The Procrastination-Anxiety Loop

This week's question comes from a listener: how do you navigate the procrastination-anxiety loop that emerges when hyperfocus and disinterest collide head on? This week on the show, Nikki shares background on the conditions that allow this sort of hyperfocus and procrastination to occur, and tools to shape a response before it happens again.

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The idea that individual ADHD symptoms exacerbate one another isn’t new to those of us living with the diagnosis. But what happens when symptoms collude to create cycles of behavior and responses? The results can be vastly more damaging than any individual symptom on its own.

That’s the question that comes from a listener today: how do you navigate the procrastination-anxiety loop that emerges when hyperfocus and disinterest collide head on? This week on the show, Nikki shares background on the conditions that allow this sort of hyperfocus and procrastination to occur, and tools to shape a response before it happens again.

Links & Notes

Episode Transcript

Brought to you by The ADHD Podcast Community on Patreon

Pete: Hello everybody, and welcome to “Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast” on trustory.fm. I’m Pete Wright and right over there is Nikki Kinzer.

Nikki: Hello, drinking my coffee. Hi.

Pete: I tried to stall.

Nikki: I know you saw that, didn’t you? And then my eyes got really big, like, oh no. Hello.

Pete: Hi. It is very good to talk to you this fine Monday morning. And as we record this, we’ve got a good conversation, another inspired by a Patreon member kind of conversation that is coming up for today. We’ve been talking about it the last couple of weeks, kind of getting my head in it. What is it that we are gonna be…?

Nikki: Talking about today?

Paul: Yeah, how do we wrap our heads around the procrastination-anxiety loop, and yeah?

Nikki: You know how Saturn has a bunch of rings?

Pete: Yeah, right.

Nikki: It’s how I feel. When I first read this, there’s so many layers to it and so that’s the hard part when somebody asks us a question, I think they’re expecting like some really solid concrete answer and there just isn’t one. And so…

Pete: Not, yeah, often in this field in particular. So we’re gonna talk all about that, the procrastination-anxiety loop, in just a moment. But before we do that, head over to takecontroladhd.com and get to know us a little bit better. You can listen to the show right there on the website or subscribe to the mailing list and we’ll send you an email each time a new episode is released each week. You can connect with us on Twitter or Facebook @takedontroladhd. And you know, if this show has ever touched you, if you’ve ever made any changes to your life as a result of something you have learned here on the ADHD podcast or through Nikki and her writing on the blog or through one of the many worksheets that she has offered over the years as a tool to help you with your ADHD, we encourage you to consider visiting Patreon.com/theadhdpodcast and supporting us there.

You get access to our, what I have come to call the crown jewel of the ADHD podcast community, our discord server, an online community of fantastic people who live with ADHD and help one another through their most trying things, and also share great playlists, who are we kidding? And, you know, you get access to monthly workshops that Nikki and I put together, video workshops that we put together and offer for members along with new members-only worksheets every single month. So we appreciate you considering that. Again, make smart financial decisions, but if you want to support what we do and support us being able to make more time to do it, we sure appreciate you throwing us some duckets there, Patreon.com/theadhdpodcast. Inspired by a Patreon member, I have an email post to read. Nikki Kinzer, shall I begin?

Nikki: Go for it.

Pete: "I have something I’d like to ask you guys to talk about, which has been absolutely devastating to my entire life. It is a never-ending loop created by procrastination, anxiety, and then perpetuated by hyper-focus. Essentially, when something becomes overwhelming, complex, mundane, tedious, or boring, then I procrastinate and become anxious about it. I naturally do not like being uncomfortable in this way so my brain automatically switches to something more interesting and hyper-focuses on it, until usually two weeks or so, that task or project also becomes tedious, mundane, boring, or overwhelming, then comes procrastination, anxiety, then hyper-focused on something else, and so goes the merry go round. Usually, two weeks per task or project and usually for about two or three months of autopilot and unproductivity.

