The Procrastination Puzzle & the ADD Brain-style

from deviantart – by ~F3LiPaO

Organizing Oopses

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, MCC, SCAC
About Procrastination — Part 2
part of the Intentionality Series, with links
to Organization and Task Completion

Review Part I first: Procrastination and Task Anxiety – or the “Mr. Amygdalla” comments & “certainty and cognitive dissonance” info will be half as effective as they could be.

Jigsaw Juggernauts

People with the ADD brain-style (EFDs) seem to have difficulty “putting it all together” – which tends to lead to disorganization and what the rest of the world labels “procrastination.”

In a youthful “neurotypical” brain, inputs from the outer world (i.e., through our senses) seem to be recorded with some kind of tagging for sequence, in some fashion science doesn’t exactly understand yet.

Metaphorically only, what was observed first gets position #1, while an incoming data bite some 90 seconds later might be “tagged” with something like #321 (and all of the bits and bytes seem to be able to hang on to their little tags until called on to perform!)

That makes it fairly easy for them to call all the bits back and line them up at showtime — for example, when attempting to stay tracked on the threads of a conversation, facilitating dialogue in ways that “make sense” in terms of what is said in response to what, as well as when various pearls of wisdom get dropped onto the conversational ping pong table.

For those of us with Executive Functioning challeges – not so much!

When our attention wanders, our brain’s do what all brains do with incomplete pictures: they fill in the holes with what they expect to find there, based on what’s in its “files” of past experience.

The human brain is nothing so much as a pattern recognition machine – a puzzle put-together champ of the highest order.

Saving it for Later

As the various elements of an experience are moved back and forth from long-term storage to active working memory, their’s are somehow “filed” in a manner that allows for sequential retrieval as well — like a story line:  this happened, then THAT happened, which prompted another thing that happened next.

So when they are trying to find their keys, or remember why they are getting uncomfortably chilly in front of an open freezer door (or want to avoid having to ask,“What was it you wanted to know, again?), they “run the movie in their heads” in some fashion, and it comes back to them.

For us – what movie in our heads?  All we’ve got is a box of raw footage that needs editing.


Our vanilla-flavored friends rarely appreciate the fact that they have an unconscious advantage in the linear processing department – what is frequently referred to as “declarative memory.”  That makes certain kinds of memory, word retrieval, organization and task completion, and – well, just about everything – a heck of a lot easier, even for those who aren’t particularly visual and link for retrieval using some other modality.

With the ADD/EFD brain-style (and others with attentional spectrum dysregulations – all of us with Executive Functioning Disorders), we seem to process sequential information in some other manner — the pieces somehow jumbled together, if recorded at all, even when we do our very best to keep our attention on matters at hand.

SPREAD THE WORD about “Age-related ADD/EFD!”

Due to the way the brain ages, even individuals who were born with the neurotypical brain style will begin to notice increasingly more Executive Functioning struggles as they get older.

The information available on will prove especially valuable to practically ALL “vanilla-brained” Baby Boomers immediately, and to the rest of the population as they age.

Don’t forget that you can always check out the sidebar
for a reminder of how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

When we need to retrieve information into OUR active working memory, some of the pieces don’t appear to make “logical” sense.

Our brains go through a sort of a stutter-step, vamping while it tries to match a pattern it barely recognizes (kinda’ like “Name that Tune” using any five notes at random instead of the first five).

That makes it a bit more difficult to respond appropriately or to follow a conversation (or a lecture) in the moment.  If we get lost at any point, there are only a few scattered breadcrumbs to help us find our way back.

Actually, it’s kind of amazing how well we do, considering how much effort our brain must exert to get back from the neural scavenger hunt before the show is over.

If that doesn’t make things tough enough, the bigger problem comes when our information is stored longer term.


As the computer field is fond of repeating, “garbage in, garbage out!  

ben_Jigsaw_PuzzleWhich is not to say that what we produce is garbage, but our outputs can only be fashioned from the pieces to be found in our very own cognitive attics.

If we didn’t put the entire puzzle in the box, we can’t hope to match the picture on the cover with the pieces we will find there.

