July 5, 2021

Do you procrastinate? If so, what helps?

“Procrastination” is an outer behavior, not an inner experience. So when I try to follow anti-procrastination tips from someone whose mind is very different from mine, it’s less likely to help. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot from people like me – neurodivergent folks who struggle with executive functioning.

Here are a few of the inner experiences that cause me, an autistic woman, to put off a task – and, in each case, what helps me to finally get started. If your experiences are similar, regardless of neurotype, then maybe these ideas will help you too.

1. Aversion = I put off a task because I expect it to feel unpleasant. It helps to combine it with something I enjoy, like music or tea.

2. Inertia = I put off a task because I’m caught up in another activity. It helps to set a timer, but instead of stopping right when the timer goes off, I use that as a cue to choose a logical stopping point in the current activity (e.g. “at the end of this chapter”).

3. Catatonia = I put off a task because I feel physically stuck when I try to begin. A friend with selective mutism taught me a way to break out of this feeling. She calls her method “non-repetitive stimming,” but it basically looks like trying to wiggle around in a random way. It helps her to speak, and it helps me to get up off the couch when I don’t feel like doing the dishes.

4. Overwhelm = I put off a task because I don’t know where to begin. The classic advice for this is to break the task down into smaller steps, but what if I have no idea what the first step should be? I find it helps to turn all the unknowns into a list of specific questions, so that I can search for answers instead of just staring into a cloud of unknown unknowns.

5. Distraction = I put off a task because I forget about it. In the short term, I set timers to check in and confirm that I’m still on track – or get back on track. In the long term, to-do lists are essential to keep track of what I intended to do.

6. Fear of failure = I put off a task because the result might suck. This especially applies to emails and phone calls, where I might be judged for awkwardness or accidental impoliteness. It helps to consider the worst that could happen – usually not a threat to my survival – and how likely that outcome actually is.

7. Fear of success = I put off a task because of what will happen after I’m done – usually another task. I may think I’m procrastinating the first task, but I’m actually procrastinating the second. It helps to recognize when this is happening, because then I can consider what makes the second task scary to me, and find ways to mitigate that.

8. Triage = I put off a task because there’s always something more urgent clawing at my attention. It helps to group such tasks into categories (e.g. “tiny non-urgent things” or “home improvements”), then schedule a chunk of time to focus on a particular category. This frees me from wondering if there’s something else I ought to be doing instead.

I haven’t fully conquered procrastination – but when I do get anything done, it’s thanks to these strategies. I welcome more ideas!

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.