“I do my best work at the last minute,” said Tom, a new patient undergoing testing for ADHD.
“You do everything at the last minute,” cut in his wife, Jenny. She was sitting beside him trying to understand why so many normal events in their life involved a panicked rush.
“Does procrastination help you get things done?” I asked Tom. The question must have hit a nerve for Jenny, because the look she fired at me was simultaneously incredulous and murderous. “Procrastination, by definition, means NOT getting things done.” she replied with angry articulation.
“Let me tell you the swing set story,” continued Jenny. “Tom thought the kids should have a swing set, and that we could afford a nicer one if he did the assembly himself. He seemed so excited about it, that I agreed. For months, the delivery crate sat in the back yard.
“Finally, I was so disgusted, I screamed at him. Our son’s birthday party was the next day. Ten energetic boys were going to be in our back yard with nothing to play on but a crate. Tom finished assembling the swing set at 3 am. It’s a great swing set, and I’m happy the kids have it, but it’s such a painful memory, I can hardly stand to look at it.
“It’s not that he doesn’t do stuff,” concluded Jenny, “but that the process he drags us through takes all the enjoyment out of whatever he finally finishes.”
Tom’s pattern of last-second task completion was much older than his marriage. In grade school, his homework was down-to-the-wire. In high school, he wrote term papers in the hours before they were due. In college, cramming for finals was the closest he came to actual studying.
I pushed harder. “So, Tom, does procrastination help you get things done? Because it seem to be the only way you get things done.”
Jenny was still puzzled, but Tom was thinking and slowly started nodding. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s how I get stuff done.”
People with ADHD can do the things that are emotionally engaging. We do what we enjoy without problem. But when people plead with us and say, “This is important,” or “sensible,” or “timely,” they are appealing to learned cognitive values that are processed in parts of the brain that don’t work very well in people with ADHD.
Procrastination is the art of leveraging the urgency of impending deadlines to accomplish work. Last-minute panic lends motivational force to otherwise mundane tasks. Fear of failure makes the task compelling.
Tom had wished for something compelling to propel him to assemble the swing set, but, for six months, nothing happened along. Fear of disappointing his son on his birthday was the first and only opportunity he had to find motivation, so he seized it, even at the expense of half the night’s sleep.
“Do you have any other ways to motivate yourself to do important tasks?” I asked Tom.
He thought long and hard. “No,” he finally concluded. “If I’m not interested and nobody gives me a deadline, I don’t have other options. Procrastination isn’t just a productivity tool. If the task isn’t interesting, it’s the only tool I’ve got.”
(Next up: Procrastination is Brilliant*)
For the record, I began writing this post in the same minute that I decided on this topic. It was the right thing to do. Just want you to know that it didn’t sit on a back burner for several weeks. OM