You may think your challenges with following through are due to lack of willpower. At least that’s what I hear when I first talk to other adults with ADHD. They will often say, “I know what I need to do but I just don’t do it! I just can’t make myself.” Sound familiar?
And, if this is true for you, your lack of follow-through may leave you feeling ashamed — the feeling of I’m not good enough. At this point you may even see your lack of productivity as a permanent state. That is, you just don’t feel capable of directing your focus and attention to reach your goals.
But, if you don’t feel capable, you will likely be less willing to experiment with new strategies that might work with your ADHD. And, as the stress mounts because of your lack of productivity, you will likely give in to distractions to “feel better.” But you don’t feel better, right? You just have more stress and anxiety.
So, it’s time to bust the myth that you lack willpower. Along the way I’ll introduce you to the work of Kathy McGonigle PhD, author of The Willpower Instinct, from whom I have adapted many of the ideas below.
Before you continue reading, though, think of something you have a difficult time starting or stopping. It might be related to self-care, like eating or exercise. Alternatively, maybe it’s a home or work project. Whatever it is, as you continue reading, think about how you can approach it differently so you can be successful.
What Is Willpower and Why Does It Matter?
Willpower is the ability to follow through when you say, “I will” or “I won’t.” It also includes what McGonigle calls the third power, the ability to remember what you really want. This is the “I want” power. And you need it as much as the other two to do what is hard.
At the same time, while you know willpower is important to reach your goals, as ADHD adult you also know your powers of self-control can be, well, a little wonky. That’s okay. Because there are strategies and techniques you can adapt to put yourself in the driver’s seat, rather than being driven by your impulses.
I know this is what you want. Because your professional and personal world depend in part on your ability to exert some degree of self-control, right? This includes, of course, using your willpower to manage the inevitable conflicts, stress and adversity you encounter in life.
Moreover, willpower will help you work with your ADHD, rather than giving up. Let’s see how you can do that.
#1: Start with Self-Awareness – ADHD and Willpower
Understanding what gets in the way of following through when you say “I will” or “I won’t” is the first step in learning how to better harness your willpower. Because increasing this self-awareness, including understanding your ADHD, will help you choose strategies to help you exert more self-control when you need it.
You know your motivation to act is often situationally variable even when the ultimate goal is important to you. And you also know this has something to do with your particular brain wiring. Did you know that the executive functions (shown below) you need to act are unconscious in the sense that they are more automatic?
That is, contrary to what some people believe, you can’t just will yourself to act when a task is not intrinsically interesting. As Dr. Thomas Brown, ADHD expert, notes, “most operations of these executive functions are not under conscious control any more than is erectile dysfunction.” I think you get the point.
For the various regions in the brain to do their jobs they must be linked to one another through neural circuits that carry information from one region to another. And neurotransmitters must be available to transmit these messages. But, because the imbalance of dopamine and norepinephrine in the ADHD brain, the messages are not transmitted efficiently.
As a result, the various regions of the brain cannot perform their functions well, resulting in the ADHD symptoms you experience. Luckily, there are ways to manage your ADHD symptoms, so you have less variability in your ability to execute.
We’ll get to that in a bit…
#2: Be Compassionate with Yourself When You Fail
I know you want to get better at following through on what is important to you. At the same time, even when you adopt new strategies and skills, you’re going to fail. Happens. And, while sometimes your setbacks may be related to your ADHD, it is also because, well, you’re human, right?
But, if you’re in the habit of heaping self-criticism and shame on yourself for your failures, the stress this causes will draw you right back to familiar strategies — the ones that don’t work. This includes being too dependent on your sense of urgency for motivation.
And, when you continue to rely excessively on urgency to get started, you will feel even more stress. Because you might not be able to follow through or do your best work at the last minute. You know that. And, as the overwhelm builds, instead of doing the hard work, you procrastinate.
Then you might resort to more self-criticism, self-consciously thinking this will provide the motivation you need. But it doesn’t. In fact, criticizing yourself for being incompetent will make you even less motivated to do what is challenging. You might even use your sense of incompetence as an excuse to give up, thinking, “Why even try?!”
