The 3 best tips to calmly start and finish your tasks even with ADHD
Updated: Apr 17, 2022
You've implemented the ADHD-friendly to-do list from the last post. You're clear about what you want to get done today. But how do you tackle the tasks? How do you get started? And how do you manage to finish what you started? How do you not freak out when you get interrupted and make sure that you finish your task despite the interruption?
I'll share the 3 best tips on how to calmly and reliably start and complete your to-dos even with ADHD. The tips and tricks may sound a bit weird, but trust me, they make sense from a neurobiological viewpoint and they work. You'll also learn why you're having these difficulties with starting and finishing in the first place - it's pretty easy to understand neurobiologically and will help you weed out pointless tips in the future. Are you ready to make your life easier (and a bit weirder)? Then read on.
Why is it so hard to get tasks done - to start and finish them?
Put very simply, ADHD causes a lack of dopamine in the brain. This in turn affects our ability to get going when our interest in the task is not great. For the same reason, we have a hard time staying on task when we're not particularly interested in the task at hand.
Therefore, you don't have a problem focusing on a videogame (high interest that is fed continuously) and you don't need to overcome any hurdle to start the videogame (as you're expecting a positive experience).
While we're on the subject of expectation, the more negative experiences you've accumulated in the past with getting tasks done (or, rather, not getting them done), the less motivated you are to risk another potentially painful experience. You're trying to avoid the potential pain of failing to complete the task by not starting it in the first place.
In addition, the ADHD brain has a poor filtering function, so it's hard for us to distinguish the important from unimportant, which is why you should definitely try the tips from the last post (the ADHD-friendly to-do list). If you follow generic advice instead, overwhelm is likely, leaving you staring at your task list in analysis paralysis.
If you've followed popular tips in the past that don't work for ADHD, maybe it's had the same effect on you as it had on me: I just thought I was too stupid instead of realizing that the tips weren't ADHD-compatible.
Here, I'll share the best tips that actually work with ADHD so you can reliably start and finish your tasks (they also work for neurotypicals, by the way, but they may find them too weird).
Trick 1: Every to-do needs at least one verb - seriously, try it out
In order for us to start a task, it must be as clear as day to us what the first step is. Otherwise, the hurdle is too high to start.
If my task is called "health insurance," I definitely knew what I meant the moment I wrote down the word. But the chances that I'll still know what I'm supposed to do when I get around to tackling the task are very slim.
If instead, I wrote: "Find medical bills, scan them and upload them to the health insurance portal (the password is here...)" that might sound idiotic, but believe me, the chance that I'll actually get it done is so much higher!
I first heard the point about the verb from Eric Tivers, who has a well-known podcast in the US - I don't know who originally came up with the trick. As I already mentioned in the last post, some research (reference 1) shows we can lighten our mental load when we list and describe our tasks quite concretely.
Try it out, even if you feel resistance at first. Think of it as an experiment - if you follow through, you'll soon notice if it works for you as well as it has for me and countless others.
Knowing exactly what the first step of a task is, makes the hurdle to actually start it much smaller.
Trick 2: Reward yourself before you start, not once you finish - your ADHD brain needs the dopamine
Recommendations like "work before play" which I've even heard from ADHD professionals are absolute nonsense when you have ADHD. If we could "just" get there with self-discipline and effort, we wouldn't be so impaired by our ADHD and there definitely wouldn't be so many of us collapsing from overwhelm.
So forget the unhelpful adages and provide your brain with some dopamine before you start tackling the task at hand. Only you can figure out what works best for you to get your dopamine hit. You're looking for something that will give you a short positive experience without being so appealing that you risk getting lost in it (see above about videogames). We're looking for a short boost so you can then start your task right away.
Here's a list of tried-and-true tips you can experiment with (if medically possible in your case, as always, ask your health care provider if you're unsure):
Do something athletic that briefly gets your heart rate up or physically tires you out a bit. For example:
dance like crazy to your favorite song
squats or push-ups or pull-ups or something like that
jump up and down like crazy or do jumping jacks
loudly sing along to your favorite song (or just listen to it if you can't be loud)
treat yourself to your favorite gum, a yummy candy, or a little snack
dress up as a superhero whose superpowers include effortlessly starting tasks and calmly finishing them (for me, glitter makeup, a little crown and a magic wand help - yes, seriously)
play a short (boring) video game that you don't get sucked into
play with your pet if you have one and it's nearby and happy to play
Watch a funny video on YouTube, for example (beware, though, TikTok's algorithm seems to deliver irresistible content for people with ADHD, that's why I mentioned YouTube instead)
Read a comic book for a bit
Prepared with your shot of dopamine and a good mood, your task will be much easier to start. And as you're working along, you can keep yourself motivated with small rewards. For example, try these time-tested tips:
Stickers (yeah, like for kids, seriously, try it)
Colored pens, colored Post-Its, glitter pens
Single Smarties or M&Ms or something similar
Music if it doesn't distract you too much
Use your creativity and imagination to figure out what works best for your ADHD brain.
Trick 3: When you interrupt a task, think of Hansel and Gretel and mark your way back
Now you know how to start your tasks and keep yourself going. But what if you get interrupted or have to interrupt yourself because you're running out of time?
It can stress us out immensely if we don't get to finish because we:
Are scared we won't be able to get started again
May have often been accused of "never properly finishing our tasks" in the past or blamed ourselves for the exact same thing
Dread staring again because we think it will be boring
You can make your life a lot easier with a very simple practical tip: write down the next step before you stop. Precisely as described under trick 1, with a verb.
You can remember this trick if you think of Hansel and Gretel - you always want to mark your way back, but not with breadcrumbs but rather with bright lights, so that it's really easy to find your way back into the task.
Bonus tip: Celebrate the tasks you complete - it helps you remember that even with ADHD, you're getting your things done and are following through
It's so important that you celebrate the completion of tasks, even seemingly trivial ones - celebrate that you finished the tasks you start, and started them in the first place, despite your ADHD struggles.
You probably have so many memories of everything you didn't get done. We remember the negative so easily.
It's time for a new story, which is that you tackle things and follow through, even with ADHD. Your brain needs evidence of this new story, and you create it by consciously taking a moment to acknowledge what you get done each day. Even if it seems small. Create new proof for yourself. Tell supportive people about your completed tasks (but not people who don't understand you).
By focusing on the positive reality, you strengthen your sense of agency and thus your self-confidence.
Be kind to yourself when you fall short of your expectations
Please be kind to yourself when things aren't working out the way you want them to. Check out these posts again for support:
ADHD, motivation and shame: turn your inner critic into an inner encourager
People with ADHD are consistently inconsistent
If you're having trouble regulating your emotions or allowing yourself to feel positive emotions in the midst of hardship, take a look at this post about how to deal with complex emotions in ADHD
Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Masicampo EJ, Baumeister RF.J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Oct;101(4):667-83. doi: 10.1037/a0024192. Link