At the end of the loop, I kind of get a clear view of my past few months and become severely depressed until I get hyper-focused on something else. I’m often completely blissed and unaware that I’m in this loop at all until I’m out of the loop, which has proven difficult for me to identify and treat. Any thoughts you guys can bounce around during your show? This loop has utterly destroyed major points in my life. I’ve been fired from three jobs and I’ve had run-ins with it in every job I’ve ever had, even in the strict structure of the U.S. Navy. It’s become debilitating in every aspect of my life and I don’t know what to do to stop the loop and fix my life. Thanks." And our contributor here ends with an emoji smiley face. So after a dark topic to end with an emoji smiley face. I should say an emoticon. It’s old school, emoticon. I am proud of this person for being able to share in good spirits. This is a tough one.

Nikki: It is a tough one.

Pete: It’s a tough one.

Nikki: And as I was saying, there’s a lot of layers to this conversation in many directions that we can go. And one of the things that I do really appreciate is the question and any thoughts you guys can bounce around during your show. He’s not necessarily asking us to give him, you know, “Here’s the five strategies that are gonna make your procrastination loop better.”

Pete: Right. But boy, are you lucky, I have an answer.

Nikki: Yeah. So I think that, you know, where I wanna go with this is really understanding why this is happening. And it’s ADHD, there’s so many aspects of ADHD running in this email that we have to start really breaking that down. And so I took some time for this show and I really did a little bit more research than I normally do just because I really wanted to kind of figure out how to break this down the best for our listeners. And so I did find some articles that we will link to the show notes that I’m referencing to so people can get even additional information from what we talk about.

But one of the articles, this is what they had to say, “Individuals with ADHD experience life more intensely the neurotypicals. The ADHD nervous system wants to be engaged in something interesting and challenging. Attention is never deficit. It’s always excessive, constantly occupied with internal engagements.” So what’s happening is he’s paying attention to what he wants to pay attention to, what is engaging his brain, right? So that is definitely part of the ADHD. And in case of this reader, he’s shifting his focus from something that is overwhelming or boring to him. So he already has sort of a reason or, you know, he’s already identified why he’s avoiding this and then now he’s going into something engaging.

Pete: And what is missing, it’s not the lack of awareness that this is happening, it’s the ability to control the stage and gate through which you have to pass to be able to tune your attention elsewhere.

Nikki: Right. Then what’s happening as he’s talking about hyper-focus, which is another layer of ADHD that we have to look at, right? Now, not everybody will avoid something and then go into hyper-focus mode on the new thing. However, it may not be hyper-focused, but they’re still focusing on something else, right? They’re still getting away from what they need to do or what they don’t want to do. Hyper-focus is an intense concentration on a single interest or project for an extended period of time. So hyper-focus is, you know, really getting into your own world. Everything else is blocked and you can’t focus on anything else because this is what you’re interested in. ADHD time, we’ve talked a lot about what ADHD time is, this comes into play with hyper-focus. Time goes by really fast. You don’t even notice it. All of a sudden, it’s 5:00 in the afternoon and I haven’t eaten anything all day long.

Pete: Yeah. Well, I just wanna throw in here that, you know, that word that is missing often when we talk about hyper-focus is that undirected intense concentration. Like you don’t get to determine what it is that you’re focusing on. And this is the misnomer, I’ve been stewing on this all morning with some posts in the community about, you know, ADHD as a superpower. This is where that comes from. Oh, hyper-focus, you’re so lucky you have ADHD, you can focus on anything you want for a really long time. Well, that’s the misnomer. When you experience hyper-focus, the outside world is blocked and you don’t have control, immediate awareness control over that experience.

Nikki: It’s not intentional.

Pete: Not intentional, right.

Nikki: Yeah. Yeah, where you’re conscious of everything. So I wanna talk a little bit about what causes hyper-focus so people can understand that layer of it. Hyper-focus is thought to be a result from low levels of dopamine. And we know that dopamine is that neurotransmitter that is active in our brain’s frontal lobe. So it’s the dopamine that makes us happy, right? When we go exercise, we increase our levels of dopamine and we are happy, we’re in a good mood. So when you’re hyper-focusing on something that you enjoy, something that you find fascinating, you are getting that dopamine hit is basically what’s happening.

