Task initiation, also known as getting started on any task at hand, can be a huge challenge for individuals of all ages with ADHD.
Sometimes it is as simple as lack of interest or motivation in the task that is causing the procrastination, but sometimes it is more complex. Today I am talking about why getting started can be so hard and then I am going to share some of my favourite ways to get over the starting line when faced with a challenging task.
As an ADHD coach that works with individuals with ADHD ranging in age from 5 to 55, I want to start by sharing that struggling to get started is a normal and expected part of ADHD. Motivation is tricky with ADHD and so are transitions. Task initiation is the double whammy of having to navigate both of these areas. I often share with clients that simply starting is typically the hardest part. Here are some of the reasons for this challenge:
Executive Function Challenges:
Executive functioning encompasses cognitive processes such as planning, organization, self-control, working memory, time management and more. These are all areas that are strained when completing many of the tasks of life. This means that individuals with ADHD will often be derailed from getting started if an executive function is being strained too much (eg. too many steps) or if the anticipation of too much executive function work leads to overwhelm and anticipatory exhaustion.
Difficulty with Prioritization:
A pattern I commonly hear from ADHDers is that it is hard to figure out what is important because everything feels important. Another pattern that I hear is that whatever feels interesting or important in the current moment becomes the priority instead of what colleagues or family members would choose. These patterns lead to difficulty prioritizing tasks, choosing low priority tasks or avoiding starting any tasks at all.
Perfectionism is a common ADHD pattern and can lead to task avoidance when an individual knows that they may struggle to complete a task perfectly. Additionally, the knowledge of how much work it will take to complete the task perfectly can lead to a pattern of delaying until the perfect amount of time and capacity appears.
Tasks that bump up against executive function challenges like too many steps or anxiety triggers can lead to intense feelings of overwhelm. If the overwhelm feels too much you can see an individual with ADHD shut down and avoid, when faced with complex tasks.
Motivation is a core area that I support as an ADHD coach. Tasks that are perceived as boring, uninteresting, and non-urgent can be extremely hard to face. This is due to a combination of lowered dopamine (our reward neurotransmitter), overwhelm, and how much energy and focus needs to put out to support executive functions (the is it worth it analysis).
Individuals with ADHD are easily derailed by obstacles in the way. Starting a task takes a lot of energy for all of the reasons listed above, if an individual attempts to start and then discovers that they don’t have the information needed, ability to complete it, hits a technological obstacle, is unsuccessful, and so on summoning the energy a second time is even more difficult. Simple technological blockades can completely sideline an ADHDer from a task, even a time sensitive task that they deeply care about.
So now that we have established that getting started is hard, let’s talk about how to support task initiation.
With ADHD, I like to say that preferences rule all, for that reason I don’t recommend doing ALL of the things I have listed below. Instead choose a couple that feel good for you and try them next time you notice you or your child struggling to start a task. The goal is to collect a couple of go to options to fall back on everytime you feel stuck.
Move First Task Second:
Movement increases focus and attention, tackling the most challenging tasks after a little movement break can help set you up for success.
Pick Your Moment:
I like to schedule for success. Take note of what time of day your focus and productivity is at its best. This is the time of day you want to schedule in your most difficult to start tasks.
The more tasks that can be built into habits the better. If you can take tasks that are hard to start and build them into a regular routine then they don’t require the extra strain of decisions around when to complete them.
Separate Decisions from Doing:
Difficulty with decisions and analysis paralysis is a common ADHD pattern. Making a decision can be exhausting and so I like to separate the decision making from the action of completing the task. Recognizing that the decision making is work too and needs time and energy is important. For example, deciding what to do on the weekend on Friday evening can make it easier to tackle the weekend tasks when Saturday starts.
Break Tasks into Smaller Steps:
Large and complex tasks are overwhelming and strain working memory. Sometimes it is ideal to cover up portions of a project or assignment so that you truly are only facing one thing at a time.
Use Visual Aids:
Checklists, calendars, and timers help to keep progress visual and support time management. They also reduce the strain that can be put on working memory.
I love this strategy. Schedule working blocks with a friend or a colleague, even a digital meeting where you leave zoom open. This works well for workouts as well.
I Do, We Do, You Do:
I love this strategy for supporting children. You as a parent or teacher model one example, then you tackle one together, and then you leave the child to keep going independently. Often this shared start builds enough momentum for some independent work.
How you do something is really really important for the ADHD brain. Meeting preferences, especially sensory and interest preferences can boost motivation significantly. Where do you like to work? What tools are your favourites? What do you like to start with? All of these are important questions. Allowing yourself or your child to meet their preferences is almost always a good idea. Writing implements are one of my favourite examples of this, if the gel pen gets the job done, use it!