Paralysis beats Procrastination as problem for ADD / ADHD Adults, according to "Getting Started Blues" Survey

We’re being labeled with the wrong stereotype!

If you ask anyone what they think the biggest problem ADD / ADHD Adults have, they’re likely to say “procrastination.”  This answer is likely to come from people with ADD themselves, as well as those who live or work with them.

Once I began coaching and training ADD Adults, I came to realize that people use the word “procrastinate” to describe any kind of not starting, without distinguishing whether they were avoiding starting because they didn’t WANT to, or whether they actually weren’t ABLE to. It’s long been my belief that the majority of  ADD / ADHD “procrastination” — especially in the workplace — was actually due to an individual feeling STUCK, mentally unable to begin.  Their brain was unable to figure out where to start, how to start, what to do, or was simply overwhelmed by how much there was to do. 

The results of my “Getting Started Blues” Survey indicated that I was right!

Results of “Getting Started Blues” Survey

The survey began by asking ADD / ADHD participants to distinguish between Procrastination, Distraction and Mental Paralysis in their difficulties getting started.   Each phrase was clarified for its specific meaning. Respondents were allowed to choose two out of three as their top challenges.

  • Mental Paralysis – paralyzed and unable to start - 62%
  • Procrastination – not starting due to boredom or lack of motivation – 44%
  • Distraction – tried to start but got distracted or interrupted – 38%

Mental Paralysis was picked almost 30% MORE than Procrastination as a top problem in getting started! In fact, once “Procrastination” was strictly defined as only pertaining to boredom and motivation-deficit, fewer than 50% of responders selected it as a major problem.

This was important to me, because it identified the direction and emphasis in my training program.

Ability vs Attitude

I think the main significance of these results is the implication they have regarding Attention Deficit Disorder, and the stereotypes society has about us. As long as we could be seen as primarily having a “procrastination” problem, it could be argued that ADD was simply an excuse for laziness, of lacking the discipline to get ourselves to do things that weren’t fun or interesting.

“Mental Paralysis” as the most-chosen response identifies an issue with the executive functioning of the brain as the primary difficulty. The exact nature of the difficulty varied by individual and was further defined in subsequent questions. But it removed the lack of getting started from the realms of “poor attitude” and “laziness” of which people with ADD / ADHD have long been accused.

What makes us the most stuck or paralyzed?

I broke down the possible reasons for paralysis into 8 primary answers. Not surprisingly, “Overwhelmwas the most-chosen reason people stayed stuck, at 68%. Other reasons having to do with brain functioning  on the “how to” front were:

  • Inability to prioritize – 38%
  • Don’t know where / how to start – 33%
  • Inability to plan out the project – 22%

Anxiety or emotion-related paralyzing factors arose from:

  • fear of the outcome – 25%
  • difficulty working with ambiguity when aspects of the project were unclear – 18%
  • shame creating avoidance – 15%

Disorganization played a significant role in keeping people from starting.  When people couldn’t start because they had to do another step first, for 47%, the first step was to find or organize what was needed.

Perfectionism was identified by some as contributing to fear of starting, or belief that no effort could be good enough.

Click here to see complete results on the “Getting Started Blues” Survey

Are you surprised by these results? Would you like training on how to break the impasse when you’re feeling paralyzed? It’s in the works! Your comments are welcome.

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Categories: Blog,Follow-Through,Overwhelmed and Stuck,Perfectionism,Procrastination,Productivity

Author: Bonnie Mincu

Senior Certified ADHD Coach, Founder of "Thrive with ADD," Bonnie has been coaching adults with ADD / ADHD traits since 2001. She has developed numerous training programs to help with the challenges of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

32 Responses to "Paralysis beats Procrastination as problem for ADD / ADHD Adults, according to "Getting Started Blues" Survey"

  1. Mark Posted on April 13, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Wow! This is me to a tee. This is an incredible distinction. Since my diagnosis, I’ve used the word procrastination to define my inability to start or finish tasks and projects, but it never really sounded correct. I have often sat and “thought” about a task for significant periods of time without actually “doing” anything. I wasn’t procrastinating. Paralyzed is a much better word.

    People without ADD simply do not understand what this is like. They can’t fathom that I can’t simply “will” myself to get something done.

