You need to finish it. Whatever it is for you. But all you can think about is how long it’s going to take, how hard it’s going to be and that you’re not even sure where to begin. Next thing you know you’re doing something else, telling yourself “I’ll do it later…” Right, later. When you say this what you really mean is, “Not now.” And it gets deferred indefinitely.
How are you ever going to start?!
Transitions – starting, stopping, switching tasks – are difficult for ADHD adults. In this podcast episode I’ll focus on starting because, of course, you can’t finish what you don’t start.
- Getting started is often very hard for ADHD adults
- Urgency is often a key motivator for adults with ADHD
- There are reasons related to your ADHD why starting is hard
- Diversifying your motivators can make it easier.
- Learn 7 different techniques to make getting started easier and stop relying only on urgency
You need to finish it, whatever it is for you, but maybe all you can think about is how long it’s going to take, how hard it’s going to be, and maybe you’re not even sure where to begin. Next thing you know you’re doing something else, telling yourself, I’ll do it later. Right later when you say this, what you really mean is not now, and maybe it gets deferred indefinitely. How are you ever going to get started? You’ve tuned into scattered focus, done re-imagining productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD, adults like you want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools, and skills to be able to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins and I’m glad you decided to join me today on the journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD so you can get your important work done without trying to do it like everyone else.
Transitions, starting, stopping, switching tasks are all difficult for ADHD adults. In this episode, episode three, I’m going to focus on starting because of course you can’t finish what you don’t start, but right now you may be putting off a task you need to get done until the last minute until you’re pushed up against the proverbial wall. There may be no time left. You have to do it now if you still have time. In fact, right now, urgency might be your primary motivator and it might also make sense to you when you procrastinate on tasks you don’t consider important, but how bout when you put off working on those tasks though? Well, maybe not intrinsically interesting, are really important to you because your job relationships or the wellbeing of someone you care about depends on your following through. I bet you’re totally frustrated when you put these off and maybe you wonder how could I possibly have done this again, I need to finish this already.
I know you have a lot on your plate. You need to get done and you obviously need to get started in order to close the loop on all of these tasks, but a focus on the need to finish may leave you feeling overwhelmed because it just feels too daunting. So instead, stick with me. Let’s look at how you can focus instead on persistence starting because the more often you start, the greater likelihood you will be able to finish. Make sense? Right? One of the hallmarks of adult ADHD is that your ability to get started is well inconsistent. That is, while you may procrastinate in some areas, you likely find it easy to engage in activities that interests you. You can play guitar work in your woodshop until all hours. You may even hyper-focus on these pursuits. Getting started in these cases is super easy and there’s no friction, but maybe you neglect your other responsibilities, those that are also important to you and others.
This is the part that is so puzzling and even frustrating to others and maybe even to you. I’m hoping though by the end of this episode, you’ll understand this better and have more compassion for yourself. So it might appear to others and maybe even to you that you just don’t care and you aren’t trying hard enough. After all, how many times have you said to yourself, I just need to try harder? The belief underlying this thinking is that if you just exerted more willpower, you would start and finish what you committed to doing and now you’re just choosing to engage in activities that are important to you and not in those that aren’t, but they’re wrong. And if you hold these beliefs, you’re wrong to think about it. You get a lot of grief for not starting and following through. Why would you put yourself through this time and time again if you could easily do it differently?
I don’t think you would. So why is it so difficult for ADHD adults to get started? Of course there may be other reasons for you, but since this is a podcast about ADHD, I think I’ll just stick to reasons related to that. And at least one of the reasons for your inconsistency is your ADHD brain chemistry. You remember the reward center of the brain when the promise of immediate reward registers, and that could be something positive or avoidance of something negative. Dopamine is released, your brain is stimulated and it’s easier to get started. You’re nor neuro-typical peers have adequate transmitters, particularly dopamine, and they can power through despite the ups and downs of whether their brain is stimulated or not. They have an easier time filling out the expense report, even though it’s boring, but the deficit and dopamine in the ADHD brain makes this harder.
