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If you have ADHD, you’re probably no stranger to the feeling of starting something new with excitement and enthusiasm, only to lose interest or get sidetracked before making any real progress. It’s frustrating and can leave you feeling like a failure. But the truth is, ADHDers and people with fast brains generally cycle through interests faster than the average person, so beating yourself up is pointless. Rather, learn to embrace this quirk about yourself and go into new adventures with the awareness that you might not want to stick with it for a long time, and that’s okay.
However, I also recognize that follow through can become a problem when we struggle to complete things that truly matter to us, like our dreams and goals. It doesn’t feel good to abandon something that you really wanted for yourself. I know this experience first hand and it can be a challenge to overcome.
In this post, I’ll explore why ADHD can make follow through so challenging, and offer practical strategies for overcoming those obstacles and achieving your goals.
Why Follow Through is a Struggle for ADHDers
At the heart of the issue is a difficulty with self-regulation – the ability to monitor your experience in the moment and develop self-generated coping strategies.
For example, when you’re stressed, instead of recognizing that you’re stressed and using tools to self regulate, like deep breathing or pausing to recenter yourself, someone with ADHD might have a sympathetic nervous system response and immediately shift into fight, flight or freeze. So when we’re triggered to, blow up, run away or freeze and disassociate from what we’re doing, it’s easy to see how that can translate into not following through on things.
Let’s put this into context by imagining a stressful job situation. Instead of pausing and leaning into our executive functions to rationally think through what’s happening and how we can best handle it, our immediate response might be to freeze. In that moment, we disassociate from the present moment and our minds immediately starts thinking of a way to escape the job.
As the stress at work continues to trigger us, we might self-regulate by setting a goal to start a business as a way to escape the stressful job. We create a vision in our minds of what this future experience will be like and how awesome it will be to have autonomy over our time and energy. This vision in itself is self-regulatory, because it makes us feel good to think about it.
But here’s the thing – when all we do is focus on the outcome, we’re staying stuck in freeze mode. We need our prefrontal cortex to be online in order to make concrete steps toward making it happen, because that’s the areas of the brain we need to plan, prioritize and initiate tasks.
So in this scenario, the idea of starting a business becomes more of a self-regulatory fantasy than a goal. So, we might take sporadic action that feels good, like coming up with a business name, logo, and website, but when it comes down to taking steps toward the business, we get stuck in procrastination.
Now our self-regulatory fantasy isn’t feeling as good as it did before when it was just a dream, so we start telling ourselves stories like “this will never work,” “I don’t have time,” or “someone else has already done it,” then we quit.
If that situation feels painfully real for you, you’re not alone. I’ve been there too, getting caught up in the vision but not making a plan or taking appropriate action. So, how do we avoid falling into this trap?
Three Warning Signs Self-Regulatory Fantasy is Inhibiting Follow Through
Let’s stay with this example of wanting to start a business to escape a stressful job. Here’s what might show up if and when you’re self-regulating with fantasy.
- You’re stuck in the ideation phase: If you find yourself daydreaming about your future goals without taking concrete steps, it may indicate a self-regulatory fantasy. Real plans require being present in the moment, understanding the obstacles, and taking the first steps to move closer to your goals. If you’re hell-bent on launching a business, for example, but you can’t seem to get yourself to do anything related to starting your business or creating a tangible offer to sell, then you’re stuck in an ideation phase and you won’t progress past it until you’re ready to take generally very messy action.
- You’re only focusing on the highlight reel: A fantasy often revolves around only envisioning the positive outcomes without considering the day-to-day realities. Realistic plans acknowledge the challenges and trade-offs involved in achieving the desired future. For example, as an introvert starting a coaching business, doing one-on-one Zoom calls five days a week wouldn’t work for me, so I knew from the start that I needed to limit my coaching time.
- You see your future ideal version of yourself as the “real” you: The person you are today or the situation you’re in might feel so unpalatable that you can’t accept that it’s worthy of acceptance, so you deny your experience in the present. You might want to believe that your true authentic self is the future self who has overcome all their challenges. But the reality is that we can only show up as our authentic self in the present moment. Our future selves are only ideas and fantasies that have yet to be realized.
