Why do we wait until the last minute?

Picture this, you can feel your heart pumping and your pulse racing, your blood is rushing, you can feel adrenaline all through your system, you have a ton of nervous energy, you’re anxious, but you’re determined, you give yourself a few words of encouragement and then you’re off. Sitting down at your desk to start the sales presentation that your boss, asked you to do a week ago, that is now due in 10 minutes.

Why do we do this? As a neurodivergent who is both autistic and ADHD, getting motivated to do anything, whether it’s homework or a colossal work project has always been a massive challenge for me, it’s also one of those things that people looking in from the outside have the hardest time understanding, “Well, why can’t you just get started and do what you need to do, you care about your job, don’t you? Surely, if you can focus for hours and play video games, you can do your work, right?” Well, then cue the feelings of shame and guilt and failure and comparisons to other people who are real professionals who get their work done, and now I’m spiraling.

I still have work to do. So if we know that this is going to happen, why do we still wait until the last minute to do things? Well, as many autistics can tell you, it isn’t necessarily that we just don’t know the things that need to get done. Many of us wish we could do something early without a feeling of abject panic, and the tasks that we need to get done spiral in our heads all of the time, so it’s not just a memory issue. From my experience, there are many things that can feed into this challenge.

First, for some, there can be an issue with time blindness. You may have trouble determining how long a task will take, or have trouble with sensing how long… How much time do you have before the deadline actually arrives? If in your brain, 30 minutes feels the same as 30 days, the urgency to get started just isn’t gonna be there. For some people… Another factor is perfectionist procrastination. Now, I don’t mean we’re becoming perfect procrastinators, although sometimes the pressure that we put on ourselves to be perfect can make it hard to get started.

I have a desperate fear of making mistakes or failing at work, and in a twisted Homer Simpson kind of way, my brain feels like the best way to avoid making a mistake is not to try. Procrastinating can make me feel like I’m putting off the failure that I know is coming. Sometimes the size or importance of the task can be daunting if the project itself is huge, such as summarizing the whole year’s worth of activity in one annual report. That overwhelm can put you in a state of paralysis that keeps you from being able to get started. Instead, you might procrastinate by doing other tasks such as other work projects or things around the house, because then you can feel like you’re still getting stuff done, but really you’ve got that big project just looming. Other times, your brain might de-prioritize small daily tasks like flossing until it’s critical, such as when you are going to the dentist, and then you’re trying to do a year’s worth of flossing in just one day. For some neurodivergent, especially those with ADHD or autism, your brain might need that appointment, that deadline to kick in, creating a sense of urgency that isn’t there when the deadline is far away. In other words, your brain is like a teenager sitting on the couch in a messy house waiting to clean until they hear mom’s car in the driveway.

There are people who feel like they do their best work at the very last minute, and that is because your brain might need that imminent threat to get into gear. So to sum up, there are lots of reasons why you might struggle with motivation, procrastination, and task initiation, you’re not lazy, you’re not stupid. Now, I have to run. I have a meeting in 10 minutes that I haven’t started preparing for.