Not only do you have a deficit in dopamine, but if the task is not intrinsically interesting, dopamine is not released, so you can’t just power through, try harder to finish a task that’s not intrinsically interesting even when finishing the task is important to you. Another challenge for adults with add is your working memory limitations. This makes it difficult to make the connection to the reward in the moment of choice. So in that moment when you’re deciding whether to act or not, you may only consider whatever catches your attention in that very moment and not being able to connect to the reward for choosing to do your important work again means that dopamine isn’t released because there’s no reward for you in that moment. Another factor that may be getting in your way are the negative unconscious emotions associated with the task. So while the task may seem important to you at a conscious level, these unconscious emotions may cause you to procrastinate.
Luckily, there are many strategies you can use to address these challenges. Well, urgency might be your primary motivator right now. You can learn how to diversify your motivators to make it easier to get started so you can do what’s important to you. Of course, it’s much easier to tackle a task when you feel like doing it. So you might decide, rather than fighting upstream, you’ll just wait until your motivation comes back. And if you can wait until you’re in the right mood, by all means do that. It totally makes sense to do this when you can afford it. But what about those times when either you can’t wait or you’ll just never feel motivated no matter how long you wait because the task is not intrinsically interesting? Remember the expense report. Even though you want the money, the expense report will likely never be intrinsically interesting to you.
One of the most common causes ADHD adults give for putting off work is the questionable idea that I need to feel like doing it. This often leads to the unconvincing promise. I’ll do it later, maybe tomorrow when I feel more like it. Right. As you know, adopting these beliefs may mean one, the work will simply never get done and your self esteem may take a battering for not following through and leave you with even less energy to tackle your important stuff. Clearly, waiting for motivation can be a slippery slope, probably not one you want to slide down. There is an alternative. The best way to create motivation is to start. Think of a recent time when you dug into a task you had been putting off only to discover that the anticipation was worse than the actual task. Maybe you even felt the motivation to continue working for longer than you planned.
This positive feedback may have helped you start working on the task the next time where you surprised I’m not because starting is the best way to get the motivation you need to continue working. Sounds good, right? Ah, the problem of course is that starting is often the hardest part. Before we start looking at strategies to help you get started, it’s really important to acknowledge. You’ll likely feel uncomfortable starting some of your tasks regardless of the strategy. Of course, I’m hoping that some of the strategies I’m going to talk about might help take the edge off of some of this discomfort and make it easier to start, but even with those strategies starting won’t always be super easy, so you might feel uncomfortable and so it’s important to acknowledge this comfort and moreover be okay with it rather than fighting it and finding ways to procrastinate, to defer the discomfort.
I mentioned earlier that one of your ADHD related challenges to getting started is a deficit in dopamine in the brain’s reward system, and if the payoff, the reward is not readily apparent when you need to act, dopamine won’t be released to activate the reward system. We went over this already, so anyway, your brain won’t be stimulated enough to act. To counter this, you’ll need to make a visceral connection to your payoff, your reward, because when you do this, when you can activate your brain’s reward system, you’ll be more likely to act in the moment in sync with your intentions. This will help pull you forward. Here’s an example of a typical low interest HASC where the reward is not obvious what Bob promised his spouse. He would take out the recycling, he would usually pass by it even when it was overflowing. Often Bob didn’t notice the recycling and when he did it just didn’t seem that important to do in the moment.
Is this sounding familiar? Anyway, over time, this mundane tasks became a source of contention between them round and round. They went until Bob decided he really wanted to figure out how to get off the Merry go round of the arguments. And when Bob identified the two values related to this task, honoring his spouse’s needs and maintaining a peaceful house, he could become more invested in figuring out how to consistently follow through with taking out the recycling, figuring out his payoff, connecting the dots to the reward was the key to turning this situation around. Choose a task you are neglecting and is not intrinsically rewarding. Figure out your reward for doing it. Sure. To persist over the long haul. Despite the ebbs and flows of variations in daily energy, it’ll be helpful to have a visceral connection to the reward for starting and following through on tasks that will help you reach your goals, like honoring your spouse’s needs and keeping a peaceful house.