    Thanks for the post Bonnie. I always learn something when I read your blog, usually about myself.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

      Mark: That’s exactly the problem I’ve found with discussion about procrastination. People feel guilty because they think they’re exhibiting weak character, when often they’re really unable to figure out how to start. It really is a matter of learning how to process by using simple mental tools and then everything falls into place. Paralysis challenges are actually easier to break through than procrastination issues, once you learn how!

      I’m looking forward to teaching how to break through all of it in my new program (to be announced really soon!)

  2. Sean Posted on April 13, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I am very impressed with the results of this survey, despite the fact that I didn’t even take it. I am re-assured by Bonnie’s suggestion because, at different times of my life I employed the coping skill she mentioned that helps with paralysis: organization of space (clearing the clutter) and ideas (creating a visual – flow charts etc.) . Still, I often got distracted during that first stage of organization and then I’m in trouble anyway.

    I totally agree with Bonnie and the results of her survey, and I’m going to try my best to employ the coping strategies that I have found – in addition to informing my ADD coach! But the results of this survey, and others before it, get me thinking about how worthwhile it would be for me to personally work with Bonnie.

    Thanks Bonnie and keep up the good work!

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Thanks Sean – I’d be happy to work with you!

      Good point you made about your paralysis, and how in the midst of attempting to organize, you get distracted. I like how you’ve spelled out the distinction. Our solutions are complex because we tend to suffer from procrastination, paralysis AND distraction. It’s so important to be able to tell which is happening in each instance, so you’ll know what solution to employ. Once you understand it, it’s like solving a puzzle!

  3. jan Posted on April 13, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Thanks Bonnie, great article. I’m paralyzed on a daily basis. I work in the evening so its the mornings I have trouble with. I get out of bed but end back up there because I have so many projects going I don’t know where to start. And for some strange reason I’m worried I won’t get the project done before work. Or worried I’ll be too tired for work. I feel like I’m on a merry go round that doesn’t stop and I’m too afraid to jump off.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Jan, your problem sounds so familiar to me … very similar to how I was when I first started my business and didn’t yet have any clients. It was so overwhelming to think of all the projects that could / should be done that I avoided my desk and stayed in bed. Your problem IS quite solvable, but there’s not one quick answer. To start, you could check out my “Rituals” class recording.

  4. kathleen Alexander Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:29 am

    One of my major problems that I am not sure is related to my ADD, is that I know once I do start, I hyper-focus and add that to my perfectionism and trying to figure out a system/organization and it turns into a grueling event. This applies to my jobs, buying something or housework: I start out thinking i will just, for example, wipe the spots on the wall and then, once I do start, I will turn it into a huge project. Then that exhausting event makes it harder to get started doing the next tasks. I just wish I could figure out a way to function evenly so that I don’t have to feel like once I do get started,I had better not stop for fear I won’t get the mental energy to start again. Also, even when I do start earlier so that I can even out the workload, my perfectionism (or something) kicks in and I end up using every bit of that extra time because either I hyper-focus longer or my brain won’t “kickstart” until near the deadline and then I again go into a panic hyper-focus right up to the deadline. This way of functioning makes it hard to sustain a job. As I get more overwhelmed from working this way, I feel I need to leave the job while they still see me as a high performer, and that has been my pattern my entire life; I don’t want to get “found out.”

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:47 am

      Kathleen, You sound like someone who tends to fall into hyper-focus for anything you start, even for things that aren’t very interesting. I’ve encountered a few ADDers like that. The more common experience is to only hyper-focus on things that interest us. You’re an example of how important it is for us with ADD to create individual solutions!

      I’d suggest you think about what you do in terms of much smaller steps, rather than a big project. That way you can break it into small work sessions. And use a timer to let you know when it’s getting close to the time to end that session. For example, if your “mini-project” is to wipe spots off the walls, define your work session as ONLY the kitchen walls. Once you’re done with the kitchen, move on to something else.