So the dopamine deficiency makes it really hard to take up boring tasks because you’re not getting any hit of fun with those boring tasks. So it’s kind of, you know, it’s important to understand what’s happening here. And the brains of people with ADHD are gonna be drawn to activities that give you instant feedback. So even though you may know that you should get your taxes done because you’re gonna get money back, that’s not very instant, right? You’re not gonna like get the money today. So there isn’t really a huge drive to go and do that because it’s not instant. It’s something that’s you’re gonna have to be patient and wait.

Pete: Something that’s coming more clear to me now in the context of this conversation and our conversation last week with Brett Terpstra, one of the things that he said that makes up a great day for him…and I can’t remember if this was in the show or in the after show. He said, “Any day I ship something is a great day.” Well, here’s how that plays in for me. Like I feel like this is why I am a podcaster because writing for the web and producing podcasts and coding, like these are all things that give me that bit of dopamine satisfaction every day. Like they’re things that I can ship all the time. And I’ve been thinking about that language like what am I shipping today? What can I check off the list? What can I actually deliver into the world? Because that gives me that dopamine hit and I am productive at the same time and it is useful, right? And it’s taken a long time to figure out a match between what I do as a career and what satisfies the internal ADHD clock.

Nikki: What you’re shipping. I like that. It’s great. Okay. So here’s another article that I was reading and the view of Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical School. It says that such intense concentration is actually a coping mechanism. So we know hyper-focus can be beneficial in some areas as you’ve kind of hit…you know, I mean, it depends on how you look at it, but it is a liability. It definitely can be a liability from what you were saying before, right, because the whole world is getting shut down. So in case of what the listener is saying to us, that’s what it sounding to me is that is becoming a liability for him. So during this time when he’s in this loop, you know, he’s procrastinating, he’s hyper-focusing, but he also talks about this great deal of anxiety that’s then going into this really deep depression. So we also have to look at that layer of what’s going on in his story here. Studies find that 80% of people with ADHD will have at least one other psychiatric disorder in their lifetime. So ADHD without one of these coexisting conditions is the exception rather than norm. So if you have ADHD and you don’t experience depression or anxiety, you are an exception.

Pete: Here’s an interesting thing, and I don’t have an answer to this. I wonder if you’ve ever heard. I wonder if ADHD without one of these coexisting conditions is undiagnosed ADHD.

Nikki: Well, that’s where it gets tricky because a lot of women get misdiagnosed because they miss the ADHD and they get diagnosed first with depression and anxiety and then they don’t get treated for the ADHD. So a lot of times it’s backwards for women. I don’t know about men.

Pete: Well, but that’s a different thing than what I’m asking. What I’m asking is like if you have ADHD and you don’t have the things that make you feel bad about it or go into a spiral about it, then are you even asking the questions whether you have ADHD?

Nikki: Like do you really have ADHD? Is that what you mean?

Pete: No. I mean, you might be living with ADHD and not care about it because it doesn’t make you feel bad. I think that’s interesting. If you don’t have anybody poking at you and saying, “Hey, you know, why are you dropping the ball? Why do you keep missing my meetings? You know, why are you showing up and not paying attention?” And those things, like if you aren’t relating to those things in a way that causes a negative anxiety response or a depressive anxiety response, then you know, is that maybe you don’t even ask the question, do I live with ADHD? Because you don’t feel bad about it. I don’t know, speculating here, but I wonder because I know some very charming and kind of daffy people who, you know, because of my life with ADHD and my experience in researching it, I can look at them and say, “I know you have ADHD,” and they’re just fine. They’re fine. They don’t get into the spiral. They procrastinate but don’t feel the negative impact of it in their life. They’re fluid with their successes and their losses and they just don’t exist with ADHD the same way I do. And I believe it’s because they don’t live with that anxiety and the depressive response.

