ADHD and Task Initiation: Getting the Ball Rolling

Task Initiation is harder when you have ADHD. Here are some strategies that can help you get started

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Jun 21, 2021

Tiimo member

June 21, 2021
Maaya Hitomi
Maaya Hitomi is an ADHD Coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind Structured Success @StructuredSucc

SUMMARY

  • It’s not just you. Task Initiation is harder when you have ADHD, because tasks take more energy to get started.
  • While it’s tempting to rely on urgency and deadlines, overreliance on urgency can leave us feeling guilty, ashamed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
  • Instead, try using creative problem solving to add interest, novelty, or challenge to give yourself more energy to start.
  • Adding stimulation (that doesn’t interfere with the task) and using the momentum from smaller tasks to help push into larger ones can help too.
  • Breaking tasks down can help. (Yes, really.) But consider breaking down only the next step or hiding the big list to avoid getting overwhelmed and paralyzed.

Recently, I asked ADHD Twitter what part of getting tasks done was the hardest for them. Between getting started, changing tasks, stopping tasks, and following through, a majority of the ADHD’ers who responded reported that starting tasks was the hardest part. Not only does this match my own personal experience, but this also matches the most common concern my clients identify in our first meeting. Whether it’s phrased as ‘procrastination', ‘motivation', or ‘executive dysfunction’, it’s clear that Task Initiation is a serious and seriously common struggle for ADHD’ers.

Understanding Task Initiation

Imagine a task as a ball sitting on the top of a hill. To start the task and get the ball rolling, you need to put some energy into pushing the ball. Once started, the ball rolls down the hill picking up momentum as it goes. At the bottom of the hill, you then need to put some energy into stopping the ball or directing its energy towards a new task. Task initiation is the effort required to get the ball rolling.

This analogy is true for everyone. Neurotypicals and neurodivergents of all stripes need to put some energy into pushing the ball to start a task. However, for people with ADHD (and other people who struggle with executive function), the ball is much bigger, meaning we need to put much more energy into pushing the ball to get it rolling. Unfortunately, the ball is often so big that our internal motivation alone doesn’t provide us enough energy to start.

Beware of Overreliance on Urgency and Deadlines

By far, the most common coping strategy for struggles with Task Initiation among ADHD’ers is an overreliance on a sense of urgency. When staring down a deadline with very real consequences, this sense of urgency is the thing that gets us moving. However, if there is no such deadline, or if the consequences aren’t scary enough, this extra sense of urgency is nowhere to be found. This can leave us feeling guilty, anxious, or overwhelmed, revealing the unhealthy nature of this coping mechanism.

The fact that missing one piece necessary for crafting this elusive sense of urgency leaves us feeling anxious is no accident. Just below the surface of urgency lies a fear or anxiety over potential negative consequences. When this urgency isn’t enough, or isn’t available, our mind can then turn to other emotions such as guilt, shame, or anger to fill the gap. Together, these emotions serve as a fossil fuel for getting started; an unhealthy source of energy that has seriously negative impacts when overused.

Tackling Task Initiation the Healthier Way

Strategy #1: Add more Energy

  • Interest - Many ADHD and/or autistic people find interest in a task to be the most powerful motivator for getting started. Because of this, trying to cultivate interest is a solid strategy for starting tasks more easily. However, I would guess that if you’re reading this article, the tasks you’re struggling to start are ones you don’t have a natural interest towards (or they’d probably be started by now). In these cases, finding the interesting parts of the otherwise boring tasks can offer some of the same motivational power, only in a smaller way.

    For example, spreadsheets are particularly interesting to my brain. Knowing this, any task I can reasonably build a spreadsheet for is inherently more motivating to me. While your interests are almost certain to be more fun than mine, finding a way to involve your interests in your tasks can be a worthwhile effort.

  • Novelty - Similar to interest, novelty is particularly attractive to the ADHD brain. Tasks that we’ve never done before, or tasks that are leading us on a new adventure, can be especially motivating. While this can have negative consequences (I’m looking at you wikipedia rabbit holes), regularly changing the types of tasks we’re working on, or trying to solve old problems in new ways, can make getting started just a little bit easier.

  • Challenge - Inherent in both the strategies above is a need to use creative problem solving to find a way to build interest or novelty into a pre-existing list of tasks. This is something that ADHD’ers are particularly good at, and something that can be quite motivating in its own right. One way that we can use this skill to motivate getting started on tasks is to make the task a challenge or game. Of course, the goal isn’t to make the task harder, but to inspire creative problem solving in completing the task.