Even if all the puzzle pieces make it into our cognitive boxes, if they aren’t stored in a manner that can be retrieved sequentially (even when they are not intermingled with a few items that don’t belong there at all), ploughing through the bits and pieces of “what happened” takes a great deal more sifting and sorting than would be necessary if things had been “filed for retrieval” in a more efficient manner.

That’s the good news AND the not-so-good news:

  • Good news: it makes recombination a snap — we really have no other choice — which leads to cognitive leaps that are the essence of creativity and originality.  Easy-peasey!
  • Not-so-good: while everybody else’s Mr. Potato Head looks a bit like a little person, ours is a little skewed to the side.

deviantart - by ~F3LiPaO

To top it off, we’re never really sure whether that third ear and the two mustache-looking things are meant to be used as a nose and eyebrows or were items we tossed in from somewhere else.

That complicates decision-making considerably. It often leads to Mr. Potato Heads that only Picasso’s mother could love.

It helps to be intelligent, of course, and to have more practiced coping mechanisms, but those of us with executive functioning struggles have more to handle, cognitively, than our “vanilla” buddies.

Like ducklings in a pond, we’re paddling furiously to keep up with the swans.  
They glide, WE thrash and splash.  

© Rodrigo Argenton: Wikipedia

© Rodrigo Argenton: Wikipedia – Creative Commons


In other words, we can’t help but “underfunction” when we’re working much harder than they are to cover the same distance.

  • Frustrated, some of us “paddle faster” – staying late at the office, working long into many nights to accomplish tasks that others seem to have finished in time to leave work and head for home for dinner with their families.
  • But too many of us simply give up and accept the black-and-white “truth” — assuming that it is worthless to try to be anything different from what we’ve always been and always will be: a waddling mess of a not-a-swan!

For whatever the reason and however it does it, the human brain has evolved to put life’s puzzles together.  We are “addicted” to certainty — because it feels good when those puzzle pieces turn into the picture we were expecting to see.

Uncertainty is one of those things that will awaken Mr. Amygdala out of a sound sleep!

He can’t stand a puzzle the rest of the brain can’t put together — and WE can’t stand the state of anxiety that follows whenever he is awakened.

We will do practically anything to avoid it — including . . . nothing!

As we continue to have difficulty organizing ourselves, project after project is begun and abandoned half-finished, confirming our negative self-view.  Because it’s the only thing that fits — and we’re worn out stressing over figuring it out some other way!

Uncertainty and Cognitive Dissonance

“Cognitive dissonance” was a term coined in 1957 by Stanford professor Leon Festinger, PhD. Festinger defined it as “a distressing mental state where people find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or holding opinions that don’t fit with other opinions that they hold.”

Once we have made a decision, declared it as “what we think” and have labeled it as truth, we will continue to make up whatever we need to for the sake of congruency, regardless of the cost to our reputation as intelligent, kind and considerate human beings.

We can’t stand the anxiety of holding two opposing views of ourselves,
for example:

  1. I am an intelligent, open-minded, kind and considerate human being – BUT
  2. Sometimes I make illogical, unresearched, inflexible or mean-spirited judgments because I like to be right and don’t like uncertainty

Well over 3,000 studies are solid on this one.  One conflicting idea will have to come into line with the other, no matter what we have to tell ourselves to make it so.

  • I can be intelligent and illogical because you are an idiot who wouldn’t recognize truth if it were carved on stone tablets, delivered by an angel and dropped on your head (bless your little heart).
  • I can be mean spirited because, as one of the planet’s kinder and more forward-thinking human beings, I do it “for your own good” and “the good of all mankind” (and you’ll thank me for it some day).
  • Anyone as intelligent as I has already done enough research to form a credible opinion, all further exploration of the issue would be a stupid waste of time (keeping me from all the important things I have to do).

We ALL do it – scientists, doctors, therapists, educators, leaders of political parties, parents, and even (gasp!) me.

The bottom line with cognitive dissonance is that the more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

We tend to embrace what feels right to our sense of congruency with our world-view, no matter what the evidence might say otherwise.

Our only hope for growth and change is to remain aware of the truth of the cognitive dissonance concept and do our very best to “ask real questions” when we reason and research — rather than trolling for confirmation of what we already believe to be true.

We need to find a way to tolerate the anxiety of the moments of uncertainty long enough to reframe our world-view, which will allow us to enlarge our awareness to be able to embrace new truths.

