June 2, 2022

Finishing what you start when you have ADHD

How to escape the guilt, renew motivation and stop projects from languishing

Maaya Hitomi

Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess

Finishing what you start when you have ADHD

Most people with ADHD have that room, closet, or space. You know the one; where all the unfinished projects have been left to languish. The place you try not to make eye contact with as you walk past so the guilt doesn't swallow you whole. I know I have mine. It's filled with sewing projects, electrical circuits, DIY tools, and enough yarn that I’m convinced that the balls are reproducing on their own.

For each of these projects, I had the best of intentions. I had a goal in mind. I started them with motivation and passion… and then one day I just didn't feel like it. I was convinced that I'd come back to it, but if I'm being honest I knew what was coming. Two weeks went by and then months and the project hadn't moved forward one little bit. I was no longer motivated or passionate about it. Instead, any time I thought about it, I felt a deep sense of guilt and shame. If you have ADHD, you probably know this process far too well. Many ADHD'ers struggle to complete projects, goals, and tasks.

Why is it so hard for ADHD’ers to finish what we start?

Projects which don't come with a natural, external deadline or sense of urgency are particularly hard to complete because we are often relying on interest or novelty to work on them in the first place. As the novelty wears off and our interest shifts (as it randomly does when you have ADHD), the project becomes more and more likely to be abandoned.

This is the process of motivational decay, and in response to it some people double down on unhealthy sources of motivation, such as anxiety or anger, to keep projects moving forward. When these unhealthy sources of energy become less effective, however, they can overwhelm us, leading to another way projects get abandoned.

A third way some projects can end up in the closet of shame is simply because we forgot they exist. Whether it's because we didn't have enough time to focus on them for a while, or because the project was moved to a place that we couldn't see it anymore, the memory weaknesses that come with ADHD can make abandoning projects more likely.

So, how do we finish what we start?

Well, first let's consider if we even have to. Something that I've noticed working with clients with ADHD is that many of us like to set so-called aspirational goals. These goals are so big that they are usually unrealistic for one person to achieve in a reasonable amount of time. They can be goals like writing a novel, developing an app, or even setting up and following a bedtime routine. Each of these goals are things that people can and do do, but what makes them aspirational is that they aren't an incremental step in our abilities, but rather a giant leap. They are goals for us to aspire to and draw motivation from.

The thing about aspirational goals is that you don't have to complete them to be successful. For example, if I set the aspirational goal to deep clean the entire house but I 'only' completed the first two rooms, my space is still cleaner. Likewise, if I have an aspirational goal to complete an Ironman (triathlon) and I 'only' ever take part in small, local club events, I still become fitter. In both cases, my life is better for attempting the goal even if I didn't 'complete' it. The same is often true for other projects as well.

If seeing the silver lining of your work up until this point isn't enough, and you decide that you need to finish the project, start by making the project, and especially your progress, as visible as possible. Depending on the specifics of what you're trying to finish, this is going to look different, but this might mean placing the project in a highly visible area, close to where you'd work on it naturally. This offers a good visual reminder of the project (and might clue you into overwhelming feelings of anxiety, shame, anger, or guilt that also might be halting your progress).

More important than making the project visible, however, is making the progress on the project visible. Early into the life of a project, small steps can make a big difference in how the project looks or functions, but by the time that you're most of the way done, the same small steps can feel like they're making no difference at all. Narrowing your view to make these small steps seem (or look) much bigger than they feel can make completing them more rewarding again and may make working on the project easier as well.

This strategy of making the small steps visible also has the advantage of reminding you to have small steps in the first place. While it is common for folks to break down projects when they are in the early stages, this can be forgotten later in the project. Having small steps (and making completing them feel rewarding) helps combat that feeling of being overwhelmed and avoiding the project out of fear, anxiety, or stress.

Finally, if the main issue preventing the project from moving forward is motivational decay, finding new, healthy sources of motivation is necessary to completing the project or task. While large sources of interest or novelty may no longer be available, smaller, micro-interests, such as an interest in a particular method or programming language, can still help. In addition, solving old problems in new ways or learning new tools can build a little bit of novelty back into the project. Even if adding these smaller sources of interest and novelty also add a measure of inefficiency, adding them and being able to complete the project will always be more efficient than not adding them and abandoning it.

If all else fails, hand the project to someone who has more passion for it than you do. This isn't giving up, but rather giving the project the best chance possible for being completed.

Ultimately, not completing projects that we've started is a pretty common experience for ADHD'ers, and it can lead to a lot of negative feelings about ourselves, our abilities, and the projects we love. If we can recognize why we're struggling to finish what we've started, there are steps we can take to make completing projects more likely. However, recognizing that not every project needs to be completed to be successful, and that completing what we have is a success in its own right, can go a long way to undoing the guilt and shame that unfinished projects can bring.

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 completion on Twitter!

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