But as you well know, a common challenge for adults with ADHD is remembering to remember in that moment of choice, the moment when you’re choosing whether to do a task or not, you may forget how important it is for you and feel detached from the goal. And because the reward isn’t immediate. In instances, again, where the task is not an intrinsically interesting, you may not even remember the reward sewed increase the chances of remembering your payoff, the reward for doing a task in the moment when you want to. You might try creating a visual of images, words and post it where you will see it like on the wall when you’re going out to look at the recycling, you could block out time on your calendar and add a message to the calendar item to remind you of why you want to do it. Another thing people have tried is an electronic visual to use as a screensaver or desktop background to remind you about how to start your day.
People also use online stickies with a message you create as your default browser. So when you go online you’ll see the message first. So instead of going on Facebook, maybe you’ll do what you intend to do. What else can you do to help you remember in the moment why starting a particular task and following through on your original intention is important to you? Okay. You have the reward now and you have a way to remember the reward. But even when you remember why a task is important to you, you may still have trouble acting. So here’s the next step. Make sure the task is concrete, doable, and small enough. Make sure you really understand how to do each part of the task. And the steps are small enough that they feel doable because you know if the project is too hard or it lacks clarity, you’re likely to procrastinate, right?
It’ll be hard to start. Here’s an example to illustrate how you can do this. So let’s look at Todd. Well, being on top of his finances was important to Todd. He struggled to get his taxes in on time this year. Todd decided that was going to change, but he was overwhelmed and avoided it. Whenever he saw get tax paperwork to Sue on his list after thinking for the umpteenth time, I’ll do that later. He realized he was procrastinating because it was too daunting. So instead he made his first task find checklist that Sue sent me. He immediately felt a sense of release relief because he knew he could do that. Then he decided he would set the timer for 25 minutes and start working his way down the checklist while he decided to work for a minimum of 25 minutes each day. Some people call these Pomodoros if you know about the Pomodoro method anyway, Todd, like he could work longer if he wanted to, but he didn’t need to and he could just pick up where he left off when he started the next day.
So what tasks can you make more concrete, small and doable. So you’ll feel more liked acting more like starting so it won’t feel so daunting. Another step you may need to take is to identify any negative thinking that may be getting in your way after identifying the reward and a way to remember the reward and making sure that the task is doable. Your faulty thinking still may be getting in the way of acting when you need to. So let’s take a look at just a few examples of how this can happen. When you personalize a situation, you may mistakenly take responsibility when you are not at fault and then just not have the motivation to move forward. Let’s take the example of your boss having a hard day and doesn’t look at you as he passes you in the hallway. Then you get back to your desk and decide he hates me, right?
So when you get back to your desk, you may not be very motivated to start. Similarly, you may disqualify the positive. So in these cases you’re not motivated because you see what’s going wrong and not what you’ve done right in the past, and that you actually may be able to replicate what you did right in the past. In this instance. In that moment, it just seems too daunting and starting is hard. Another way that your faulty thinking may be getting in your way is when you generalize and you think, I’m just going to keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. Let’s look at emotional reasoning. In this case, you think your feelings are fact. So for example, if you’re feeling apathetic, you might decide, I guess I just don’t care. Not very motivating to get started. Is it? And then there’s the one that we’re really familiar with is catastrophizing.
You might think situations are much worse than they are, which of course can make it hard to persist. So these are just a few of the ways that you’re thinking may be getting in the way. I’m sure you can think of others and if you can’t, if you’re engaging in this type of cognitive distortions, now is the time to learn how to manage them. If you want to try on your own, check out the book. Feeling good by Dr. David Burns. Need a little extra help. Of course, a therapist or a coach can help you explore your thinking and how you might be able to change it. [inaudible] to faulty thinking, feeling bored, of course, is a huge stumbling block to getting started for ADHD adults. I didn’t need to tell you that one. The first step to addressing your boredom so you can get started is to notice.
