Procrastination is Brilliant*

“I’ve honed procrastination to a fine art.”

Sienna was an honors student in the top 10% of her high school class. She lettered in field hockey, sang in the choir, led the debate team and ran  a small graduationjewelry craft business. She had considered her study habits to be entirely college-ready, simply because they resulted in such good grades.

The same habits weren’t working out so well for her in college. After two semesters at a state college, she was in danger of academic probation. Her grades had progressively declined, she was anxious, experiencing palpitations and couldn’t concentrate. I asked her to tell me about her study habits. She took a deep breath and summarized:

“I’ve honed procrastination to a fine art.”

In truth, that is exactly what she had done. She finished literally everything in her life just as it was due.  Fortunately, she was brilliant and did remarkable work in very short time. She wrote term papers in a single night–not her best work, but not bad, either.  In high school, they were given A’s. In college, they earned B’s for a while, then C’s and D’s as she lost her self-confidence.

When she realized that she couldn’t pull rabbits out of the hat at the last minute anymore, she tried to plan her studies more rationally. Her roommate helped her prepare a study schedule, and she followed it diligently, but nothing improved.

There was a giant problem with the study plan. Sienna couldn’t study except for the last minute.  She tried like crazy to do what worked for others, but it didn’t work for her. She could go to the library, find a quiet carrel, open her books and sweep her eyes across the page, but she wasn’t engaged.  She tried taking notes, drawing diagrams, making up quizzes, but nothing worked. Not until the night before a test or paper could she actually pay attention to the work.

Sienna knows now what she didn’t know back then. She has Attention Deficit Disorder. But that doesn’t mean she has a deficit of attention. She had plenty of attention, but couldn’t manage it. It seemed to have a mind of its own unless she was in about-to-fail, panic mode, in which case she could laser-focus at 110% throttle for hours.

For Sienna, procrastination was the only way she had found to complete most tasks. She didn’t procrastinate as a way of avoiding work. It was literally the method by which she was able to accomplish so much in high school. She was willing to accept the constant anxiety of a steady stream of urgent tasks as the cost of high productivity.

Anxiety is psychic pain, yet she was cultivating it. She didn’t have cognitive options to do her work. She couldn’t do it for prudence or timeliness, but last-minute panic mode worked every time.

Unfortunately, life gets progressively more complex. Most college students procrastinate and use last-minute bursts of energy to get big projects done, too, Procrastination Flowchartbut that’s not their only trick.  Successful students don’t start projects at the last minute. Sienna was a “one-trick pony” and couldn’t do well at college with only one way of both starting and completing her work.

What had worked brilliantly through high school was not sufficient in college, and she has chosen to do things differently now. Sienna’s treatment has included medication to give her access to her cognitive brain along with a persistent effort to learn new methods of task execution driven by cognitive motivators. She is building a bigger toolset of cognitive function in the same diligent way that she built her emotional toolset, and she is consciously working on blending the two. She is procrastinating less, and getting more done. And she is happy.

But, I want to acknowledge Sienna for an amazing, 19-year streak of accomplishment, fueled by anxiety and shame-avoidance that she nurtured and sculpted in a masterful way. Until her life got too complex, she accepted remarkable personal pain in the service of high productivity. People who do well with normal capabilities deserve recognition, but people like Sienna who excel with limited capabilities are life’s better heroes.

*Procrastination is brilliant, if you have no other option to motivate yourself to meet deadlines.

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

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Posted in ADD, ADHD
6 comments on “Procrastination is Brilliant*
  1. Rhonda Hester says:

    Yep, you must have met my Tressa…
    Great article. Keep them coming (even at the last moment….) 🙂 Rhonda


  2. Reblogged this on ADDadultstrategies and commented:
    procrastination, but there’s better ways. i sailed through high school, then hit the brick wall in college

    Liked by 1 person

  3. reblogged.
    i sailed thru high school, hit the brick wall in college.


  4. and still goof up often, like commenting twice!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Doug, I could have deleted your mistakes, but a) didn’t think of it before reflexively hitting ‘Approve’ and b) think your transparency is what makes you great.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Procrastination is similar.  For “normal” folk it can reflect laziness and task avoidance, but for people with ADHD it’s a painful trade-off to get things done. Cultivate anxiety–one of the forms of psychic pain–and tasks will become urgent and compelling at the deadline.  They will get done. (See Procrastination is Brilliant*) […]


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Oren Mason MD
Oren Mason MD

Oren Mason MD

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

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