Moving Past Task Anxiety to stop “procrastinating”

Procrastination vs. Task Anxiety
Executive Functioning struggles redux

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Time & Task Management Series

Poor Organization & Task Completion

Most of us with Executive Functioning struggles have difficulty “putting it all together.”

Our cognitive deck of cards gets shuffled in the process of recording “awarenesses” into short term memory and consolidating for long-term storage.

That makes it harder to figure out which cards to pull when it comes time to play the game — making it difficult to respond appropriately, or to correctly evaluate consequences, outcomes and timing.

As a result, projects tend to be abandoned unfinished in our dissatisfaction with our lack of ability to play at a level that makes the game interesting rather than an exercise in frustration.  Before we know it, we’ve labeled ourselves chronic procrastinators — and so have most of our associates and loved ones.

It certainly may look like chronic procrastination to anyone looking on. And boy howdy do those onlookers love to sling that label around — as if they believed that merely pointing it out would launch us into activation!

I would like to suggest that what’s really going on here is Task Anxiety.

Task anxiety, just what it sounds like, is what science used to call a “limbic system” activator — where your brain and body are primed to fight, flight or freeze, NOT to get things done!

EVEN those who push through and force themselves to tackle the tasks on their To-Do lists are, according to the latest studies, up to 50% less effective than they would be if they handled the task anxiety FIRST.

  • According to scientific studies conducted in the past few years by Dr. David Rock and his team, and Emotional Regulation Research founder, Stanford’s Dr. James J. Gross:

The degree to which your “limbic system” is aroused is
the degree to which your PFC [prefrontal cortex] is deactivated.

  • Task completion is decision-dependent — and deciding depends on prefrontal cortex activation.
  • The PFC of “the ADD/EFD brain-style,” which includes all of us with Executive Functioning struggles, is already under-performing, relative to the neurotypical population — and the research above was NOT carried out using the ADD/EFD population!

Madelyn’s 3-point Procrastination Primer

1. The greater the number of items to accomplish on the way to completing any particular task, the higher the likelihood of so-called “procrastination.

2. The higher the number of decisions to be made on the way to completing any particular task, the lower the probability that it will begin or end in a timely manner.

3. The more each item or decision depends on the completion of a prior step, the more likely it is to result in shut-down — and the greater the likelihood that the project will be tabled for another time.

Related Post: Procrastination — Activation vs. Motivation


Here’s the GOOD news:

Simply identifying what’s going on, whether you actually DO anything about it or not, helps to bring the PFC back online somewhat.  And there is SO much more you can do!

Identifying these areas and naming the steps involved will go a long way toward intentionality.

Awareness is always the first step, and “naming” it is the second.

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Naming the Game

“Naming the Game” is a concept and a way of working that I came up with over twenty years ago now. Through many of my graduates, various parts of the idea have worked their way into the ADD Coaching culture.

Here’s what’s important about it for this article:

  • How you name the game determines the rules.
  • The rules determine your level of comfort with your level of activity.

In typical black and white fashion we tend to lump long range tasks, daily tasks, weekly tasks & someday tasks in a great big overwhelming pile as we levy an indictment against ourselves: I can never seem to get anything done!

That makes things worse, not better! We need to take a different pathway.

  1. First, we need to begin by distinguishing all those collapsed tasks — putting them into “piles” in some manner.
  2. Next we need to spend time looking at the reality of what we DO accomplish.
  3. Then, we need to develop some systems that will enable us to accomplish the things we choose to do.
  4. We also need to take a look at how we conceptualize tasks that may be making them more difficult.

FINALLY, we’ll rename the game in some manner that’s something we can actually DO.

Stop Prioritizing, Start Sequencing

This is a different kind of ranking than most of us are used to — which is a darn good thing because many of us despise the process of prioritization. So we avoid it.

Since we’re not doing it anyway,
let’s just dump the whole idea in the garbage.

When most of us hear the word “prioritize” we’re already one foot over the Boggle line.

It’s ALL “important” we cry! Attempting to split importance hairs leads us further INTO the woods, where it’s easy to remain, hopelessly lost for hours.

