(Originally published February 23, 2017, Updated July 8, 2022)
In the previous post, I explored why it is hard for ADHD adults to start tasks and suggested that because of this challenge you may over-rely on urgency for motivation. So now, if it is your go-to strategy, it is likely because you do not have other tools in your toolbox to help you get started when it is hard. It has become a habit.
Whereas neurotypical adults can do what they should because they have an importance-based nervous system, it is harder for you. In part because ADHD adults have an interest-based nervous system. This means you are more motivated to do a task when it is interesting, challenging, novel/creative, or urgent.
So, what can you do when you need to do tasks that are important to you but not interesting? Though it will likely be harder, you can still do these tasks. You will need to get creative by practicing diversifying your motivators.
As you experiment, you will learn which strategies make getting started easier in various contexts, so you do not need to rely exclusively on urgency. That will definitely be a win for you!
Ready to learn how to do this?
#1 Know and Remember Your Why
I know I just told you that you have an interest-based nervous system, rather than an importance-based nervous system. Yet, knowing the importance – value to you – of a task will give you a more visceral connection to the reward. And this can help you decide to do a task and help you get closer to it, as illustrated in the example below.
A former client, a professor, would often neglect his administrative tasks. Sound familiar? He was much more interested in his research and classes. But he did value being seen as a professional. And was concerned his colleagues would not respect him, and see him as a professional if he continued to neglect his administrative responsibilities.
So, he put blocks of time in his calendar just for administrative tasks. And, no surprise, he continued to ignore these. That is until he put “be a pro” (professional) in the time block. Much to his surprise, when he saw the phrase, he remembered the reason he would choose to do the tasks and did them!
Think of a reward that would give you the visceral connection you need to make one of your current tasks easier to start. Not sure? It can be hard sometimes to figure this out. You may try thinking it through with someone you trust.
Now let’s look at additional strategies that will help you persist in following through.
#2 Make Sure You Can Do the Task
Once you have decided the value to you of a task, the next step is making sure you can do it.
I know this may seem obvious. Yet, I know there are times you have a hard time starting because you have the wrong task on your list. So, you look at your list and either quickly skip over the task or tell yourself, I’ll do that later. Though you have no idea when later is.
Look at your list right now. Identify those that have been on your list for a long time and ask yourself the following questions.
Do I need to do something before I do this task? For example, if taking your bike in for a tune-up is on your list, but you do not know where to take it, you have the wrong task. The task might be to research and call bike shops to see if they are doing tune-ups.
Have I decided how I want to do the task? You might have decided you need to communicate with a client. And so, on your list is “e-mail Reva.” But when you look at the task you wonder, “Should I e-mail or schedule a call?” In this example, the first task is to decide whether to e-mail or schedule a call.
Can I do this task? There may be a task on your list you either don’t know how to do or can’t do because you don’t have what you need to do the task. So, you have starter plants for your garden. But you don’t know how to space them and don’t have the right tools. Right. You need to come up with a plan and get the tools you need.
I think you get it.
Once you’ve identified the reward and are sure you can do the task, you know it can still be hard getting into action. So, these next suggestions are to get you to the starting line.
#3 Execution Plan: Decide When
How often have you put tasks on your list, only to have them stay on the list day after day? One reason this can happen is you do not have an execution plan. So, you see the task on the list and think, “Right, I have to get to that.” Here are a few ways to avoid that.
You can batch similar tasks and have a time for completing those. For example, you could decide to do all your e-mails at 3:00 and errands at 4:00.
If it is a long project, you might have a reoccurring time you work on the task. An example of this might be writing each morning for an hour to complete a journal article. You might tend to your garden for a bit after work every day.
If it’s a one-off task that takes a considerable chunk of time, you might carve out time in your calendar to spend a couple of hours or whatever amount of time you decide.
#4 Execution Plan: Decide How
When figuring out how to make it easier to start you may also want to experiment with some of the following strategies. Remember it is an experiment, not an exam. You can’t fail! So, give some of these a try if you think they might be helpful.
Sometimes it might be helpful to work with an accountability partner. That partner might be someone you know, an app like Focusmate, or a group, such as an exercise group.
Set a timer for 25 minutes or for as long as you think you can work. Then take a break. You might also give yourself an actual reward along the way, not just at the end. Maybe you can watch a TV show after you do your email.
To make it more interesting you might try to gamify the task. Try to process your email each day using Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t Break the Chain strategy. A member of our online membership group made phone calls she was procrastinating on with a New York accent.
What else might you try to appeal to your interest-based nervous system?
#5 Execution Plan: Include a Start-up Routine
Expand what it means to you to get started to include getting ready to start working by using a warm-up routine. This routine will help you get in the right mindset to begin, as well as help you get physically closer to starting the task.
Below are steps adapted from the suggestions of writer James Clear. As you read below, think about what your warm-up routine will look like
Step 1 – Start Your Routine with a Super Easy Task
Many people find the traction they get from just starting helps them to continue moving toward their objective. And, true, the purpose of a warm-up routine is to help you build up to starting on the actual task — your objective.
Since starting is hard you want to be sure the first step in your warm-up routine is easy to do. It should so easy there is virtually zero chance anything could get in your way of starting. Maybe it’s filling up your water bottle and opening up your computer.
What is your first step?
Step 2 – Include Physical Movement
You also want to ensure your warm-up routine includes physical movement toward your task. Even if you do all your work at the same desk, as I know many of you do, you could start by getting up to get water, for example, and then return to your desk.
I always sit in the same chair to do my writing. So, when I go and sit there, I am literally moving toward my goal of writing. This movement reinforces my intention to write and helps me get started.
What kind of physical movement could you include in your warm-up routine?
Step 3 – Rinse and Repeat!
Make sure you do your routine exactly the same each time. Because you don’t want to be in a position of needing to stop and wonder, “What should I do now?” If you get water in the red glass, don’t use the blue glass. After a while, you will do the routine out of habit.
And it will be the cue that “This is what I do before I…” Then, rather than needing to rely on motivation or willpower, you will be pulled by your warm-up routine to start on your primary goal.
Rinse and repeat!
#6 Be OK With Some Discomfort
Hopefully, the above tips will make it easier to start.
But following these suggestions does not mean you will not feel some discomfort when you try to start, especially if it is a task that is hard for you to start now. To avoid procrastinating as a means of avoiding the discomfort of starting, acknowledge you are uncomfortable and practice being with it.
So you can continue getting closer to the task, rather than turning away from it. Sure, there may be some friction when you start. The key is not to give in to the feeling and give up. Because, once you do, you may either continue to procrastinate or, yes, wait for urgency to kick into gear.
One way to turn this around is to adopt self-talk that will help you start and follow through. Other options are to play some music, do some jumping jacks, get a fidget, work in a café, etc. Do whatever you need to do to get closer to the task.
And be compassionate with yourself. Because it’s not easy to get started!
What Doesn’t Work to Motivate ADHD Adults – Stay Tuned!
In Part One I shared with you the two reasons you may have problems starting and then I shared how to make starting easier in this post.
In the upcoming 3rd part of this series, I’ll share strategies you should not use because they definitely do not help ADHD adults get started.