Notice when you’re feeling bored, then stop. Rather than defaulting to some other activity. Check in with yourself and see what you could do to get over the boredom hump. Some ways to address this, our work on a super easy task so you can experience some success and then may you may be more willing to tackle the task are avoiding so clear off one corner of the kitchen counter. Rather than telling yourself you have to clean the whole kitchen. Ask somebody to be a body double and just work side by side doing your own work. It’s harder to watch Netflix if there’s somebody watching you write. Create accountability for yourself by checking in with a supportive person on a regular basis. If it works for you, reward yourself along the way. Go for a walk after working for a certain amount of time or completing a certain amount of work.
Don’t wait until the end to reward yourself and you may try to make it fun. True. Not everything can be fun, but cranking up the music for example, might make the task a little bit more enjoyable. If you’re taking medication, try timing when you do a task to when you take your medication or when it kicks in. Also, don’t forget to schedule play first really, so you will be more likely to be pulled to your work and find it interesting. Rather than resenting it, you might decide to have someone else, either you can delegate, barter, or hire, do part of the project that is just too hard for you or you don’t like. So these are just a few of the tips to get you started when a project is feeling particularly boring. I bet you can think of more. The last tip I want to offer you to make it easier to get started is getting ready to start.
Think of athletes when they’re ready to perform. I don’t know if you remember the swimmer Michael Phelps. He started his warm-up routine with a series of stretches and warm-up swims. Then he put on his racing swimsuit, listens to his music for 20 minutes. Then when it’s time to go to the starting block, he goes through a precise routine, which includes swinging his arms exactly three times. Why so precise? Sure. The stretching and warmups swims make sense, but why does he need a certain playlist of music and what is what the arm swinging thing. These are all cues to get him mentally as well as physically prepared to perform. So with your own warmup routine, you don’t need to be a Michael Phelps, but you’re wondering if starting is so hard, how are you going to start your warmup routine? Great question. As you think about creating your own warmup routine, the first step is to start with something so easily easy.
There is virtually zero chance anything could get in the way of starting. The traction you can get from just starting will help to continue moving toward starting on the actual task. Your objective, as I like to say, the key is to touch your task in any way you can. For example, if you want to write in the morning, you may start by first getting your coffee, opening your laptop. Just focus on touching your task and planting seeds. Don’t focus on how hard it might be to get to the summit. You just need to take the first step. It’s also helpful to make sure you include some physical movement towards your task as this will make the transition to getting started easier. So maybe you get up from your desk and sit in a particular chair with your laptop. You’re literally moving towards your goal of writing.
The movement can reinforce your intention to write. Maybe you even go to a different environment entirely, one that doesn’t have too many distractions. But enough stimuli to suit your needs. It could be a cube in a library, a busy coffee shop, your office, or even your patio. You might need to experiment to see what environments are best for different tasks. Then you really want to rinse and repeat because decision making can be another challenge for ADHD adults. So another way to make any started easier is to make sure the routine is exactly the same each and every time. That way you won’t be in the position of needing to stop and wonder, what should I do now? So if your routine includes swinging your arms three times, don’t swing them twice or four times. If you get water in the red glass, don’t switch to the blue glass.
After a while, you do the routine out of habit without much thought. And it will be the cue that this is what I do before I do whatever your task is. Then rather than needing to rely on motivation or willpower, you can be pulled by your warm up routine to start on your primary goal. So remember, rinse and repeat. So what’s your next step to finish? You need to get started and that’s what we focused on today. It’s not easy, especially for ADHD adults. What can you try from today’s podcasts to make starting easier this week? That’s it for now. I’m really glad you joined me and stayed until the very end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults with ADHD, check out
my website, marlacummins.com. Of course, if you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s podcast, please do pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might also benefit. Until next time, this has been scattered, focused, done, and I’m Marla Cummins wishing you all the best. On your journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD.