Ask Dr. Saline: How do I motivate myself and avoid procrastination?

smiling woman on her tablet with coworkersDear Dr. Saline,

One of my resolutions for the new year is to be more productive at home and at work. I’m prone to procrastination and think my ADHD is partially to blame. But I really want to get more things done and feel that great sense of accomplishment. Do you have any tips on how I can motivate myself and avoid procrastination?


From Dr. Saline:

Dear Celia,

woman dusting tableThe beginning of a new year gives us an opportunity to reboot and make a fresh start. We can make a conscious effort to do less of what isn’t working and instead focus on doing more of what is working. Similarly, it’s a good time to tweak your routines to build stronger habits and start the year on the right foot. So kudos to you for looking to improve your productivity as your new year’s resolution.

Most adults with ADHD have a tough time working on unpleasant or uninteresting activities. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and avoid stuff until the last minute arrives and you are in a bind.  Sound familiar? Here are my 5 best tips for motivating yourself and avoiding procrastination. Pick ONE of these to try in 2024 and, then, when you’ve made progress with that, try another. Don’t attempt to do all of these simultaneously. Remember, we can really only change one thing at a time. 

Shift to a Positive Mindset

new mindset new results graphicWhile procrastination can be debilitating, the negative self-talk about your lack of motivation, disorganization and overwhelm won’t help you solve problems and complete tasks. In fact, it just piles on more obstacles. But you can change your circumstances by shifting your perspective. Instead of repeating what’s wrong with you, or what you can’t do, what would it be like to think about something that you are good at? Something that you like to do? 

A positive mindset means that you are willing to ask “What could go right?” instead of focusing on what could go wrong. You are willing to take a risk, see what happens and learn something. You identify your strengths and lean into them as you address your challenges. You accept that perfection does not exist and, with acceptance, see yourself as work in progress. Just like the rest of us!

Utilize Helpful Incentives 

incentives carrots graphicAn incentive which works for one person may be completely unhelpful for another. An effective incentive is one that works for you. Think about how you’d like to reward yourself when you finish a task or a project so you have something to look forward to as you work. It can be as simple as going for a walk, chatting with a friend or treating yourself to a special latte. Incentives are key to starting a piece of work when you lack the intrinsic motivation to do so. You set yourself to make steady progress and earn some goodies along the way. 

Just today, I set a goal to return emails for 30 minutes and then take my dog for a walk since the rain had stopped. The walk was the bonus I needed to get going and keep going. Even though I still had more emails, I went out with my buddy, Milo, once the timer went off. What a relief to leave my computer and meander with him! Then I set a new incentive–dinner–to get me through two Zoom meetings. It’s little things like these that help us tackle our To-do lists.

Break Down Big Projects into Smaller, More Manageable Tasks

task listThe best way to combat procrastination is to break things down into small, doable chunks that seem more manageable. Think of something that you are putting off. How can you break this down into little parts and which one piece can you start with? If you still can’t initiate, the part isn’t small enough. 

The smaller the step, the better. Why? Because we are aiming for progress, not perfection. Before beginning a task you’re not all that excited about, tell yourself, “I know I don’t like this, but I know I’ll feel better if I make even a little progress. What is the first tiny thing I can do to begin?” 

For example, if you’re facing the very unpleasant task of cleaning a messy kitchen, break it down into smaller chores like putting away food, loading the dishwasher, wiping the counters and sweeping the floor. These subtasks can be completed one at a time and you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment as you make progress. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to write each task down and then enjoy crossing them off the list when completed.  Breaking work down into smaller tasks helps build your confidence one step at a time because you are performing something instead of avoiding it.

Keep Tasks Engaging

man with headphonesKeep yourself engaged in a task by adding something fun to it–music, chatting with a friend, or collaborating with a co-worker. We call this ‘game-ifying.’ It’s tough for unmotivated ADHD brains to get started on something that seems tedious and boring. What can you do to liven things up a bit? Change the order of tasks, take timed movement and snack breaks, switch locations for working or find an accountability buddy. Also, create realistic goals–ones that you can actually meet and want to achieve. This will go a long way in keeping you motivated.

Notice What Works

man writing in journalConsider keeping a daily journal of three things that went well (or well enough) that day. This can be written or dictated on your phone. This exercise is not about toxic positivity–pretending that things are good when they may not be. Instead, it builds authentic acknowledgement of what is going well and how you’ve some bumps in the day. Then, at the end of a week, you will see your positive actions or events and your productivity. Research has shown that this really helps you shift your perspective and reduce depression (see citation below).

So start this year tapping into what motivates you and focus on changing one aspect of behavior related to your productivity. Shift your mindset, use meaningful incentives, break down tasks and notice the good. You’ve got this! Here’s to a strong start to the new year!


Sexton JB, Adair KCForty-five good things: a prospective pilot study of the Three Good Things well-being intervention in the USA for healthcare worker emotional exhaustion, depression, work–life balance and happinessBMJ Open 2019;9:e022695. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-022695