Productivity procrastination, coined by researcher and psychologist Piers Steel, is the act of doing something productive while avoiding something else. We’ve all been there: you really need to do your taxes, but you’d rather clean the bathroom. Your quarterly report is due at work, but instead you choose to reorganize your closet. Have to choose a new insurance plan? How about repotting all your houseplants instead?
Productivity procrastination (sometimes referred to as procrastivity) is often thought of as positive – if you’re going to procrastinate, may as well do something productive and useful, right? Well… not necessarily. In the short term, it can feel really good. In the long term, however, it can increase feelings of anxiety and make you procrastinate even more. Learning what causes productive procrastination and why it might not actually be helping you can shed light on how to stop.
One of the biggest reasons behind productivity procrastination for people with ADHD and anxiety is feeling overwhelmed by a project or task. Take doing your taxes, for example. There are a lot of reasons to be overwhelmed by doing taxes: first, you need all the forms from your place(s) of work. You also need records of important statements and purchases. Then, you need to pay an online company or an accountant to help you file. Then you need to actually sit down and answer a bunch of potentially confusing questions. If you mess up in this process, you can be fined, or worse. The whole thing can be very stressful and requires taking a lot of steps – something that feels overwhelming for people with ADHD. So in order to avoid the discomfort of overwhelm, it’s easy to keep pushing off the task of doing taxes… which ends up compounding the stress.
Another reason people tend to procrastinate is because they’re perfectionists. Perfectionist procrastinators are terrified of failure but have impossibly standards for themselves. Deep down, they know their standards are exhausting to try to reach, so they procrastinate to avoid the discomfort of not being good enough.
Either way, productive procrastination stems from avoidance. In order to avoid discomfort in the form of overwhelm or failure, you do something else: something that’s much less likely to be overwhelming or scary. You still want to feel like you’re doing something, so you do other tasks that don’t require the same level of time, attention, or focus.
Unfortunately, avoidance almost always leads to even more anxiety, because you’re teaching your brain you can’t handle the thing you’re avoiding. The next time you go to do that thing, your brain will have learned to be afraid of it, causing a flow of stress hormones and, you guessed it, more avoidant behaviors. This cycle is extremely common among people with anxiety and ADHD.
Procrastivity is particularly common among ADHDers. If you have ADHD, your dopamine deficiency drives you to put off things that are hard or boring in favor of things you can put on autopilot. Achieving or accomplishing simple but satisfying activities, such as laundry or cleaning the kitchen, provides the brain with a hit of dopamine – something ADHDers are constantly seeking out. So productive procrastination can be even more enticing for neurodivergent brains than the type of procrastination where you just sit and twiddle your thumbs.
Trading cognitive effort for ease is affirming in the short term. After all, you’re still getting things done that need to get done eventually anyway. However, in the long term, productivity procrastination can increase anxiety and reinforce the cycle of procrastination.
The thing you actually need to get done weighs on you heavily when you procrastinate. When you wait until the last minute to do something, it feels urgent and stressful – which can give you the boost of motivation you need, but also leave you exhausted and burned out. Plus, when you procrastinate as a perfectionist, you reinforce the idea that you have to be perfect in order to be worthwhile. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and so the cycle continues.
Maybe the lesson is to just outsource your taxes to a Certified Public Accountant. But if you’re like most of us, chances are you procrastinate on much more than just once-a-year taxes. So what can you do about productive procrastination? Here are three tips.
People with anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism tend to believe they need to be in the exact right mood to do something in order to get it done. They need to have the right amount of energy, the right type of snacks, and a perfectly curated environment in order for them to do a difficult task.
The truth is, you often won’t be in “the right mood” to do a thing – and you can do that thing anyway. You don’t always need everything around you to be perfect in order to get something done. (Okay, but maybe make sure you have the right type of snacks.)
Simply getting started on a task you’re avoiding does more to decrease anxiety than all the productive procrastination in the world. When you practice getting started on a thing no matter how you feel about it, you reinforce the idea that you’re capable and can handle hard things. Over time, procrastination as a coping mechanism becomes less necessary in your life because the underlying avoidance starts to dissipate.
Getting started is easier said than done, as anyone with ADHD can attest. I know I just said you don’t always need your environment to be perfect in order to stop procrastinating – and you don’t – but some things can really help you get a jump on an otherwise dreaded task.
One way to help yourself get started is to set a timer and commit to doing a small amount of work toward your goal. The key is to break up tasks into short, manageable chunks that don’t feel overwhelming. So if you can only handle 10 minutes of an activity without becoming super stressed out, then set your timer for 10 minutes and let that be enough. You may discover you get into it and that it feels good to keep going. If so, great. If not, that’s okay – 10 minutes is infinitely better than no minutes.
No two people are the same when it comes to overcoming productivity procrastination. Timers are a great strategy for some people, but you may need a different tool. Try time management apps on your phone, or find a coworking group or a body double to help you work toward important tasks. Think about which nervous system regulation tools might be helpful. (Think hot cups of tea, white noise, noise-canceling headphones, or your softest sweatshirt.) You can also set up a reward system for yourself for finishing chunks of an important task, such as going for a walk or talking to a friend.
If you’d like additional support, I offer online anxiety therapy and ADHD therapy for millennials. I use different therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help you find sustainable strategies and techniques to not only manage but prevent and overcome your biggest productive procrastination challenges.
I’m here to help you challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, change old habits, and give you support and guidance around feeling good enough in your professional and personal life. If you want help overcoming the belief that you have to constantly achieve in order to be worthwhile – and this belief is making you suffer – I’m here to help.
I also offer a coaching program for perfectionists that is designed to give you support and guidance around feeling good enough in your professional and personal life – no matter where you live. If you want help overcoming the belief that you have to constantly achieve in order to be worthwhile – and this belief is making you suffer – coaching is for you.
Reach out today to get started and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.