(Originally published July 24, 2014, Updated February 22, 2019)
You know one of the challenges for adults with ADHD is getting started — activation. There is a myriad of reasons, which I’ll explore below, why initiation may be so difficult for you. And why the resulting procrastination may be one of your biggest problems. 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.
Of course, there are many factors involved in being able to successfully complete your multitude of tasks. Getting started is obviously one of the key factors. As you can’t finish what you don’t start. But a focus on finishing may leave you feeling overwhelmed. Alternatively, you can get your important work done if you focus instead on persistent starting.
Ready to learn how to do that?
Why Is It So Difficult for ADHD Adults to Get Started?
What is likely puzzling to you and others is the inconsistency in your ability to get started. That is, while you may procrastinate in some areas, you likely find it easy to engage in activities that interest you. You may even hyperfocus on these pursuits to the exclusion of your other responsibilities.
Consequently, it may appear as if it’s a question of willpower. That is, you are choosing to engage in activities that are important to you and not in those that aren’t. This just isn’t true. After all, I’m sure you have challenges starting even important task. That’s because the inconsistency is a byproduct of your brain chemistry.
When the promise of a reward — something positive or avoidance of something negative — registers dopamine is released. Your brain is stimulated, and it is easier to get started. But the deficit in dopamine in the ADHD brain makes this harder. In addition, when an important task is not intrinsically interesting — no promise of a reward — the available dopamine is not released.
In addition, despite your best intentions, your working memory limitations make it difficult to make the connection to the reward in the moment of choice. So, you may only consider whatever catches your attention in the moment. And not be able to connect to the reward for choosing to do your important work.
The third factor that may be getting in your way are the negative unconscious emotions associated with a 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.
These 2 Strategies Won’t Work to Help You Get Started
Unfortunately, you may have come to over-rely on two ineffective strategies by default
When you are procrastinating you may tell yourself, “I don’t feel like doing it now. I’ll do it later…” Underlying this is the belief you’ll feel like doing it later. But will you? Doing a task when you feel like doing it is not inherently wrong. And can be a good strategy for adults with ADHD.
Yet, you know you can’t always wait to feel like doing a task. If you don’t feel like doing your taxes today, you likely won’t feel like doing them tomorrow, right? Waiting for inspiration — motivation — can be a slippery slope. Because, obviously, your work may not get done. Then your self-esteem might take a battering. And you will have even less energy to tackle your important work.
You may also tell yourself, “I just need to…!” That is, you may believe you just need to try harder — exert more willpower. But trying to force yourself doesn’t work, either. Think about it. How well does yelling at yourself work to help you accomplish what you want? Not very well, I’m guessing.
In part, that is because exerting more willpower — trying to control your thoughts, emotions, impulses and performance — is one of your challenges as an ADHD adult. In addition, most people don’t like to be forced to do something.
The Cost of Over Relying on External Pressure
Nonetheless, you may also have come to rely on waiting until the last minute to get started. Because there’s nothing like lighting a fire under yourself to get your work done, right? Sure, when you were a kid, your parents might’ve said you couldn’t go out and play until you cleaned your room. It worked then.
As adults we’re expected to create the internal pressure on our own, though. But, as an ADHD adult, it can be hard to build enough motivation to get started when you can’t muster the interest. So, since your work can get done by creating enough urgency, you may believe it is your best go-to strategy.
Makes sense. Especially, since you’ve tried other strategies and they haven’t worked. Yes, the urgency may help you get started. But you also know relying on the external pressure that comes from a looming deadline comes at a cost. Because, when you are sliding into home base at the last minute:
- you may feel extraordinarily overwhelmed by the pressure.
- the strategy may backfire and lead to more procrastination when the stress is too much.
- your health may suffer.
- you may get mud on your face from the mistakes you make by trying to deliver at the last minute.
- you may not project the image you want
So, how do you get started without over-relying on external pressure?
Diversify your Motivators
The answer is to diversify your motivators — by learning and adopting other strategies. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to make getting started easier. Rather, there are many possible strategies. So, check out the 6 suggestions below. And then choose to experiment with those that make sense for what you need right now.
#1 – Know Your Reward
Trying to get started on a task that doesn’t interest you can be like waiting through quicksand. Tapping into the reward of completing the task, even when the task itself is not intrinsically interesting can help. Your answers may echo the examples below:
- I really don’t enjoy preparing for meetings, but I want to prepare for this meeting because I want the project to go well.
- Taking out the recycling every week doesn’t make sense to me. But, since it is important to my spouse, I want to make it a priority.
- I’m so tired at the end of the day to even think about exercising. But I know when I exercise, I feel better physically and emotionally.
As an adult with ADHD, you may still struggle to get started even when a task matters to you. While determining its value for you is not the magic ticket, it is a critical first step.
#2 – Make Sure You Know How to Do The Task
If you aren’t sure how to approach a task, you’re more likely to procrastinate. You know that. The key is to ask yourself, “What do I need to do this task?” And, if there is any uncertainty, getting clarity around those aspects is where you get started. After all, the beginning is the best place to start, right?
#3 – Take Time to Prepare to Start
You may encounter a lot of friction when you are not prepared to start. For example, you may end up stalling out when trying to start a work project because:
- you can’t find the document you need for the task.
- the workspace is too noisy or too quiet.
- you are hungry, tired or restless.
So, before you jump in and try to start working, consider whether you are ready. If you make “preparing to start” your first step, you’ll have an easier time getting started. And probably save time, as well as minimize your stress. Because you will be ready to dive in.
#4 – Use a Warm-Up Routine
Transitions — getting started, stopping and task switching — are uncomfortable for adults with ADHD. And, if the task is not interesting or in some way difficult or confusing, starting can be even more unnerving. So, to avoid this discomfort, you might end up procrastinating. Sound familiar?
Part of the solution is to learn how to withstand some transient discomfort.
And one way to do this and move past the discomfort is to use a warm-up routine. You might even find, despite the initial discomfort, focusing and attending to the task is not as difficult as you anticipated. If you’re interested in learning more, check out 3 Steps to Creating Your Own Warm-Up Routine.
#5 – Enlist Support
Having an accountability partner or body double may help you in getting started. Interested? Check out How to Form Accountability Partnerships for Adults with ADHD and ADHD and Body Doubles – Someone by Your Side.
#6 – Use Helpful Self-Talk
The way we talk to ourselves can either help or hinder us in achieving our goals. You know that. The right kind of self-talk can help guide us in being and acting the way we want. Unfortunately, this type of self-talk tends to be underdeveloped in adults with ADHD. Fortunately, you can learn how to develop this skill!
And as you develop this skill you will also minimize the overabundance of negative self-talk that may be guiding your actions right now, such as:
- “I must be perfect!”
- “I have to…”
- “I should…”
- “I must finish…”
- “This is too big and important!”
Check out ADHD & 5 Ways You Can Use Self-talk To Stop Procrastinating for strategies on how to reframe these messages. And make it easier to get started.
It’s difficult for adults with ADHD to get started. No news there. And waiting to feel like it or trying to force yourself doesn’t work. But waiting to the last minute can make you feel even more overwhelmed.
These six steps will make getting started easier:
- know the value for you in doing the task
- make sure you know how to do the task
- prepare to start before diving in
- use a warm-up routine to make the transition to starting easier
- enlist support
- use helpful self-talk
Read through the article above for the more in-depth version.