    • Rachel H Posted on April 15, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Wow, I think I can kind of relate. It’s like I have a main thing to do that is the most important to do for the night after I get out of work. I feel like I can’t start the main thing unless I do all the smaller things first because if I don’t do the smaller things that are not as important, then I am thinking about them when i am trying to do the main important thing. When I am doing all the small things in order to get them out of the way (so I can give my undivided attention to the main thing I need to do) I get either hyper-focused on the spots on the wall I’m cleaning because while I start cleaning the walls, I see the spots on the counter top, the floor, etc. So, I then have the urge to clean the new spots I see. If I don’t clean these new spots I see, and try to do the main important thing I need to get done for the night, the same problem happens of me not being able to focus on the main thing because the new spots on the floor are bugging me and it’s like I need to take care of them or else I’ll be distracted by the thought of them all night! This really is hard for me to deal with.

      The main thing that I have in my mind that I need to get done ends up getting neglected in my process to try and get everything little done so I in turn won’t be distracted by the little things when working on the main thing I need to get done. I end up working on /pretty much making it look ‘good enough’… the main project (that I had a week or more to work on at night), while riding in the car on the way to turn it in. This is bad. I can’t work like this. The small things sometimes that I need to get done (laying out my clothes for the next morning for work, making sure I have lunch made to take to work the next day) will cause a negative outcome if I don’t get them done that night. But these things take WAY too long and I end up not having much time for something that is more important to me to get done, but is due at the end of the week. How do I fix this problem? Oh also, if you haven’t noticed already, I have a problem with rambling as well.

      • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 16, 2012 at 11:37 am

        Rachel: I know exactly what you mean. I like to “clear the decks” of little things during the workday before tackling the bigger problems. That’s probably why I tend to get started on the more important work in the late afternoon. In your case, I’d suggest taking an old-fashioned dial kitchen timer with you and go directly to the small task; for example, choosing your clothes. Set the timer for a short amount of time, and play “Beat the Clock” on only that specific task. Then go immediately to the next small task and do it again. Decide that you MUST obey the timer.

        The other option is simply not letting yourself begin the small stuff until at least a portion of the more important project is done.

  5. Lynette Ranger Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I’m so glad to see the results of this survey! My major problem is the inability to get started due to overwhelm, inability to prioritize, and inability to decide how or where to start. But procrastination just didn’t adequately explain the problem. Now I know that I’m not alone. I look forward to getting help with these problems. Hope your training comes soon. I’ve got so much I need to get done! Thanks.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Now that you see the complexity of the problem, you understand why finding the solution wasn’t so easy!

  6. Juliana Posted on April 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I am reading this with tears in my eyes. I never felt that I was a procrastinator and have used the word paralysis to describe to others how I feel, and my inability to begin a task. Last night I sat for two hours preparing for an assignment which was due a week ago. I kept telling myself that I had to begin but could not. Once I finally begun, I kept working and smiling. A wave of relief comes with that one small step. Perhaps now I can get working on reimbursements….. insurance… taxes, all six years’ worth!

    Thank you Bonnie!

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Wow, that must have felt wonderful. It’s SO important to be able to immediately recognize the nature of the problem. Once you do, and you know what solutions will work for you, you’ll know what strategy to use. Good luck on those taxes! (And if you’ve read the results of February’s “ADHD and Taxes” Survey, you know you’re in good company!)

  7. Harold Woods Posted on April 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    This NAILS it right on the head. The feeling of being STUCK has been with me ALL MY LIFE. My procrastination has been due to almost all of the paralysis reasons that you outline. PARALYSIS is EXACTLY what I have experienced.

    I have great ideas for products and even children’s books but the lack of clarity and not know hot to get started or what the costs would be, or where to go for assistance have kept me from even attempting the start. WOW…PARALYSIS. Can’t wait for your training.

    • Harold Woods Posted on April 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm

      The feeling is like being a fly buzzing around a window. You can see what you want and where you want to go, but there’s an invisible barrier (the glass) that’s keeping you from advancing.

      • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

        Great analogy!

      • Chantal Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm

        Wow, I agree, it’s a great analogy, and that’s exactly how I feel.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      Harold: You’re just the kind of person I’m creating the training for.

  8. Judy Goyer Posted on April 13, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    I agree 1000% ! Paralyzed is a more apt description than procrastination.
    And I often am offended when someone, anyone really, says that I am a procrastinator i.e. the doctor, boss, spouse, family members, friends etc. Why am I offended? Because I am NOT choosing to be paralyzed, I just am. I am not avoiding doing things that I find extremely unpleasant or boring, I am just not able. The rare times that I have been able to do something unpleasant, say, the never-ending housework, I have no satisfaction in the end, just anger and a bad mood that doesn’t go away for hours! Forcing myself into the job feels like wearing an iron suit, heavy and unyielding. In the end, it is just NOT worth the effort.

