(Originally published February 22, 2019, Updated May 6, 2022)
How ADHD adults start with greater ease may be one of your most pressing questions. As is true for many ADHD adults, you might find the most challenging part of completing a task is starting it. And, while not always the case, once you get started, you might find it’s not that hard to continue working if you can just get started. But, since initiating can feel so daunting for reasons I’ll cover below, you may often procrastinate.
And, because you’re used to doing things at the last minute, you might have convinced yourself that that’s how you operate best. It’s become a habit. ADHD expert Dr. Thomas Brown explains it in the following way:
Often, they will put off getting started on a task, even a task they recognize as very important to them, until the very last minute. It is as though they cannot get themselves started until the point where they perceive the task as an acute emergency.
Now you’ve decided you’re tired of operating this way. That’s why you’re reading this article. Read on to see why it is so hard for ADHD adults to get started.
What Is Motivation?
When you’re motivated, you have the energy to engage in doing what it takes to make a change. It could be ordering food to satiate your hunger or looking for a new job when you’re unsatisfied with your current one. While there are many definitions of motivation, here is how I define it.
Motivation is the desire to make a change, coupled with the necessary energy to take persistent action to make that change.
You have the first part in spades. You want to make changes in your life, perhaps, many. But what frustrates you is that, despite wanting these changes, you get stuck because you can’t persistently create and sustain enough energy to take action.
Sometimes I bet you are dumbfounded at your inability to start on something you say is important to you. Before you decide it is because it is not that important to you, consider how your ADHD and emotions might be getting in your way.
Dopamine and The ADHD Brain
When you don’t start on what you say is important to you, you (and others) may think you’re choosing not to do it. If it is important to you, so the thinking goes, you would power through and start, right? After all, it seems easy for you to engage in tasks that interest you.
Sure, sometimes, just like anyone else, you choose to attend to what interests you at the expense of doing other important tasks. We all do this! But you also want to be intentional about starting and following through on what’s important to you, whether it’s intrinsically interesting to you or not.
One of the reasons for your inconsistency in starting your important work is that there is insufficient dopamine released in the executive function networks in the ADHD brain. Your brain is just not stimulated enough. So, you don’t start.
If you are interested in doing a task because of a perceived reward or avoidance of something negative, dopamine is released. It’s important to note that this is not voluntary, though! To paraphrase a patient of ADHD expert Dr. Thomas Brown, “Either you can get it up or you can’t.” Enough said.
The ADHD Interest-Based Nervous System
Because of your particular brain wiring, as ADHD expert, Dr. Dodson, points out you have an interest-based nervous system, “activated only by a fleeting sense” of interest, competition, novelty and, yes, urgency. Think about the times when you’re able to focus well recently. I bet one of these conditions are present.
So, telling yourself you should do something, trying to force yourself, just won’t work. In fact, you likely feel more resistance when you try to force yourself, right?
But when you wait until the last minute and there is an impending consequence, like getting in trouble at work, you might become really interested in doing the task. 😉 Dopamine is released and your brain gets the stimulation it needs. That is why urgency works.
How Unconscious Emotions Impacts Your Motivation to Start
The other factor that gets in your way of starting is the emotions attached to the task. Think about a task you are putting off right now. Write down all the thoughts that come to mind when you think of this task. What did you notice about the negative thoughts associated with the task? These thoughts are bringing up emotions that are contributing to your challenges starting.
Let’s see how that might work in the example of what might seem like a straightforward, simple task.
Cari is co-authoring a paper with her colleague, Naseer. As she is replying to some emails, she sees the one he sent her a week ago. She can’t believe she hasn’t responded yet, and tells herself that she should reply to him today! After all, he’s so good about replying right away.
Then she gets stuck trying to formulate a response. She remembers she promised to send her section to Naseer last week. But she didn’t. And she’s still not done with it. Cari decides she doesn’t want to give him an update until she can send the promised section. She doesn’t want him to think she’s a screwup.
Cari starts down a shame spiral, and can’t even think about what to write in the email. She wonders if he regrets ever deciding to work with her. Then she decides she’ll answer the email later because she has to go to a meeting.
I know there’s a lot to unpack there. But you get the idea. Emotions can get in the way of starting a task, even those that appear straightforward and simple.
Waiting for Motivation Is an Unreliable Strategy
Like Cari, you may often say to yourself about an important task, I’ll do that later. But you don’t mean that. That is, you don’t decide when you will do it. You’re just not going to do it in that moment.
But promising you will do it later minimizes the discomfort of putting it off. After all, Cari would not decide not to write the email. Similarly, you would not tell yourself you’re not going to do an important task you’re putting off, right? Instead, you promise yourself to do it later. Right, later.
When procrastinating, though unconscious, there is often an underlying belief that you’ll feel like doing it later. That is, something will magically change to make it easier to do. But you don’t know when that will happen or what will change.
Again, think of a task you’re putting off starting. When are you going to do it? You probably can’t answer that because you don’t want to do it. The task is uncomfortable to do now and won’t be any more palatable at some point in the future.
Waiting for motivation becomes even more of a slippery slope when you feel shame. Because your self-esteem takes a battering, and then you feel even less motivated to tackle the task. So, you may either avoid doing it or wait until there’s some external pressure, a sense of urgency, that forces you to do it.
The Cost of Over Relying on External Pressure
When confronted with the challenge of getting started, you may have developed a habit of relying on urgency for motivation. Because your work gets done eventually, you may even believe that is how you work best.
But, while the task gets done, I know urgency does not really work for you. Because relying on the pressure of deadlines comes with costs for you. These may include overwhelm, poor health, sleep deficit, mediocre work, mistakes, and not completing work when the pressure becomes too great.
You may expect yourself to create enough internal pressure on your own to get started. Because, your thinking goes, that is what adults do, right? In those moments it’s important to remember it will be a challenge when you just can’t muster the interest to get your brain fired up and/or your emotions get in your way.
How ADHD Adults Start. Stay Tuned…
Because of your brain wiring and emotional responses, which can be related to your brain wiring, you’ll need to figure out a different way to operate. The standard way neurotypical people operate just won’t work for you. And that’s OK!
In Part 2 of this series, 6 Tips ADHD Adults Need to Use to Make It Easier to Start, I’ll suggest various strategies you can try to make getting started easier. And as you experiment with these, you’ll be able to figure out what works for you. So, you don’t have to only rely on urgency to get started.