At the same time, like many ADHD adults, you might think self-compassion is the same as going easy on yourself. And will lead you to give up. Not true. Because failure is inevitable, of course. But with self-compassion, the right strategies and support you will be more likely to get back up and try again.
Check out ADHD Adults Need More Self-Compassion, Not Self-Confidence for techniques you can use to develop more self-compassion. And you can still be accountable for following through. Really.
#3: Know What Gets in Your Way of Self-Control
Part of tapping into your ability to get started and follow through — use your willpower — is to know what typically leads to failure. Then, instead of doing the same old same old, you can learn and adopt strategies to address these challenges.
While I’m sure you already know some of the factors that are getting in your way, you will likely need to do some more data collection. Here are some ideas of what you can look for as you become more curious about your challenges in exerting more self-control:
- not knowing your “why” — reason you would choose to do the hard task
- working when you are tired, low-energy, hungry, too stressed, etc.
- not having supportive accountability
- believing you need to feel like starting, instead of getting ready to start
- working in an environment where there are too many distractions
- not being clear on what you need to do
- negative thinking
Here is the first part of your experiment. First, choose a specific project or time period (1-2 weeks). Then keep a journal about what you notice is impacting your ability to start and follow through. If you find you are struggling to observe yourself accurately, enlist the support of an accountability partner. This person can help you see more clearly what is happening when you fail.
Once you’ve done some data collection it’s time to move on to experimenting with strategies to mitigate some of these challenges. Remember, it is just an experiment, not an exam. So, you can’t fail! But you will learn which strategies work and which strategies don’t.
Time to move on to the next step.
#4: Plan for The Most Exhausted Version of Your Future Self
How many times have you said to yourself, “I’ll do that later.” Subconsciously, you are thinking an idealized version of yourself is going to show up and feel like doing whatever it is you don’t want to do now. But that idealized future self often doesn’t show up to save the day, right?
Time to get real. 😊 Ready?
The key, when creating your plan, is to imagine the most exhausted version of your future self, rather than your ideal self. And then address as many of the willpower challenges as you can anticipate.
Let’s look at the example of Lucia to see how you might do this. Lucia wants to start writing a blog, but she has put it off for over a year. Once she learned more about what was getting in her way, she:
- posted the following prominently by her desk to remind her of her “why”:
- I want to tell my story to heal and help others.
- Other’s will benefit by knowing there is someone else who has walked a similar path.
- If I’m willing to do it now even when it is difficult I can eventually get in the habit. And it will be easier
- created a warm-up routine to help her get started each time
- joined a writing group for support and accountability
- for more accountability announced to her family and friends that she would have her blog up and running by December. That was scary.
- routinely wrote in the late evenings, as is that is when she felt most energized
- used the app, Freedom, to prevent her from getting distracted on the Internet
What are you going to do to help the most exhausted version of your future self follow through on what is important to you?
#5: Manage Your Willpower and ADHD by Managing Your Stress
Stress not only contributes to your exhaustion, but also exacerbates your ADHD symptoms. So, learning how to reduce your stress is one of the most critical components of exerting more self-control. Otherwise, stress will drain your willpower, and tempt you to go into flight-or-fight mode.
To counter this temptation what you really need, if you want to be more intentional, is what McGonigle calls, pause-and-plan mode. Not your strong suit as an adult with ADHD, right? I get that. But, when you can take steps to manage your stress, you can also shift your body and mind toward more self-control.
And there are many ways to do this. While some of the following may be obvious, some may be less familiar as a means of managing stress. Where would you like to start an experiment need with one of the following:
- better nutrition
- relaxation techniques – meditation, yoga, tai chi
- quality time with friends and family
- spiritual connection – art, nature, religion/community
- engage in helpful self-talk / avoid negative thinking traps
- professional support – therapy and/or coaching
- slowing down by adding buffers to your day
- engaging in hobbies
Are there ways you manage your stress not listed above? I’d love to hear about them.
I know you may be reticent to trying the above because you don’t think you have enough time. After all, you have so much to do. The key is to trust that making one or more of these changes will help, not hinder, you from doing what is important to you.
What can you do to decrease the stress in your life this week?
I know you want to be more intentional. And your ADHD can get in your way, of course.
So, what would you like to do to shift your mind and body toward more self-control and less dependence on immediate gratification?