Meeting Your Goals When You Have ADHD

Meeting Your Goals When You Have ADHDAs 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:

  1. Pick up laundry from every room, and put it in the basket.

  2. Take baskets to laundry room.
  3. Sort lights and darks.
  4. 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.

Best of Our Blogs: January 11, 2013

Ever have days when you think you got it all figured out? You’ve learned to communicate better, be more patient, and feel self-confident, imperfections and all. Then you get slammed by a day that makes you question everything.

That’s the type of day I had. Late for a doctor’s appointment. Late for a meeting. Suddenly, not so confident I can take on the world when I can’t seem to take control of my life. This comes after months of meditating, tai chi and yoga. Surprisingly, it did little to abate incessant and unnecessary insecurities and anxieties I felt over something so unimportant. I guess I assumed life would be easier. But I realized that taking responsibility for your life and being mindful of each moment made things more challenging. It was up to me to choose whether I was going to beat myself up for being out of control or learn to let it all go (the former being a lot easier than the latter).

It’s a question you may have also asked yourself recently. If so, know that it’s okay to get riled up sometimes. It’s okay if you have a bad day and make a mistake. There’s always tomorrow to right what we’ve wronged yesterday.

This week our bloggers are helping you to stop getting caught up in failure so you can choose to accept what is and let go. So whether you’re having trouble sticking with your 2013 resolutions or just want to communicate better, you’ll find it all here minus the judgment and the perfectionism.

8 Tips to Improve Your Communication
(Parenting Tips) – Think you’re a good communicator? Find out how what you say can hurt, not help your relationships. Then read these 8 things you can do about it.

3 Steps to Making Intentions Stick in the New Year
(Mindfulness & Psychotherapy) – Having trouble keeping to those New Year’s resolutions? Don’t be so hard on yourself! Find out why imperfection and failure are part of the process.

Love: The Healthy Addiction?
(Sex & Intimacy in the Digital Age) – Can love be as destructive as an addiction? Here’s how to know if you’re love is healthy or an emotionally unhealthy addiction.

Beware the Trap of Perfectionism: An ADHD Lesson
(ADHD from A to Zoë) – Perfectionism can get the best of us. Zoë shares how having ADHD can make it particularly insidious.

Developing Creativity: Notable Research and Books in 2012
(The Creative Mind) – An interesting new topic in neuroscience is cognitive flexibility. It delves into both creativity and intelligence and how they are intertwined.

Best of Our Blogs: January 8, 2013

It happened again. I divulged a secret and confided my most intimate thoughts and vulnerabilities to someone I trusted. And the feedback? Not the way I had hoped or expected. Instead of validation and thoughtful listening I got un-welcomed advice and misunderstanding. It was a conversation that bothered me so much I spent most of the night rehashing it in my mind. The experience taught me a few things.

One is that sometimes people who love you are incapable of being the safety net to hold your uncomfortable feelings. It makes them uncomfortable so they try to change how you feel with words. Even the people who love you most and have the best intentions can’t always know the right things to say. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always say the right things either. It’s the reason why compassion and forgiveness are as important as knowing who to gravitate toward when you’re feeling down. It’s understanding that your aunt may be a better person to listen to your problems than your fun friend who may just tell you to, “Buck up and get over it!”

It’s knowing what you need and who to go to when you need it and it’s also having the awareness that no one (even the good listener) will respond perfectly every time. It’s just like our posts this week. Sometimes you need professional help to deal with your child’s fears or try equine therapy to deal with your own. And although it’s tempting when hurt, rejected or disappointed by loved ones (especially if you’re emotionally sensitive) to isolate, it’s remembering that we all make mistakes. Being human we’re just not equipped to be perfect all the time. Added to this list, we also have posts on quitting smoking when you have ADHD and info on a new bill that may disclose your personal info (if you’re under 26) to your parents. It’s a great list to start your week and 2013!

A Parent’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Anxiety
(Therapy That Works) – What do you do if your child is suffering from anxiety? This post reveals the common childhood anxiety disorders and leaves you with information on what you can do to help.

What about the privacy rights of young adults with mental illnesses?
(Depression On My Mind) – A shocking new bill requires the disclosure of mental illness treatment to parents of their children under 26-years of age. Will this prevent potential suicide and homicide related to mental illness or would it just prevent young adults from seeking treatment? Share your thoughts here.

Study Suggests that Equine Therapy is Effective
(Equine Therapy) – How effective is equine therapy? This promising study showed positive and beneficial outcomes offering surprising evidence of its efficacy.

Accepting Loneliness: A First Step Toward Connecting
(The Emotionally Sensitive Person) – It’s not easy being lonely especially for someone who is emotionally sensitive. But there is a purpose in loneliness and it is the common link that binds all of us. If you’ve been feeling lonely lately because of a breakup, a recent move or lack of true friendships, read this.

8 Advantages of Having ADHD While Quitting Smoking 
(ADHD from A to Zoë) – Did you know having ADHD makes you more at risk for smoking cigarettes and more “deeply addicted to them?” Here are 8 ADHD strengths that will help you quit.