Michelle Frank, Psy.D., and Sari Solden, M.S.

The Women’s Neurodiversity Project

Moving Beyond "I Can't!"

ADHD-friendly ways to overcome procrastination without shame.

Posted May 22, 2019

Alexandra Stockmar, Pixabay
Source: Alexandra Stockmar, Pixabay

Have you ever heard the word “start” used in the sense of being startled? As in, “to flinch or recoil in alarm”? According to the very scholarly resource Thesaurus.com, the word “start” didn’t have the best reputation in the 14th century. And I get it, because, let’s be honest, for the neurodivergent among us especially, starting something—particularly something difficult and boring—can feel more “flinch and recoil” than “happily leap into action.”

Sometimes, starting something is a joyous act of creation. It could be an adventure, a relationship, a fun project, a meaningful endeavor. More commonly, though, we stop and start less exciting pursuits countless times per day. It is in this space of the “small starts” that life happens, and things come to fruition. It is no wonder that the act of starting something, however small, can feel daunting. (See ADHD aside below.)

People of all brain types can relate to this; I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t struggle at times with activation. However, getting started is different and more difficult for those with ADHD and/or similar challenges. For these individuals, starting the most basic daily task can feel like climbing Mount Everest, only to tumble back to base camp a quarter mile in to try again tomorrow.

Some with ADHD describe their trouble with activation as physical discomfort, as a feeling of being at war with a great inner resistance that won’t budge, or as a sensation of being completely frozen and unable to take even the slightest step forward. The brain system that regulates stop and go, hypo-arousal and hyperarousal, reward and punishment, is not regulated as well in those with ADHD. So if you are someone with a condition that impacts self-regulation and executive functioning skills, you have the unfortunate challenge of coping with the common experience of activation anxiety and the brain-based differences that can lead to both a frozen accelerator and squeaky brakes. This can become a tangled mess of obstacles pretty quickly. I’m sorry about this; it isn’t fair, but it is manageable.

Lean In to Action

The Flinch/Recoil Reflex: Did you know that when we feel anxiety about starting a task, it is often an indication that our emotional brain is processing that task as a threat in some way? Feels about right, doesn’t it? This is because our stop and go signals are linked to the part of our brain that judges if it’s safe enough to go in the first place. When something is causing us anxiety or we associate a task with pressure or discomfort, there is a part of our brains that says, “Hold on. Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Moving Past “I Can’t!”: Our prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is responsible for integrating higher-order reasoning with our instincts and has the power to direct the winds of our emotional sails. For instance, if it’s beyond time to tackle the dishes, we might look at the sink and become completely overwhelmed. Our defensive mind might chime in, probably with a bullhorn, saying things like: "This is too much! I can't! This is so uncomfortable, I can’t deal with this right now. I’m such a slob, and I’m bad at adulting. Just, no!" When we attach to these thoughts, we are essentially waving the checkered flag and yelling, “Go!” to our anxious minds and increasing the resistance that has only served to make the situation more overwhelming over time.

If, however, we choose a different narrative, we can cue our emotional brains to take a step back, which helps us move through our inner resistance. You can coach your emotional mind through these moments more effectively if you tell yourself something like: “Well, this is uncomfortable and overwhelming, but I am capable of doing hard things. Maybe I could put half of the dishes in a bin on the other side of the room to reduce the overwhelm.” Or, “I’m never going to want to do the dishes, but I don’t have to be in the mood to start. I’m willing to be a little uncomfortable to reduce my stress in the long run. I’ll feel relieved and accomplished if I do just five dishes.”

Reframing Self-Care Can Help: Another angle would be considering how difficult tasks can be an important part of self-care: “Following through on this action is one way to take care of myself, and I deserve to be taken care of.”

Since our brain incorporates language as it tries to make sense of the world, the words we choose to repeat and focus on are of great consequence. We prime our brains in how to perceive the world every day. As such, pep talks like the ones above, however silly they sound, help to break the chain of mental events that jump from a worst-case scenario interpretation and trigger a flee or freeze reaction to a more realistic and helpful sequence of responses.

ADHD-Friendly Ways to Take the Next Step

Remember what I was saying a moment ago about the act of starting being all about change? Well, sometimes the ADHD brain needs a pretty direct cue to help it realize it’s time to shift. In the case of activation, one of the best things you can do is ask yourself, “What needs to change right now so I can begin?” Chances are there are a few things, but your boss’s attitude and the deadline for filing taxes are not things you have control over.

So, what do you have some agency to change at this moment? Perhaps more importantly, what do you need to give yourself permission to do for yourself?

Make a Move

Break through inertia by choosing one small change. Below are a few examples of things you have some influence over. What can you change to help your brain shift into action?

  • Your mood. “What can I do to create a shift in my emotional landscape right now?” Perhaps you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed in general. Maybe you need to rest, talk to a confidant, or take a walk outside while listening to upbeat music to create a shift.
  • Your space. “What about this space isn’t working for me?” In the case of the dishes, perhaps you put a blanket over half of the kitchen counter mess to reduce visual overwhelm. If you’re writing a paper, maybe you go to a space such as a quiet library or a humming coffee shop that will have the right level of stimulation for your brain.
  • Your expectations. “Am I making this harder than it needs to be?” Check for perfectionism and think about how you can start smaller, get help, or communicate realistic boundaries and timelines with others.
  • Your energy level. “Do I need to rest or be active for a bit to rejuvenate?” Have you eaten? Are you hydrated? Consider doing a five-minute guided mindfulness meditation using an app or YouTube, laying down for 10 minutes, doing some light stretching, having a private dance party, or turning down an outing or project to switch up your energy level.
  • Your approach. “Do I need help or more information? What is truly my goal here, and how can I stay on track?” Sometimes ADHDers jump in without having all of the information or support they need. Other times, they gather all of the supplies and information in place of actually getting started. Where can you make a change in your approach?

In sum, starting is, in essence, an act of change. And while change is the most stable constant in life, it seems to be the crux of much of what we simultaneously desire and resist. Recognizing the patterns of our resistance allows us to take a moment to pause, to reframe our narrative, and to intentionally choose the best way to begin.

ADHD moment & side note: Thirty minutes ago, I was staring at the page, all blinking cursor, blinking cursor, blinking cursor. I’m dating myself a little here, but in my head I pictured Doogie Howser staring at the blank blue page on his word processor in the legendary show Doogie Howser, M.D. in which it could be argued that Neil Patrick Harris gives the performance of a lifetime. I then ended up procrastinating this post by 30 more minutes watching old Doogie clips. Shocking, I know. Here’s the link for those similarly inclined! (#sorrynotsorry)

This post was written by Michelle Frank.