Updated: Apr 29, 2022
by Tim Tibbitts
Procrastination. Procrastination is a problem with which everyone struggles sometimes, and with which some of us struggle almost every day. Especially for those of us with ADD/ADHD, the hardest part of tackling any job can be just simply getting started.
For example, students regularly share that what starts out as a well-intentioned short break after school before starting HW too often ends up as several hours spent snacking, watching TV, or playing games. On the other hand, once we get ourselves settled and make a start—even a teenie-tiny start—we’re often good to go.
If getting even a small start is so powerful, let’s brainstorm some ways to get started. With thanks to FB friends who helped me brainstorm, below is a list of a half-dozen tried and true strategies you can use for settling yourself down and getting work started at or darn close to the time you planned to do so.
1. Set alarms.
The ever-present phone has many downsides, but it comes with a number of built-in tools to increase our efficiency, and the alarm function is one of them. I set multiple, highly specific alarms all throughout the day. “Leave for library in ten.” “Check voice mail.” “Call back Mrs. ____.” The calendar and reminders are important tools, but the alarm is specific, immediate, and in your face.
Try this one, set to go off at 3:50 P.M. every Monday-Thursday: “Start math HW by 4.”
2. Pick the low hanging fruit.
If one reason you delay getting started is expecting the pile of work in front of us to be difficult or tedious, one way to trick yourself is to start with something easy. One student with whom I work who has made great strides in productivity this year, uses what he calls the “five-minute rule”: Any task that’s going to take under five minutes, just do it. Don’t bother putting it on a to do list—just get it out of the way.
3. Start before you’re ready.
If you are absolutely determined to do that one last thing before sitting down to work, just take a single tiny step before you do. Gotta shower after practice before HW? Fine. But first: Lay your stuff out on your desk, open the book, the word doc, the website. Then go shower. Absolutely can’t do your HW before calling your boyfriend? OK, but first…do the first math problem, read the first paragraph, write down the first answer. Just take one baby step. It’s much each to continue something you’ve already started than to start from scratch.
4. “Today I’m going to write about …”
One of the most commonly procrastinated tasks is writing, which for many comes with its own special set of hang-ups and anxieties. I’ve been teaching for years that the key to breaking through barriers to writing is to start with the bar very low and to take lots of baby steps.
Here’s what works for me: I decide where I’m going to work, I open my doc (or if it’s new writing, I create a doc and save it—an important first step). Then, before I run off to procrastinate for a few minutes by changing the laundry, making some tea, or grabbing a snack, I write a single sentence, usually something inane like, “Today I’m going to write about [whatever it is I plan to write about].” Often that’s enough to pull me in for a while. If not, when I come back from the kitchen, the cursor’s already in the right place, blinking its readiness for me to pick up where I left off.
5. Just do an hour.
It’s very tempting to put off more time-consuming tasks till some imagined future moment when you’ll have ample time. Experience has convinced me—and maybe you—that said future time when the calendar opens up and all you want to do is work on your research paper for 17 straight hours just never seems to roll around. So, what’s a better plan than waiting and hoping?
Just do an hour. Sit down, set a timer for sixty minutes, and accept that while you may not get it all done right now, you’ll certainly be better off at the end an hour than you were at the beginning. (I did it with this blog post, in fact. I’ve been planning it for weeks and kept putting it off. Last Friday, I just sat down and drafted what I could in the time that I had between appointments. Finishing it later was much easier.)
6. Finally, take a break…
But as a reward, not before you start. The whole idea of a break is that it’s a pause for a little rest and refreshment in the middle of a period of hard work.
Good luck, and as always, please feel free to be in touch with questions.