letters spelling out you didn't come this far to only come this farMy theory, long before my ADHD diagnosis, has been that: action creates energy, and it can bust procrastination. But many folks with ADHD think it is often the other way around. We believe that once we get motivated, then we’ll get the energy to do whatever the thing is this time! But the way our brains work, we often get stuck on the starting blocks, and the motivation rarely appears, and then… the thing, the project or the event doesn’t move forward. And then we fall into the trap of thinking we have failed, it’s too hard, I stink, and the cycle repeats itself.


Procrastination is an Ugly Word

Did you know that procrastination includes the word lazy in its dictionary definition? That is not what people with ADHD do, or are. When folks like us have trouble starting or completing a task, we may look “lazy” on the outside, but often there is quite a bit of furious activity happening on the inside. Fear and doubt often get their fingers deep into our motivation and sap the energy away from a task. Or they get in the way of us lining up the steps in order from start to …well we often find it hard to visualize what the finish line looks like. And our brain chemistry doesn’t naturally have the right tools in the box to push back.

Why does Action Come Before Motivation and How Can this Help Me?

Motivation is more of an emotional concept, which is a much more complex realm. Action is based more in the body. “Taking action” is a strong verb describing something getting started or being done. Having Motivation is a more passive phrase and is more of a thinking process. The hurdle of course, is shifting from thinking we need to have motivation first, and instead shifting into taking a small first action. And the hurdle is real.

How often have you finally started something that you were resisting and found that it wasn’t as hard, bad or as annoying of a task as you thought. Or that it really didn’t take that long, or really wasn’t that difficult. Our brains are excellent at that “disincentivizing” negativity loop. Our internal dialogue may sound something like “It’s too hard, I don’t know where to start, I stink at this type of thing, why can’t I get motivated….” Whatever our old internal mental tapes are telling ourselves… gets caught up and tangled in our emotional brain. And we get stuck there.

One Technique is to Trick your Brian by Starting Small, Tiny Even

I have worked at rewiring my brain to just start anywhere on the “thing” that feels hard. Notice I said feels difficult, not is difficult. I suggest starting small; start with some part of the task that doesn’t raise our resistance. This is a technique I learned from author Barbara Sher in her book Live the Life You Love. My interpretation of her idea, tweaked to work for the ADHD brain, is to find the thing that is so small that you don’t bother resisting. Then work up to your actual goal or project.two women swimming in a pool

My interpretation of her example: If the goal is swimming…

  • The first time you plan to swim, just look at the drawer where your swimsuit is. Pretty silly huh?
  • The next time just take it out and lay it over the back of the chair.
  • The next time put it on, then take it off. Really silly.
  • The next time go but the pool/gym bag together and maybe set it by the door.
  • Then what the heck – just go to the pool already
  • And when you go just do 15-20 minutes of swimming – not 100 laps, leave your brain wanting more. Set yourself up for future success.

Sher says that those small steps disarm our internal resistance by being under the radar.

The part of Sher’s technique that may not work so well for folks with ADHD is that one of our big issues is NOTICING. Due to the ADHD brain’s wiring, many of us have difficulties with something called executive functioning. Which translates, in this case, to it being hard for many of us to notice when we are putting off tasks, or when we are  listening to old mental chatter that drags us down, and more.

We need to learn, over time, to:

  • Notice when we are avoiding the big hairy scary task.
  • Notice when our self talk is happening and sucking the action out of the room.
  • Notice when we have moved that dreaded task on our daily to do list from Monday to each other day and now it’s Friday and it is still not done.
  • Notice when we get anxious in our body when we think about a particular task.
  • Notice what your specific flavor of avoidance or “waiting for motivation” is – my flavor is double chocolate chunk – what’s yours?

Another post I will touch on mini-meditations which have been a key way to teach my brain to notice more issues, more often than not.

I fully believe that action creates energy. So, I practice noticing when I am avoiding a task. When I notice procrastination creeping in, I practice taking a small action to get myself started. And once I am started, seven times out of ten, the big scary project doesn’t feel so big and scary, and I am into the work and humming along. Three times out of ten, I will admit, the project still feels difficult. Yet, once I get started, I often find I enjoy figuring out the tough parts. My brain enjoys solving the puzzles; who knew? Or I can then get myself over the hump and ride the wave of motivation that often shows up once I’ve started: I am getting paid to do this task, or it will feel so good when it’s done, or it will be so much easier to cook once the dishes are washed. After I begin to take action then the motivation to keep going catches up to me and helps pull me though the task.

scrabble tiles that spell out Go For ItI used to think motivation came first. But the technique of taking one tiny step or task, is often just enough to tip me over into motion and action first. If I try to think of the motivation, I get stuck in that thinking phase. If I move into action, almost any action, even a tiny one, I am moving forward. A complete rephrasing of Newton’s first law of motion to fit my needs here, and a slight misquoting, but: a person or a brain at rest, remains at rest, and an object (person or brain) in motion, stays in motion….

Bonus ADHD Procrastination Tip: try not to worry about finding the right thing to start. This is another way we trip ourselves up. Write one sentence – it doesn’t have to be the first sentence, or the perfect sentence. Take one photo, it doesn’t have to be your best, you just need to get started. In the swimming scenario above, you could start with looking at the gym bag – instead of the swimsuit. The trick is to begin practicing noticing, and then practice starting somewhere in the task, anywhere and see if the momentum carries you  into the project like it does for me. I know it is easier said than done, but by adopting this practice, over time, I have learned that action creates the energy I need to start and finish more things than I used to. And that if I wait around for the “motivation lightning bolt” to strike, I will likely still not be done long after the storm has passed.