Instead of “prioritizing” or ranking by “import,” we are going to sequence, which gives us a whole lot more wiggle room.

Step by Step

Building a house, does it really matter whether you install the front door or the back door first? On the other hand, it’s pretty much impossible to install ANY doors until the walls are built. They aren’t more important, they are merely necessary first.

That example, as a broad overview, is sequencing: getting a handle on a logical progression of tasks so that we can plan how we move through them without shutting ourselves down with that “P” word.

But before we can do even THAT, we need to make some sense of the lay of the land. So haul out your project notebook, we need to make a few lists.

List of Accomplishments — things we ARE getting done.

You are probably not sitting around eating bonbons all day every day, so what HAVE you been doing with your time?  Be sure to list only the completion portion of those items.

If the big goal you have been putting off is to install new kitchen cabinets, for example, which part of the project is behind you?

Even if you haven’t picked up the first power tool, have you located all of the appropriate power tools?

Have you located any of the tools, power or otherwise? Have you made a list of the ones you need?

Do you have a list of measurements so that you can decide on the arrangement of the cabinets? Maybe ALL you can point to on that project is research. Good for you! That counts, but YOU have to count it.

  • For most of us, that will mean splitting tasks into manageable subtasks and giving ourselves points for every tiny thing we accomplish, exchanging black and white for gray.
  • It stops being fun to continue to play a game the very second we realize there is no way for us to win it. Our brain goes, “N-E-X-T!”  Set it up so that you get to WIN.
  • Life isn’t high school. There’s no such thing as “partial credit.” EVERY thing you get done COUNTS!  Focusing on the positive is wind beneath your wings.

List of Incompletions — things we’re not getting done.

Paint this list in BROAD strokes. This is a tracking exercise, not documentation for your personal wall of shame. You don’t have to explain, defend, grovel or promise to do a darned thing on it — track it like a weather reporter.

Keep it to yourself, by the way. 
You don’t need the pressure that others will feel compelled to supply.

Why pay any attention at all to the “negative?”

Because it closes the loop and releases cognitive bandwidth for more productive thoughts and activities.  Your brain sort-of says, “Ah, s/he’s on it, so we can stop with the reminders.”

Again, we’re going to categorize, throwing tasks into metaphorical bins to help you tell the sheep from the goats so that you can herd them separately.

There is nothing magical about the categories below (except that using my list reduces the demand on your action/decision muscles, of course) — but many of my clients have found it helpful to conceptualize tasks in this manner.

What we are doing instead, by category:

  • Human being tasks
  • Interruption tasks
  • Distraction tasks
  • Procrastination tasks

Divide each of the TO-dos and MUST-dos into “time” categories
(how often they rear their ugly heads)

  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Long range
  • Someday

Don’t agonize over which goes where, by the way.  You can move things around later if you want to, but for now just throw items into a bin.  And whatever you do, don’t judge the categories!  They will ALL be useful – just note them.

Those categories will be unpacked in future articles (and some already on the blog have tackled those ideas, so click some links) — but I want you to notice the feeling of relief that rides the draft of simply chunking things into categories.

Meanwhile, if you want some help with a project that has been hanging out for a while now, get in touch.  I’d LOVE to coach you through it as you develop a systems template for completing some of those other uncompleted tasks as well.  (ALL coaching is not the same, by the way, and brain-based coaching is the only format that really, really works long-term.)


© 1996, 2017 Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
from my upcoming book, TaskMaster™ –  see article list below

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

104 Responses to Moving Past Task Anxiety to stop “procrastinating”

  1. Pingback: ABOUT ADD Comorbidities | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. I suspect I fail at this. Or perhaps I’m particularly good at it? Depends how you think of it. Cheers,H

    Liked by 1 person

  3. daisymae2017 says:

    Good post. I shared it on linkedin. Keep up the good work on your posts.🙂🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We found it interesting on the topic of “Stop Prioritizing, Start Sequencing”. As we reflect this a great way of doing things. Fascinating how you have given us another way of looking at things.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. dgkaye says:

    It’s often easier to procrastinate when we look at that big pile of to do, so once again you’ve given us a calming direction in how to tackle. So helpful. 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Christy B says:

    I think most times I’m the opposite of procrastinator work-wise, although I do that more personally. An interesting thought that just occurred to me so I’ll have to mull over why that is 😉 Your article led to person insight and I’m thankful to you for it, Madelyn ♥ I appreciate all of the work you put into your posts ((hugs for Friday))

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me it’s task-specific. Some work things are cake – others not. MOST house things drag me down – and sometimes get me to tackle a work thing I’ve been avoiding because it suddenly seems easier to do.