In other words, we need to increase the importance we place on maintaining an open mind so that we don’t slide into what I call “intractable ignorance.”

Intractible Ignorance

The problem with labels, judgment and make-wrong

In a wonderful Books and Ideas interview from Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast, social psychologist  Carol Tavris, PhD., co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, underscores a point I’ve made repeatedly in many other words:

[Understanding the concept of cognitive dissonance] helps us understand why, in arguing with somebody, either professionally or personally . . . [it’s important] that we don’t put them into a state of dissonance, making them feel stupid for something that they did or said.

If you make somebody feel stupid for a belief they hold, or for an action they took, guaranteed they’re not going to listen to your wonderful words of wisdom. They’re going to cling even more tightly to their justifications for what they did.

Because what’s the alternative: admitting that they did something foolish or stupid.

No one wants to admit that.

More to the point, and actually more accurately, nobody’s brain wants to cooperate with the idea of admitting that we just might be dumb as a stump!

Unless, that is, there has been such an onslaught of censure, along with a fairly substantial body of evidence of chronic “unexplained failure,” that the only way to resolve the cognitive dissonance is to embrace the attacker’s point of view and give up all expectations of success!

Oh, we’ll argue with them about it. We’ll dig in and defend, get mad, stomp around or stomp out the door. But inside, we’ll resolve the conflict by giving up — on ourselves.

Where do you think low self esteem comes from?  We ALL start out life believing we are the center of the universe – it’s only once life beats us up for a while that we begin to suspect that maybe we’re really not so great!

Once we internalize expectations of failure into our view of who we are, every bump in the road we encounter slows us down to a crawl. Every time we slow down it strengthens our negative self-concept. Small successes are batted away – dissonant, doncha’ know.

Only someone with amazing self-esteem and iron resolve could be convinced to keep soldiering on once they heard that the war was already decided and their side didn’t win.

Once locked in that self-damning cage, who wouldn’t procrastinate, hoping that
somewhere, somehow they just might discover some perfect-way loophole that
would turn out to be the Get Out of Jail Free card?

The dilemma of decisions

Dr. Tavris went on to say, in her interview with Ginger Campbell in the Books and Ideas podcast

 ” . . . as we now understand, the mind is designed for consistency, for consonance; it’s designed to notice, remember, and confirm evidence that supports our beliefs, and to forget and ignore information that is dissonant with our beliefs.

The minute you make a decision, the unconscious process of dissonance reduction will kick in to help you, in essence, sleep at night.”

SIMPLE, right?

No so fast.  ANY ole’ decision will give you more of what you have, not more of what you say you want – which will eventually return with a vengeance that will keep you up at night once more.

“Vanilla” readers will find reframing difficult enough, thanks to your brain’s desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. But are you beginning to see how those with ADD-flavored brain-styles have an additional problem?

Before I continue, in case anyone reading is having trouble conceptualizing the struggles of the ADD brain-style, I’ll give you an example that will probably compute.

Don’t Try this at Home!

Think about how difficult it would be to follow the concepts in this article if you were to do this:

    1. begin again from the top and click every single link you encounter as you come to it
    2. read every single word of THAT article before returning to the next word of this one
    3. any links you encounter in the new article must be read in the SAME manner, ad infinitum

If you still can’t understand the problem, actually DO steps 1-3 and time yourself
(there goes your day – and good luck finding your way back!)

That’s the ADD/EFD brain-style in a nutshell (and why the links on this blog are designed NOT to encourage you to wander away, simply because links stop the eye mid-sentence.  Only if you DECIDE to explore further and run your cursor over the text do the links jump out for access!).

LIFE is more difficult than the internet

On I am able to give ADD readers a bit of a cognitive assistance by the way I have designed the blog — but once you jump up into your head you’re on your own!

In your brain, it’s as if every word of every thought in your head is hyperlinked to another thought — where every word of THAT thought is hyperlinked, ad infinitum. Since 90% of the links are part of your subconscious mind, you aren’t consciously aware that your brain is doing that.

BUT it IS!

The brain is a distributed processor – where connections to almost everything you’ve ever experienced since the day you were born is linked and cross-filed.

The filtering process is filed away in areas of the brain essentially unavailable to the pre-frontal Cortex [PFC], which directs and regulates your conscious processing.

