Meeting Your Goals When You Have ADHD
As someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you probably know all too well the difficulty of accomplishing your goals. It can seem utterly daunting.
That’s because realizing goals taxes the executive functions in your brain, said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. These functions include everything from organizing to prioritizing to making decisions to managing time, he said.
Tedious tasks are especially tough. “Laundry, paying bills, attending business meetings — things that are not intrinsically interesting can put an adult with ADD into a tailspin of inaction,” said Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD.
Lack of reward with long-term goals adds to the challenge.
“ADHD brains are low in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward, arousal and motivation. Because of this, ADHD brains are starving for instant stimulation and reward,” Olivardia said.
It can seem like the odds are stacked against you in meeting your goals. But while accomplishing goals might be more challenging if you have ADHD, the key is to find the best strategies for you.
That’s what Matlen and Olivardia have done. In addition to being successful practitioners and seasoned experts in ADHD, both Matlen and Olivardia have ADHD. Here, they share insights to help you accomplish your goals.
1. Brainstorm backward. First, write down your final goal, Matlen said, “then go backward from there, and write down [all] the steps needed to accomplish the goal.” While it might seem silly, do this for seemingly straightforward tasks, too, she said. Take laundry, for instance. It’s boring and repetitive, has many steps and no one pats you on the back when you’re finished, she said.
Matlen suggested breaking it down like this: Write down, “Do family laundry.” Next, write out each step, such as:
- Pick up laundry from every room, and put it in the basket.
- Take baskets to laundry room.
- Sort lights and darks.
- Sort cold water and warm water. And so on.
Write this list on a poster, and paste it in your laundry area. As Matlen said, writing out specific steps gives your brain a roadmap to follow.
Splitting your goals into steps also helps you realize that success is within reach. When you’re working on a big project, it can feel demoralizing to realize that you haven’t finished it yet, Olivardia said. But when you break your goal into steps, you’re able to say, “I completed 4 out of 10 steps,” he said.
2. Reward yourself for every step. “People with ADHD have a higher degree of motivation if they get rewards along the way,” Olivardia said. So consider how you can reward yourself for every step accomplished.
3. Just do it. People with ADHD struggle with procrastination, which becomes especially problematic when you think you need to be motivated to get started. You don’t, Olivardia said. “In fact, getting started can get you motivated,” he said. (Here’s more tips on getting motivated when you have ADHD.)
4. Set a timer for one hour. “Time is an amorphous concept to those with ADHD,” Olivardia said. Setting a timer gives you “concrete parameters to work from,” he said. Plus, after the hour, you might even want to do more work, he added.
5. Focus on the end feeling. Visualize yourself finishing the project – and how great you’ll feel once you do, according to both experts. “Sometimes we focus too much on the actual task, rather than how it will make us feel when it’s completed,” Matlen said. Focus, for instance, on how good you’ll feel after paying your taxes, she said.
“Since ADHD-ers can lose a sense of urgency or excitement around a task easily, you may need to keep that alive in your imagination,” Olivardia said.
6. Focus on self-care. Whenever people with ADHD hyper-focus on a task, they ditch healthy self-care, such as getting enough sleep or even drinking enough water, Olivardia said. You worry that stopping will sabotage your progress, he said. “However, being tired and hungry are the very things that will guarantee that you will lose steam,” he said. So make sure you’re taking care of your bare essentials, including sleeping and eating well.
7. Take breaks. If you’re getting distracted easily – also common in ADHD – Olivardia suggested taking a complete break for 10 minutes. Then return to your task.
8. Work with a partner. Partnering up is especially helpful for tedious tasks, Matlen said. “If bill paying is a horrifying experience, set up a time each month with a friend and do it together,” she said.
Having a friend who keeps you accountable for your goal also helps, Olivardia said. “Sometimes just knowing that you will be reporting your progress — or lack of progress — can provide you with the sense of focus to stick with it,” he said.
9. Get creative. Think of how you can make meeting your goals a more enjoyable or interesting experience. For instance, play music when you’re cleaning your house or use colorful stickers for filing, Matlen said.
10. Get help. Hiring outside help doesn’t just help you meet your goal; it might even save you money. For instance, if you hire a bookkeeper to pay your bills and balance your account once a month, you’ll likely save money on bank and other late fees in the long run, Matlen said.
11. Don’t assume that you can’t accomplish goals. “Most importantly, never assume that you are not meant to accomplish great things because you have ADHD,” Olivardia said. “It can feel that way because you know that you are executing goals in a different manner from your non-ADHD counterparts,” he explained. But there’s nothing wrong with using a different strategy.
One size never fits all. The key is to find specific tactics that work well for you. And, again, don’t forget that even though meeting your goals might be challenging, as Olivardia said, you can absolutely accomplish great things.
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