      In the summer I get a lot of writing tasks accomplished because my window AC is in my office and I’m heat-defensive. The wiring here won’t support multiple ACs – and the other rooms are too hot-hot-hot for me to be in very long without wilting. My advice is to look at your personal life FIRST to stoppers that are functional (like my examples). Most of the psychological stuff we tack on is exactly that, in my experience: not the real reasons we “procrastinate” at all.

      Hugs back, Christy. May we BOTH have productive weekends. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ginger404 says:

    Great article! Spot on as usual! I know we haven’t talked for a long time, but I am cyber stalking you. LOL!

    Everyone is doing great at the moment. We have our house almost sold (I hope). I have my new business up and running, still a lot to do, but it’s getting there. Here is my website if you want to peek. gingermitchelldesigns
    Gin 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Ginger it is so NICE to hear from you!!! I think of you all the time. I’m sure that genius son of yours is well on his way to whatever he chooses to do with his life by now. How’s the Little House project coming – still in the plan?

      Congrats on your new biz – and website! I’m sorry the coaching field has lost you, but I’m thrilled for you that you have found your passion. I’ll be over to take a look, but probably not until Monday or so. A friend is on his way to help me deal with a few projects around my digs and will be arriving about NOW – spending the weekend here. I won’t have a lot of computer or phone time until he goes home – and that list is overfull already.


  8. Sequencing instead of prioritizing is brilliant – definitely great help for re-framing and lessening anxiety for a person who can’t prioritize to save his life! I guarantee that if he, G-d forbid, were in front of a firing squad, and they asked him what he would like first, the last meal, a drink, or a cigar, he’d scream,- “Shoot me already – I can’t prioritize!”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. TGIF and for these great ideas, Madelyn. You’re the cat’s pajamas!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. -Eugenia says:

    Excellent post, Madelyn. I’ve always tackled the most difficult tasks and/or tasks I don’t like first. Then the rest seems easy because my focus is clearer.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. John Fioravanti says:

    Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    Are you a Procrastinator or do you suffer from Task Anxiety? Madelyn Griffith-Haynie walks us through these concepts in this fascinating post. Please, read on…

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, you’re the best (and feeling like a procrastinator is the worst – lol) When this queued post got published early this morning it nudged me. I really need to sit down and do a bit of task sorting myself today!

      Because it’s been so hot, I’ve been avoiding a huge project I want done (different from “want to do” haha). As usual, it has dominoed. (i.e., I don’t want to start this other thing because it’s not that first thing I need to do!)

      I’m going to see if I can reconceptualize my pathway through it (re-sequence) to get at least the “non-heatstroke” parts of of the big task behind me this weekend – dent-making 101. 🙂

      “We teach what we need to learn”
      has never been so true – lol.


      • John Fioravanti says:

        Fortunately for me, Madelyn, I’m guilty of procrastination, pure and simple. I feel badly that these things are a struggle for you. Thanks to your posts, I have a small understanding. I’m happy to share your work.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah – you should only see my apartment right now. 😦 Like the line in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — “WHAT a dump!” 🙂

          It started going downhill when my old Oreck finally died and its cheaper – other maker – replacement isn’t really up to the task. (The brand new Oreck I wanted is still beyond my budget). I recently figured out that has been my stopper — that and my malaise in the heat ::sigh::

          Thanks for your commiseration. It doesn’t seem like we procrastinate on blog posts, however, either one of us. hmmmm . . .