Otherwise, every single one of us would be forever lost in thought until a stronger outside stimulus captured our attention anew.

Sound familiar?

NOW think about the process of working your way through a task with that perspective.

So many decisions to make!
Where to start . . . what to do next . . . how to approach each task in the process.

More than with “vanilla brains,” the ADD/EFD brain attempts to sort through ALL of the links in its arsenal hoping to find the BEST way to approach each of the steps of the task — primarily because the ADDer has a backlog of “you’re not doing it right” activating Mr. Amygdala, which deactivates the “stay on task” portion of the PFC.

Even when we don’t shut down and stop trying, in order to get away from that decision stress (“task anxiety”), we are still “procrastinating” in the eyes of the world until we actually MAKE that decision and get into action!

Bring on the labels!

  • LAZY!
  • Self-sabotaging
  • Fearful of success (or failure)
  • Willfully disobedient
  • Impulsive  
  • Oppositional  
  • Passive-aggressive
  • Under-achiever!!!

Suggestions on are DIFFERENT

I’m NOT going try to feed you that tired advice that simply affirming success and focus will create it – or that failing to affirm success will prevent it.

I hope, after reading this article, you can understand what might be missing in THAT approach.

I’m also NOT going try to feed you tried-but-not-true advice that you need to discover a stronger source of motivation, or “connect with the pain” of failure to accomplish much of anything in your life.

After almost thirty years in the field, I can practically PROMISE you that the approaches above will never work for you.

What WILL work

You need to understand and embrace the difference between motivation and activation — and figure out what YOU need to do to get up and get going on what you are already motivated to do.

You need to learn how to expand that skill so that you are able to get up and get going on what you are NOT motivated to do, but must be done nonetheless.

You need to start building a body of EVIDENCE of success before anything like an affirmation will feel like anything beyond denial to someone with a lifetime of “What’s wrong with you?”

Coming up, we’ll explore a few ADD-friendly ways to begin building that body of evidence in a manner likely to get Mr. Amygdala to crawl back into his cave and leave us alone to accomplish much of anything AT ALL! The remainder of this series will share some of the things that have worked for my clients (and myself).

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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!"

15 Responses to The Procrastination Puzzle & the ADD Brain-style

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  3. Bernadette says:

    I am looking forward to learning how to help my granddaughter build a body of evidence to help her gain confidence. She is only three and I watched her become embarrassed the other day because she tripped. I can see it starting already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it sad how early the “don’t look weak in front of the pack” programming kicks in? That one never goes away, however (even when we are alone when we trip) – part of the startle mechanism. It doesn’t really mean much more than that unless somebody comments negatively (like, you are so clumsy).

      The learning gurus say the most effective “evidence” is what I call ‘what-based’ not ‘who-based.’ (i.e., more like “Look what you did – I’m so proud of you for doing the work to figure it out!” vs. “You are so smart.”)

      Oddly, the “you are” comments tend to lead to an internalized pressure to continue to prove the assertion. The “you did” comments are within their control and help develop cause and effect reasoning.

      As she gets older, underscoring the importance of your admiration for “doing the work” regardless of outcome needs to be added, avoiding superlatives like “did your best” (parents always mean well, but it unconsciously underscores “but it was not enough” vs. the truth that all we can do is give it a go and not everything turns out exactly like we plan in life)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bernadette says:

        I read about the what based encouragement a few years ago and my husband and I have worked on encouraging using that line of thought. It felt so hard at first because it felt like I was cheating them out of a real compliment. Thanks for the trip explanation. It was my husband, who is a Doc, was the one who asked me for an explanation.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. robjodiefilogomo says:

    This is so interesting to read about this Madelyn!! Because I do know some people with ADD and it’s so great to hear how thing are so different for them. If we don’t hear this, how would we know?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You don’t know how much I treasure this comment, Jodie.

      While the primary intent of this blog is to offer support and assistance to anyone struggling with Executive Functioning (which includes the majority of seniors btw, although they are not strictly diagnostic, for the most part) — my secondary aim is to foster empathy and awareness in what I call the “vanilla” population (like ice cream before the mix-ins), hoping I might do my part to transform a world that is more ready for censure and more likely to poke fun.

      Thank you so much for reading, then taking the time to leave this comment.



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