This same scenario can show up for us in all areas of life. I’ve experienced similar responses when wanting to lose weight, change jobs, or get out of a bad relationship. Any time we find ourselves in a situation where we want to escape the present moment for an idealized future, we are at risk of getting caught in a fantasy that never materializes.
Strategies for Overcoming ADHD Obstacles to Follow Through
If you find yourself stuck in a self-regulating fantasy, the first step to changing course is to recognize that it’s happening. Sometimes it can take a long time to realize that you’re stuck in this cycle. Very often, other people bring it to our attention, which can often feel like an attack, but sometimes the truth stings.
Once you’re aware of the pattern you’re in, here’s what I recommend to get yourself out of it:
1. Get Really Clear About What You Want to Follow Through on
In the case of the stressful job, do you really want to start a business? Or do you just want to find a solution to the stress trigger at work? Getting real with yourself about what you truly want is a critical part of this process. If you don’t know what you want, get clear on what you don’t want. If you know you don’t want to leave your job because other than this one stressful situation, it’s otherwise a good fit, then the focus can switch to finding ways to reduce the external stressor while also finding more appropriate ways to self-regulate. Regardless of what you decide you want, the next step is to take action.
2. Create a Plan
To break free from the cycle of self-regulatory fantasy, you have to start building your future from the present moment, taking small steps towards your aspirations by creating realistic plans. A realistic plan involves choosing the right problems and challenges that resonate with your authentic self, and that aligns to your values, needs, and strengths.
It also means choosing goals that you know you can attain. Setting big goals is great, but if you set goals that are so aspirational and out of reach that you don’t believe you can attain them, the chances of success are weak. Not just because that’s not a realistic plan, but research shows that we reach goals that we believe we can attain. So when you’re creating your goals, make sure you do a gut check on them.
2. Embrace Messy Action
One of the biggest obstacles to follow through when you have ADHD is the fear of failure or making mistakes. ADHD brains tend to be perfectionistic as a coping mechanism. Many of us also struggle with rejection sensitive dysphoria, which is a heightened response to perceived rejection. But the truth is, making mistakes and failing is a necessary part of any new process. It’s how we learn and grow. So, instead of striving for perfection, embrace that your initial efforts will be messy – and that’s ok. Give yourself permission to take messy action and learn as you go.
3. Get Support & Accountability
Follow through is hard for everyone, but it can be especially challenging for people with ADHD. That’s why it’s important to get support from people who understand what you’re going through. This could be a coach, therapist, mentor, or accountability partner. Having someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, and hold you accountable can make all the difference in achieving your goals. Just be mindful of who you choose to support you along this journey and avoid sharing your experiences with anyone who might provoke shame or be dismissive of your unique struggles. This can derail your efforts and lead you back to unwanted fight, flight or freeze responses.
4. Break it Down
Big goals can be overwhelming, especially for people with ADHD. That’s why it’s important to break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. Make a list of all the tasks you need to complete to achieve your goal, and then break those tasks down even further into small, actionable steps. This will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and make progress every day. This is where a good productivity system can help you stay connected to your goal and create much-needed structure for following through. I have found Notion to be incredibly helpful with staying on track.
5. Celebrate Your Wins + Failures
Celebrate your wins, no matter how small and your failures, no matter how painful. It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the progress you’re making, even if it’s just taking one small step towards your goal. Celebrating your wins will help keep you motivated and give you the energy to keep going. Celebrating your failures is a practice of self-compassion but also helps to build resilience when you remind yourself that this is the journey you signed up for. Nothing worth having is easy – or everyone would have it, right?
I hope these ideas help to bring some awareness to your own potential struggles with following through on things. Once again, in some cases, it’s just fine to let things go when you no longer find them interesting or important. However, when it comes to the things in life that truly matter to you, I hope this framework provides a way forward to following through on your goals.