Nikki: Yeah, it’s the exception, for sure. I know somebody in my life that I could say that. It’s a family member, distant family member. But you know, if you were to look at the behaviors and some of the things that sets up his life, you would definitely say, “Oh, he’s got to have ADHD.” But he is one of the most fun-loving, easy-going people I’ve ever met. And that’s just how he lives his life is spontaneously. And his family has just sort of accepted it and it’s like, I don’t know, I mean, he could fit into that bucket. Most of my clients, in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a client that has come to me and said that they didn’t have these other things.

Pete: Because I don’t think…I think you just said it, the word that just totally…I remember this in college, you find that person who’s just great at parties and they jump around and they do all kinds of different things, they’re spontaneous. That’s what they call those people. “Oh, they’re so spontaneous. They just go where it goes.” That’s undiagnosed ADHD without a commingled condition of anxiety or depression, right? Like, of course, I know that now.

Nikki: Yeah. Yeah. It’s so true. So true. All right, so I do wanna talk about this depression and anxiety because we do know that most of it, a lot of people do fit into the other bucket, right? So I’m not sure if this listener has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety. So I don’t wanna make that assumption. But it is important for us to highlight that there are three different diagnoses here that could be happening, that are coexisting. That’s the ADHD, that’s the anxiety, and that’s the depression. If you just treat the depression, the anxiety and ADHD is gonna be there still. If you just treat the anxiety, the depression and ADHD is probably still gonna make the anxiety go up, it’s probably not going to be treated. And you know, the ADHD has to be treated in itself too.

So if you have not been diagnosed with these coexisting conditions but you feel like you are suffering from anxiety and depression, please go see your doctor and get evaluated and get the right diagnosis so you can get the right treatment. They all affect each other. They’re all intertwined, right? So when someone struggles with two or more conditions, the symptoms of each disorder are gonna be more intense. So that’s why it’s really important that we ask for help and get that support. Don’t just think, “Oh, I’m depressed.” Get help if you really feel like you’re in this, like, hole that’s just stuck and dark.

Okay. Another part that I do wanna talk about that was in this article, but also something that the listener mentions. So in the article it says, “Individuals with ADHD have little self-awareness. While they can often read other people well, it’s hard for the average person with ADHD to know from moment to moment how they themselves are doing,” which explains why the listener doesn’t notice this is happening until after it’s already happened. The spiral has already come and gone and now he’s sitting back and saying, “Oh, that’s what I did.”

So this is interesting to me because there’s self-awareness in some parts, right? I mean we know that we’re procrastinating on something. We understand that we want to do something more fun, but at the same time when we’re getting into the spiral, we’re really not aware of it until after it happens. And so it’s just something I don’t have an answer for, but I just think it’s important for people to understand that that self-awareness is lacking with ADHD. So it’s not your fault for not necessarily picking up on it sooner.

Pete: That’s interesting. And I’ve been thinking about that with regard to, you know, the workshops we’re working at coming up that there is this experience of…and you know, I don’t mean to counter the research, but the experience of anxiety and depression that comes from me does not happen when I’m not aware, when I don’t have the self-awareness that I’m doing something that’s in like a procrastinating state. It is when I am aware and yet feel completely helpless to change gears. That’s the part that’s problematic for me.

That’s where ADHD becomes the curse because I know I’m doing something that’s not good for my own self-interest. I know I have other things that are more important that I should be doing. I don’t know how to stop doing what I’m doing right now until I’m finished with it in order to change gears without completely breaking me. Like the chain comes off the gears and I don’t know how to move forward anymore. I have to keep going in order to clear my head from this. And I think that’s partially…I mean that’s part of an OCD response that I think I live with as a part of this too. That there is…but I’m undiagnosed there so I don’t know what that would look like but…

Nikki: And this self-awareness, this piece that I brought up, it’s not in any particular order, right? So I think what you’re saying completely makes sense and I just wanna be clear that it’s not like the self-awareness piece has to be in some order, you know, for us.

