Getting Unstuck before a Due Date

Mindy has a paper due in her history class in just three days. She came to her coaching appointment very stressed: “I’m not really procrastinating, but I am not getting it done. I have to do some research, but I’ve been getting side-tracked by reading journal articles that aren’t quite to the point. Then my mind feels all jumbled … so when I try to write, I can’t think clearly or I get distracted constantly. Then I just stare at the paper. Can you help?”

I reminded Mindy that it’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to get overwhelmed and then have trouble moving forward. 

After using slow breathing to calm down, Mindy and I brainstormed a variety of strategies she could try using to help get her history paper done. Mindy picked four she wanted to use both to help herself get started and to minimize distractions while working on the paper:

1. Use a  to-do list app to externalize some “to do” items she was concerned about in order to free up space in her mind.

2. Use a “stoplight” concept to avoid excess time spent on tangential material when researching the paper. Here’s how she planned to do that: looking at a journal article, she would make a quick decision whether it is 

  • very relevant (green), 
  • interesting, but only worth reading the abstract now, and could be saved to read later (yellow), or 
  • not useful (red). 

3. Use pacing, music, walking, or just staring out window to jump-start her best thinking processes, allowing ideas to “bubble up” to the top rather then be forced out. But setting a timer so she doesn’t get lost in daydreaming. 

4. Consider each transition point as an opportunity to DECIDE how to spend the next block of time – either decide to work on the paper or project or decide to diverge (setting an alarm to limit the time spent “off task” if it helps) – so that she is in charge of her time use rather than blown about by its wild winds.

Here are a few other strategies that can be used to ease getting started (initiation): 
Use external structure, for example:
  • Schedule specific times to start specific tasks.
  • Develop routines around common tasks (e.g. every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 pm I do my lab reports).
  • Use alarms as reminders of planned start times.
  • Break a project into “chunks” if that eases the overwhelm associated with starting.
  • Tell yourself you will work on the project/paper for just 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes that short amount of focus is enough to kick-start the process and get you off and running. If not, try again in 1/2 hour.
Use external support, such as:
  • Ask someone to help you with accountability around task start times – to text you a reminder to start or contact you if they haven’t rec’d a text form you indicating you’ve started by a certain time.
  • When starting a paper or project, schedule a time with someone to “talk it out” first, to get your brain going.
  • Meet a friend in the library or coffee shop to “work” at the same time.  
  • Make an appointment to show your work to someone. For example. contact the writing center at school for an appointment. … Then show up (with work in hand)!
Use motivating rewards, which could be:

  • reading for pleasure
  • a movie when you are done
  • a Starbucks or other treat, or 
  • anything else (reasonable) you’d like to have or do.

Consider offering yourself rewards for any paper or project finished before midnight or any started by 7 pm (whatever makes sense to you).

(If writing papers is a particular challenge for you, note that specific strategies for the actual writing process will be offered in a subsequent post.)

To explore strategies that might work best for you to either avoid or manage overwhelm and getting stuck, consider coaching! 

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