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As someone with ADHD, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of follow-through in my content. I even created a program to help people finish what they start. But today, I want to address the opposite end of the spectrum – task initiation or getting started. It’s equally, if not more, challenging for individuals with ADHD. In this blog post, we’ll explore why starting tasks can be so difficult for ADHD’ers and I’ll share actionable strategies to overcome this hurdle.
Task Initiation Isn’t Always Hard (Hello, Dopamine!)
The first thing to point out is that not all tasks are hard to get stared. When we find something interesting or novel, our brains release dopamine, often referred to as the “feel-good” chemical. With ADHD, this means that tasks that are rich in novelty and interest provide us with a dopamine boost, making them easier to start. However, many of these tasks lose their appeal quickly, especially when they become monotonous or complicated.
Why Some Tasks Feel Impossible to Initiate
Now that we know that dopamine can get us started when tasks are interesting, what happens when a task doesn’t sound interesting, but we have to do it? Well, nothing – that’s the problem.
When we are faced with a task that we have to do, but we don’t want to, our brain lacks the required dopamine to get started. I’ll get into some strategies for overcoming that in a minute, but let’s first explore why we feel stuck – because it’s not just about dopamine. It’s also an executive function issue that makes getting started feel overwhelming.
Complexity is a Productivity Killer
Sometimes tasks are hard to initiate because they are very complex. Let’s take taxes as an example. Not only are taxes 100% boring, but they are also a prolonged and multi-step process. Gathering all the necessary paperwork, filling out forms, and answering questions can be overwhelming, even for neurotypical individuals.
For those of us with ADHD, who often struggle with executive function and working memory, the complexity of such tasks can be paralyzing. It’s not just about the boredom; it’s also about our difficulty in mentally organizing and prioritizing the numerous tasks involved.
When You Don’t Know Where to Start
Another barrier to task initiation is not knowing quite where to start. When there are a number of steps without a clear entry point, we have to rely on our own prioritization skills which can be challenging for ADHD’ers. Even if you have a list in front of you of all the tasks you need to complete, it might be overwhelming to know which one to do first.
Strategies for Overcoming the Start-Up Challenge
Now that we understand why some tasks are harder to start, let’s explore actionable strategies to overcome this challenge. Remember, every situation is unique, so adapt these strategies to fit your specific needs.
1. Start With a Dose of Self-Awareness
Start by asking yourself if the task at hand is essential or aspirational. Determine if it’s something you genuinely need to do or just want to have done. If it’s not essential, consider graciously bowing out or putting it on a “someday maybe” list. Unnecessary tasks drain our energy and clutter our minds, making it harder to focus on what truly needs to get done. Be gentle with yourself when letting go of non-essential tasks, as it’s an act of self-care, not a failure.
2. Design For Execution
If the task is essential or something you genuinely want to do, design your life and environment to support its execution. Break the task down into smaller, manageable steps and create a schedule or system that ensures progress. For example, if you struggle with tax preparation, set up a designated space to collect all the necessary paperwork. Consider seeking support from friends, body doubling or accountability groups, or professional services to stay motivated and on track.
3. Energy Management
ADHD’ers often experience extreme fluctuations in energy levels, swinging between hyperactivity and inertia. Managing your energy becomes crucial for maintaining consistency and avoiding burnout. Pace yourself, and don’t expect to tackle everything in one day. Celebrate small wins and recognize that progress, no matter how incremental, is still progress. Consider creating checklists or using productivity tools to stay organized and stay on top of your tasks.
4. Externalizing Thoughts and Planning
One of the common challenges for individuals with ADHD is organizing and planning tasks in their heads. Instead of trying to solve everything mentally, externalize your thoughts. Write down all the steps involved in the task and consider starting from a point that feels accessible rather than the very beginning. By starting where you can, you build momentum and make it easier to continue. If you feel overwhelmed, take a break and come back to your list when you’re feeling more centered.
Initiating Tasks Can Be Hard, But Not Impossible
Starting tasks can be a significant hurdle for individuals with ADHD, but it’s not an insurmountable one. By understanding the reasons behind this challenge and implementing actionable strategies, we can overcome the inertia and begin making progress. Remember, self-awareness, lifestyle design, energy management, and externalizing thoughts are key elements in conquering the start-up struggle. Embrace the journey and have compassion for yourself along the way. You’re capable of achieving great things, even if getting started feels difficult at times.