Pete: No, of course. Of course. I just mean like where does the pain come in when I think about self-awareness? The pain comes in when I am self-aware and can’t control my choices as it relates to my ADHD. Because when I’m not self-aware, I am in bliss. I’m spontaneous.

Nikki: Yeah, and it doesn’t matter. Exactly. You don’t…yeah, exactly. So it’s something that…going back into the awareness piece, right? Because we know the research says, you know, if we’re not aware of what we’re doing, then we can’t do anything different. And so it is important that we connect the dots and figure out, okay, what’s going on, what’s happening, and what do I want different? What do I want the story to look like that’s different than the story that I have now? And, you know, awareness and intention are some of my favorite words, right? Because it really does start to make you kind of look at this and break it down. And that’s, I guess, where I get to the part of what do you do next?

And I think it is looking at this situation and really taking each layer one by one, you can’t just change it all. It’s not all of a sudden just gonna be different. So you know, maybe you start at the very beginning, what is the project that you’re avoiding? And, you know, maybe this will give you some awareness that when it’s coming up again, you can be more prepared or you can at least be thinking about how am I gonna handle it this time?

Pete: I think that is a number one step. But for me, when I think about this, the experience here, is to figure out how you can build the systems that allow you to engage in this and, in fact, to break down the activities of these projects, again, to their molecular, smaller components when you’re not in the middle of the project, right? When you’re doing something else that normally, you know this type of project you would procrastinate on. But when you’re not working on that project, how can you make it easier for yourself to start to keep working, to ship something every day, you know, to be able to be reactive when you’re not already feeling late? Because I imagine when your most enthusiastic to work on fixing this problem of the procrastination-anxiety loop is when you’re feeling procrastination-anxiety. And that’s not the best time to start being prescriptive about…you know, that’s when you have to actually get to work.

Nikki: Right. And so yeah, I think of being kind of an investigator of sorts, you know, before it happens, what’s happening here? What are the kinds of projects that give you this kind of response, you know, and what are you doing instead? I think that we need to look at the hyper-focused stuff as well. Like what is pulling your attention? And so when we look at, like, strategies and we look at, like, you know, if you were gonna break this down into really small pieces, okay, what are some strategies to avoid procrastination? What are some things that you need to do to make sure that you don’t get into hyper-focus or some tools that could help you? But again, you have to kind of treat each thing individually and kind of see how it works and how it’s connected and the depression anxiety has to be treated.

Now, the anxiety piece isn’t necessarily…because I live with anxiety. Pete, you live with anxiety. It’s something that we deal with every day. But that deep, deep depression is gonna keep you stuck and is not gonna give you any kind of motivation to move forward. You can’t, you just physically can’t. So I definitely want people to look at that and say, “Okay, that needs to be looked at. I can’t just not pay attention to that anymore.” I think that once you start to identify these scenarios and you start really understanding, okay, this is ADHD, this is how ADHD is affecting me, this is how the coexisting conditions are affecting me, these are some things I can do to try anyway, right, to practice, then you can start to slowly break the cycle by working on these different strategies and start working on the things that you’re avoiding.

However, I do ask that you ask for support. Be open, be curious, you know, about what may work for you. Don’t put any judgment on it if it doesn’t, and just keep practicing it. And I really think the bottom line here too is the work. All of this is work. None of it is easy. None of it is comfortable. But if you can believe that it can be different for you, then you’ve already taken that first step because you have to believe that there’s a different story.

Pete: That’s it. Thank you so much for downloading and listening to this podcast. Thanks for your time and your attention. On behalf of Nikki Kinzer, I’m Pete Wight. We’ll see you next week right here on “Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast.”


Through Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast, Nikki Kinzer and Pete Wright strive to help listeners with support, life management strategies, and time and technology tips, dedicated to anyone looking to take control of their lives in the face ADHD.