  9. [...] Paralysis beats Procrastination as problem for ADD / ADHD Adults, according to “Getting Started Bl…. LikesTwitterStumbleUponDiggRedditLinkedInPinterestLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  10. Judi Posted on April 14, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    The results of your survey bring validation to my “overwhelming paralysis” that blocks the wonderful progress I would quickly show… and not be blamed from procrastination.
    Short of a stick of dynamite, your suggestions are the only encouragement to get me moving. Your blogs are great. I see I’m not alone.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 16, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Great Judi! I’d love you to share a success!

  11. Yo Posted on April 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    As a teacher, I have ongoing piles of marking and preparation needing attention on a daily/weekly basis. People often criticised me for procrastinating by saying that if I put my mind to it, I’d be able to do it. Everyone, they say, has to do boring things – why are you any different?
    I really identified with what people wrote in here – I feel STUCK so often! It’s the first step that’s the hardest, and once that’s passed, I can usually carry on happily, but getting to that point is sheer torture! I feel how Mark described it – I sit around for hours, doing nothing, and paralysed by my inability to just start! Even when I know I’ll handle the job fine once I’ve started, despite its boring, monotonous nature! That’s not procrastination or laziness!

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 16, 2012 at 11:42 am

      I hear this problem a lot with business people who must regularly submit expense reports. This monotonous work is the hardest for us, no matter how “easy” it may seem like it should be. I wonder if you’d find it easier to grade papers in a more stimulating place than home. Perhaps a cafe? (I realize that solution would be difficult if you live in a small town and are likely to have people you teach see you grading the papers there.)

  12. Doug Hartley Posted on April 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Absolutely Dead On!!
    I have never really thought of it in those exact terms but its a perfect description. My mind goes totally blank, like a white screen on the TV. Don’t know what it would take to actually put my mind in gear. Paralysis has been a major problem for about as long as I can remember, even back to kindergarten.

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on April 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm

      Doug, that “white screen” quite the colorful description! Next step, to determine what it will take to put your mind in gear. I’m actually working up a cool tool for that — at Starbucks, of course!

  13. Why Can’t I Get Off My Lazy Ass? Posted on April 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    [...] According to her Getting Started Blues survey here.  [...]

  14. Chantal Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    I’m paralyzed for everything that doesn’t have a deadline. Only a deadline will get me out of this paralyzed state. I will do the task at the last minute, it will be pure torture, but I will not miss a deadline…that’s probably why I still have a job, that’s what saves me. I may do a lot of paper shuffling, but the job will get done somehow, don’t ask me how, but I’ll be able to snap out of my paralyzed state to meet the deadline. I just wish there was a deadline for personnal projects I’d like to start…and also for cleaning my house… actually there is, when someones calls and say they will stop by… my house will be spotless by the time they get here, even if I have to stay up all night. That’s why I hate people who drop by unannounced, my perfectionnist side can’t stand others seeing how unclean my house can be, not because I like it that way, but because I can’t get started. It’s all in my head what I have to do, but my body just won’t follow, I’m stuck, I just can’t get started

    • Bonnie Mincu Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Chantal, you say it so very well, what’s on the minds of so many of us! And I certainly can relate to your comments about deadlines… especially when it comes to housekeeping! Rituals will be a big part of the solution.

    • Julie L Posted on June 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm

      Chantal has just taken the words and thoughts right out of my mind/mouth. Seriously DEAD ON! I am so glad I found this blog. I hope I can learn something that will help me. I was just diagnosed with ADHD this year. It has been quite eye opening. The word “procrastination” always felt like an excuse to me because although I sat at my desk all day thinking about it, I was never active in starting the task. I’d tell myself ‘tomorrow you’ll attack it first thing’ but then it turns into a week then two and I start to worry and panic that I’m going to lose my job once someone learns I’m not getting these tasks done. If it weren’t for the deadlines I’d probably be unemployed.

      • Bonnie Mincu Posted on June 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm

        Julie: You just missed my 4-week class on Procrastination Transformation, separating out solutions for all those reasons we don’t get started that just LOOK like procrastination! If you’re subscribed to the blog you’ll find out about the training coming up.

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