything up. After the room is clean, then I can set up my dog’s playpen there, and then I’ll be able to exercise with my VR headset in my living room.
But that felt like a lot to do, and I never had the energy. I told myself that I would have the energy if I got regular exercise, but I can’t do that, because I would need to do all of this stuff first! It was a circular thought pattern of helplessness.
But again, it wasn’t accurate. I was optimizing for a final result by saying all these things need to get done, instead of building on the dopamine my brain would give me by having small wins.
So, I stared directly at the monster. I need to get these boxes somewhere else and then set up the playpen. That’s it. So I did. I moved the boxes somewhere else. If I felt the urge, I would unpack them, like quickly putting my books onto the shelf. But if it was unrelated to the task at hand, it wasn’t critical for me to do them. I didn’t hang up those clothes. But I was able to clear the space, and very quickly. Then, I vacuumed the carpet where the playpen would go, then set up the playpen. The whole process took maybe an hour, even with my quick detours.
But I gave myself the ping of dopamine when the area was cleared, when the area was vacuumed, and when the playpen was moved over. I ended up wanting to ride that dopamine more, and vacuumed my entire apartment. More dopamine. I put away my suitcases. More dopamine. I threw the clothes from unpacking into the wash. More dopamine. And I set my VR headset back up for workouts. More dopamine.
Now, it’s been two weeks, and I’ve been exercising every other day for this entire time. My dog has been blissfully napping in my room as I’m exercising in the living room, and my kitchen sink is clean and clear. I could slay those monsters. I just had to look directly at them. While I felt a lot of shame about not doing them in the past, I feel good about what I was able to do while I was doing it, because I did a hard thing, and that’s worth celebrating.
You’ve made it to the end of the episode on putting things off. To recap, we can get into a perpetual state of putting things off, because what starts as a task that is unpleasant or overwhelming can morph into something really unpleasant and really overwhelming, the longer we put it off. We can get out of that state by being aware of our optimization tendencies, then figuring out what we would actually need to do to get the task itself done, without all the extras we pile on top. Then, we can get a more constant stream of dopamine by completing sections in ways that show us we are making progress, and use our hyperfocus and dopamine from feeling good about our progress to push us over the finish line. And when we finally do the tasks we’ve been putting off, we can feel good about it, because we did a hard thing, and that’s worth celebrating.
If you found this episode enjoyable or informative, please tell your friends and family members with ADHD, and/or give us a review wherever you get your podcasts. If you want to read transcripts or show notes, find out more about me, Jaye Lin, or give suggestions on future episodes, please go to our website, npadhd.com. That’s the acronym for Now Presenting: ADHD, npadhd.com. Or you can follow us on Instagram, at NPADHD. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you again soon!