Stop Procrastinating

How to Set Intentions to Crush Procrastination

How can you break the procrastination habit? Try setting intentions by using statements like “If/when I have finished X, then I will do Y.” Learn how to craft effective statements, create structure, and mitigate the emotional overwhelm of procrastination.

Contrary to rampant misperceptions, procrastination is not a time-management problem. Procrastination is an emotion-management problem. Procrastinators use avoidance to cope with negative feelings around a task — and about themselves.

In a way, we can think of procrastination as that petulant 6-year-old, alive and well in all of us, whose catchphrase is, “I don’t wanna!” Daily planners, timers, and similar tools, although necessary, are not sufficient to address the underlying emotional issues behind needless stalling and delaying.

Setting intentions that specify where and when we’re going to do a task (also known as implementation intentions) is one overlooked but effective strategy to decrease procrastination. Concrete intentions help mitigate frustration and overwhelm around an undesirable task, and they carve out a clearer path forward.

How to Set Intentions for ADHD Brains

To reduce procrastination, build your intentions around conditional statements like, “If/when I am in situation X, then I will do Y.” Putting the cue for action into the environment like this (in situation X) is very helpful for getting outside of our habits and even establishing new habits. Research has shown that these implementation intentions are most effective when we consider the following elements:

  • Time: Too often, we banish undesirable tasks to “some time tomorrow,” “over the weekend,” or “soon.” Vague, poorly defined time frames relieve us of accountability – we feel no pressure to live up to the plan. We can think of these as anemic intentions. They lack strength or motivational force. Instead, specify a time and place when you intend to act – something like “this Saturday morning at 10 a.m.” – to tackle the task.

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  • Environmental cue: Research shows that specifying a cue for an action (the “X” in the statement above) increases follow-through1. Think: “This Saturday morning, when I have finished my coffee (the cue), I will do Y.” Another benefit of an environmental cue is that it frees up working memory, a known deficit in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If the cue is an event that will undoubtedly occur, you don’t have to work so hard to remember it.
  • Action: Avoid broad, abstract actions like, “I am going to finish the project.” Instead, state specific actions like, “I will read the next five pages.” Concreteness is an important aspect of effective intentions. Vague actions often add confusion and increase feelings of overwhelm around a task. It’s also difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment, or to hold ourselves accountable, for vaguely defined actions. In addition, a concrete action, no matter how small, brings the task to the present and adds a sense of urgency to it, making it more likely that you’ll act on it today. Even a little bit of progress on a goal is enough to feed motivation and make us feel good. Clearly delineated actions also give you the license to stop – if you don’t feel like doing more, you don’t have to.

The Hard Truth of Procrastination

Just because we set intentions, complete with specific cues and concrete actions, that doesn’t mean that we’ll always feel up to the task. The 6-year-old inside all of us fights hard to avoid frustration, so we have to expect to feel this resistance and act whether or not that 6-year-old feels like it. We don’t have to “be in the mood” or “to feel like it” to take action. As one person wrote to me: “For a chronic procrastinator, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. But I’ve found that the more I embrace this hard fact of life and put it into practice, the less I allow my anxiety, frustration, and craving for immediate mood fixes to dictate my actions in the moment.”

How to Set Intentions: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Stop Procrastinating and Get Things Done” with Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., which was broadcast on November 12, 2014.

View Article Sources

1Gollwitzer, P. M. (1993). Goal achievement: The role of intentions. In W. Stroebe & M.
Hewstone (Eds.), European Review of Social Psychology, 4, 141–185.

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