          • John Fioravanti says:

            That’s true! Well, today I finally wrote a new “My Inspiration” post for next Wednesday. I procrastinated on that for a long time. What’s an Oreck?

            Liked by 1 person

            • ONLY the best vacuum on the planet – IMHO! Runs *rings* around the others (even Dyson, which I don’t really like at all – way too clumsy to use). The Oreck is extremely light-weight, long cord, super suction, easy to navigate, lights your path, hang to store (sort of “collapsed”) – well-made & lasts forever, everything I want in a vacuum and more.

              It’s been around for ages, but David Oreck sells mostly to hotels, etc. You can get them online or in a specialty vacuum store (but none are near me and you don’t get the same “extra goodies” online – like free repair, etc.). I popped for my first decades ago, and I thought it was pricey THEN! It spoiled me FOREVER, however! Worth every penny, but you do need a lot of those pennies you are willing to dedicate to cleaning – lol.

              A handyman wannabe trying to impress me took it all apart to “fix” it (when all that was needed was a new belt) – then disappeared and left me to deal with it in pieces! MEN! After NOT dedicating time to putting it back together myself (furious because I had to), I finally tossed it. BAD move, as it turns out.

              Congrats on getting your Wednesday post done.


            • John Fioravanti says:

              Thank you for the explanation. I hit a Dyson years ago and we found it to be a royal pain to navigate too. I guess they don’t sell Orecks up here in the Great White North!

              Liked by 1 person

            • I wouldn’t assume that, John — you have hotels up there. Orecks have been around for 30 years or more, and hotels were their first market, I believe. I can’t imagine they would have ignored a market so close by.

              They’ve never advertised as much as the other guys (more since the march of Dyson, however) – newspapers & women’s magazines are where I ran across them originally. But any of my friends who EVER used my vacuum got one or wanted one.

              They need to give me a commission, huh?


            • John Fioravanti says:

              No, I think they should give you a new one with all the bells and whistles and a lifetime warranty!

              Liked by 1 person

            • That would be fabulous! 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m not much of a procrastinator, but I do make lists. I like the idea of breaking the hard projects down into smaller parts. More crossing things off, which gives a sense of accomplishment. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always been big on lists myself – and need to get back in that habit of late (now that my new DayTimer is here). This year I tried a different datebook system than the one that has worked well since I was 18 – dumb move – since it changed my “autopilot” habits. BACK to DayTimer – and putting my habits back in place.

      I LOVE crossing things off too. I often track what I just did, JUST for the joy of crossing it off. 🙂 Wind beneath my wings. Thanks for ringing in, Diana.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I have to find the perfect number of tasks and subtasks… but to sort them and to throw some away or replacing them with others is as difficult than to declutter a closet ;o)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know!

      The trick is to deal the tasks out quickly as you sort through them – like a deck of cards in a game with multiple players. Don’t think about getting them “even” or which player gets which card. That’s over-thinking it. The simpler the better when you’re stuck.

      You don’t have to throw any of them away, but by putting them in, for example, 4 separate “piles” you’ve already reduced task anxiety by 1/4th for your brain. That makes things seem easier already.

      Then get the top “card” away from its “daily pile” (for example) to reduce stress even further — meaning focus only on that ONE piece of the puzzle.

      Is that subtask something you can do (and are willing to do) now? If not, move to the bottom of the stack or to a more appropriate pile (really a list – so work in pencil) and pick the next one – and so forth.

      Once you get into action AT ALL, things suddenly seem easier – even with a “plan” this loose.

      AND, since you’re not moving actual items around as you sort (like with clothes in your closet), it’s really *not* as hard — if only because you’re not making a big mess and/or wearing yourself out physically while you sift and sort.

      Walk yourself through it once – it’s easier to DO than to describe. And don’t forget that it’s YOUR game, so you can change the rules to suit yourself.


  14. Beautiful words of encouragement as always, Madelyn and so agree totally with your words, why procrastinate about anything, it makes us dull and not do what we have set out to. Just go all out for it and do it whether you succeed or not. Why be negative and think like that instead be proactive and work towards that. Thanks for the awesome share.

    Liked by 1 person

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