    For example, consider setting a timer for 25 minutes and racing the clock to get as much work as you can done. After the timer rings, take a break, reset the timer and try to beat your score. For long writing projects, this method helped so much with getting more written and made writing more rewarding at the same time.

    Adding creative constraints to your work is another way you could use this strategy. For artists, this may involve limiting their palette to a certain number of colours; while for writers, it could be including a specific piece of information. In either case, these limitations can inspire novel ways of completing the same tasks or get you to use information or techniques you’re particularly interested in.

  • Stimulation - For ADHD’ers, there is often a strong connection between stimulation and energy levels. This means that, by providing sensation or stimulation, we can gain more energy we can use for all sorts of things, including getting started on tasks. One way of using this connection to our advantage is a technique I’ve named sensation stacking.

    In sensation stacking, we layer different sensations on top of what we’re already doing. The trick here is to add sensations that don’t involve cognitive processes we’re relying on for the task we’re trying to start. For example, if we’re working on a writing task, adding stimulation that uses language processing is likely to cause problems, while adding instrumental music or a tactile fidget are less likely to.

  • Momentum - Oftentimes, we can use the momentum we’ve collected from a previous task to push us into action on a new one. A common way to do this is by starting a relatively small task that doesn’t take a ton of energy to start and then moving to progressively larger tasks as we pick up speed.

    While we do lose energy moving from one task to another, moving between more similar tasks is generally easier than moving between very different ones. For example, moving from a writing task to a writing task will generally be easier than moving from a writing task to a maths task. By stacking similar tasks together, we can minimize the energy we lose changing tasks and maximize the energy we can use to push the next task forward.

  • Strategy #2: Reduce the size of the task

    • Break it down - Although this advice is often given to ADHD’ers by neurotypicals in a dismissive or patronizing way, the core advice is solid. Making tasks smaller does make it easier for us to start. Focusing on completing an outline to an essay is always going to be easier than completing the whole thing, and getting started in the first place follows these rules too.

      However, breaking tasks down can also be a problem for ADHD’ers, and this is often why we balk at this advice when it’s given by neurotypicals. Breaking every task down into tiny pieces is tiring and can lead us to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks remaining. Add our weakened working memory to this, and this can be a recipe for rumination, overwhelm, and paralysis.

    • Focus on the next step - One way to avoid this rumination, overwhelm, and paralysis is to focus on breaking down only the next step of your task. Rather than identifying all the tasks needed to complete your essay, for example, you can focus on identifying the first step, and breaking that step into smaller, more actionable chunks. This prevents us from getting lost in details that aren’t relevant yet and leaves space in our mind for the step we’re actually on.

    • Hide the big list - Another way to avoid this overwhelm, rumination, and paralysis is to use ADHD's ability to forget anything we aren’t looking at. To do this, break down the task in the way that you normally would, creating the big, long list of steps as you do. Once this list is made, identify the next two steps you need to accomplish and then place the rest of the list out of sight. Writing down the big list helps us avoid ruminating on the tasks ahead, while making the next two steps visible directs us towards these short-term, actionable tasks.
    • Strategy #3: Get Help

      Body Doubling - A couple years ago now, a client said something that got stuck in my head. They described themselves as being “buddy-buddy,” by which they meant they’re their most motivated when someone else is doing the thing with them. This perfectly captured my experience too! I don’t need someone to do my executive functions for me (okay, sometimes I do need that, actually), I need someone to do things with me. Just having someone else working with me immediately moves me into a people pleasing mode and I become eager to do the thing.

      This is what body doubling offers: an ally who is doing a task alongside us. Whether in-person or over the internet (such as focusmate or ADHD hub’s co-working sessions), having other people who are working with us can be a seriously powerful motivator for getting started.



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      As with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for task initiation—what works will depend on the person and the task at hand. This list, however, offers a place to start in finding the strategies that work best for you and your tasks. Join the conversation and let us know on Twitter and Instagram what strategies have worked for you!

      Maaya Hitomi is the ADHD Coach and Academic Strategist behind Structured Success, where they work with ADHD, autistic, and otherwise neurodivergent clients to develop strategies for better coping. They have their Master’s and undergraduate degrees in Psychology, and 4 years experience as an ADHD Coach. More importantly, they’re (probably) autistic, and definitely ADHD and dyslexic, and rely on their structures and strategies to support their own success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on task initiation on Twitter!

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