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Procrastination and the Land of Later

Updated: May 26, 2022

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?

When I was little, I loved to read the Serendipity books written by Stephen Cosgrove. Each one told a story and provided a lesson at the end. There was one in particular called, "Morgan and Me," that told the story of a princess who lived in a castle in the "far corner of the Land of Later". Her favorite pastime was daydreaming and she was well known for responding to requests with, "I'll do it... but just a little later." One day, she was walking through the forest behind her castle when she came across a unicorn named Morgan. They became fast friends and played for hours in the meadow. That is, until Morgan got his horn stuck in the branch of a tree. The princess didn't want to stop playing so when Morgan asked for her help, she pulled her usual, "I will... but just a little later." Fast forward to the afternoon and eventually the princess was tired of playing by herself and decided to help Morgan out of the tree. Once he was free, they played some more, until the princess was having so much fun that she didn't see the lily pond behind her. She fell in, landing right on top of a lily pad in the middle of the pond. Right away she asked for Morgan's help. Any guesses with how he responded? Exactly. With a wise smile, he told the princess that he would help... but just a little later. In the end, Morgan helped the princess and she apologized for always living in the land of later. She promised that from then on she would "always do what should be done now, instead of 'just a little later'."

And so, now I come to the purpose of this blog post, which is: the executive functioning skill of initiating a task and the absolute, number one, accommodation that I hate seeing on a kid's school plan.

Initiation to Task is the ability to begin a task or activity, even if/when it's not something you actually want to do. I mean, we're all pretty good at starting things we want to do, right? I mean, seriously, when was the last time you just couldn't talk yourself into starting a new Netflix series? Or a time you just couldn't bring yourself to start the coffee maker? Um. Probably never. Now consider the inverse. How easy is it to start cooking dinner after an exceptionally long day? Or, how impossible does it sometimes feel to start any task that reeks of tedious, time-consuming, and boring?

For some, this executive function feels easy. These guys can START anything, even if it's a really, really awful thing like washing, drying, folding, and putting away 7 loads of laundry. Or perhaps even worse, writing yet another 5-paragraph essay; this one about Macbeth's role in King Duncan's murder. These guys think to themselves, "I got this!" They collect the laundry, bring it to the laundry room, dump it onto the floor and start a load of darks. A couple of hours pass and the first load is done! Only 6 more to go... but now the momentum they had before is gone and they've moved onto something shinier and way less awful. More on the topic of goal-directed persistence, or in other words, finishing what you start... but just a little later.

For others, just the thought of starting something that reeks of tedious, time-consuming, and boring is something to be actively avoided. These guys say to themselves, "This paper is going to be painful. It's going to take forever. I mean, why do I need to know anything about MacBeth?!" Or perhaps they think to themselves, "Whatever. It's only 5-paragraphs. I can do that in study hall!" For these guys, the 11th-hour-ers of the world, time moves a bit differently.

One day slides into the next and they enjoy their downtime while reporting to their parents, "Nope. No homework here!" Then, before they know it, the stupid paper is due tomorrow and Mom is screaming about time management and responsibility and suddenly, not only is the paper not going to be turned in on time, but now the possibility of having to live with their parents until they're 40 is getting tossed around in a somewhat terrifying manner.

Recently, I was part of a discussion about this exact thing. A parent sent me her son's latest progress note. Yikes. It was bad. D's and F's across the board. But, here the thing, this progress not reflected more than just the student's effort (or lack thereof). It also reflected the student's AMAZING problem-solving abilities. You heard me. This kid is no dummy. He's figured it out. He knows that his teachers won't hold him accountable for due dates. He knows that he can take his dear, sweet time and still do just fine. He knows this because it happens ALL THE TIME.

I responded to the mother with something along the lines of, those teachers are not doing him any favors by letting him turn things in late. He's well aware that he's got 2-weeks before the end of the quarter and that he's teachers will let him submit late assignments on the last day.

For. Full. Credit.

And so, my opinion is revealed! I believe that the hands-down, absolute worst, most unaccommodating accommodation that can be included on a student's 504 Plan or IEP is:

"Allow student to turn assignments in after the due date, without penalty."

This accommodation is crazy-making to me. I'm sure that teachers think they're doing the kid a favor, but in reality, allowing an ADHD brain to turn in penalty-free late work typically causes overwhelm and eventual panic as the assignments pile up and the end gets closer and closer. Not only that, but just like the princess story, being able to ignore deadlines is not real life. It's fiction. False. Fake news. I mean, do any of you have a boss who tells you not to worry about deadlines? Have you even been told, "It's fine. The client set a deadline for X, Y, and Z to be completed by the end of the week, but don't worry about it. Just get done when you feel like it." Um. Nope. I didn't think so.

When student with ADHD and/or executive functioning deficits knows that he or she can stockpile assignments until the end of the quarter and still do fine, they will very likely take advantage of that loophole. I mean, who wouldn't?! With inherent challenges in time awareness and future planning, later is the perfect time to do homework because "later" doesn't exist - yet. Later is just beyond reach. Don't see it coming? When then, you don't have to consider how much it's going to suck to have to get locked in your room for 10 days to catch up at the end of the quarter. Or how many times you're going to have to listen to your parents tell you "if you would just turn everything in on time you wouldn't have this problem!"

If-then thinking is critical to a person's understanding of the consequences lurking just around the corner. People with solid executive functioning skills and good time management have an internal dialogue that an ADHD-brain doesn't usually have. It sounds a little something like, "If I do this paper now, then I can hang out with my girlfriend this weekend." Or, "If I turn this paper in on time, then my parents won't have a reason to take my phone away, again."

For a person with challenges in initiating undesired tasks (along with the likelihood of time management problems), the internal dialogue doesn't included "if-then" thinking. It sounds a bit like this, "It's not REALLY due until next month." Or, "The teacher always lets me turn things in late." Or, "It's only going to take me like 20 minutes to do it. I'll do it... later." Or, my all time favorite, "My 504 says I don't have to do anything on time."

All in all, I get that accommodations serve a positive purpose for students with ADHD, but I can't get behind this one. From my perspective, this particular accommodation does more harm than good. It insinuates that a student with ADHD shouldn't be held accountable. It communicates a lack of belief in a kid's ability to perform as well as their non-ADHD peers. And, it creates anxiety and panic as the end of the semester nears and students are faced with the fact that "later" did in fact come. With mounting to-dos and deadlines approaching, their amygdala sounds the alarm with, "Oh my god. I have so much work to do. I'll never be able to get it all done. Why do I always do this?! What is WRONG with me?!"

So, the moral of the story is: Support a person's executive functioning challenges by defining clear expectations and holding them accountable for due dates and times. (With the exception of the absurd due date of Saturday at 11:59 PM. Don't even get me started on that one!)

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