ADHD Effort & Avoidance

Most people with ADHD have a prickly relationship with the word "effort".

By the time ADHDers reach adulthood, (and often well before), they’re usually dragging around a concrete backpack full of distrust in their ability to get things done.

It's likely they've also accumulated a lifetime of messages along the lines of "if you just tried harder..."

When you don’t believe you can consistently carry out the steps it takes to reach your goals, your self-esteem and perception of what’s possible erodes slowly but surely over time.

A pile-up of these negative thoughts about even the most everyday tasks, plus a ton of accumulated “feedback”, also augments the perception of effort required to get things done.

The longer an effortful task is put off, the bigger the effort mountain grows, and the harder it is to climb

I’m really careful whenever I talk about effort with parents or adults with ADHD, as it’s somehow got muddied up with notions of having good or bad intent.

Comments like “if he would just make an effort” or “I just need to try harder” are:

  1. not helpful
  2. wrong (or at best misleading)
  3. attribute morality to effort.

So I want to begin any conversation about effort with a clear assumption and agreement.

People with ADHD are often trying really hard, even when it doesn't look like it. 

People with ADHD are making an effort.

Things that are reasonably “easy” for people without ADHD can be extremely effortful for people with ADHD.

This is where the “just do it” tagline can be actually be pretty hurtful for people with ADHD.

The pain of doing vs avoiding hard things

ADHD isn’t a knowledge problem, it’s a performance problem.

It’s the difference between knowing what you need to do and actually being able to do it.

For people with ADHD, the perception of effort can have a significant impact on their ability to perform.

And performance can mean the difference between really wanting to stand up and unpack the dishwasher and feeling completely overwhelmed and exhausted by the thought of it.

The perception of effort can be so overwhelming that it becomes easier to avoid the task altogether.

The problem is that this avoidance only leads to more pain in the long run. When we avoid a task, we create a backlog of unfinished work that looms over us. It becomes a source of stress and anxiety that can distract us from other important tasks.

But doesn’t everybody find certain things hard?

To a partner or a parent, seeing someone they love avoid seemingly simple things - particularly outside the scope of their interests - can look like laziness or not caring.

There are some things that are just objectively annoying, boring and not fun for everyone.

In the ADHD world, there can be this scathing oversimplification of what life for “neurotypicals” is like. Something along the lines of “everything is so easy for them”.

Everyone will find some aspect of academic life hard to come at sometimes. Most of us struggle at times to rustle up the energy to go to work everyday, to do housework, to do our taxes, to pull over and pay too much for petrol again.

Just like pain, effort is a pretty subjective experience and it’s hard to understand that how one person experiences effort is different to another.

Avoidance and Procrastivity

Procrastivity is a term coined (explored) by Russell Ramsay to describe a behavioural quirk very familiar to people with ADHD. It involves actively seek out distractions or engaging in non-essential tasks as a way to avoid more challenging or effortful tasks.

It’s when we have a goal or intention in mind, and we end up doing other things that seem important instead of doing the thing.

There’s something you need to do, but when it comes time to do it, you go for the lower priority tasks instead.

Procrastivity might look like:

  • You have a big boring project that you really don’t feel like doing. All of a sudden, you have otherworldly motivation for otherwise unappealing tasks. The pantry needs reorganising! The washing gets folded! The grout in the shower is unacceptably green and needs to be scrubbed and you’ll probably need to go to Bunnings to buy some new stuff to tackle this emergency
  • A report is due at work. Big expectations. You want it to be *amazing*. But it never seems to be the right day to crack in because there’s so much else to do. It stubbornly reappears on your to-do list day after day and gets pushed aside for the quick win, transactional tasks that make you feel like you’re on FIRE and knocking things off with Tony Robbins level productivity.

And in a particularly puzzling presentation for those who *don’t* engage in procrastivity….

  • I need to pick up the phone and book an appointment. Super daunting. It’s never the right day and other things get ticked off the list instead. I blink, and then I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years.

If you’re a procrastivator? (procrastivist?), my number one request is the same as always. I invite you to notice this behaviour with gentle, non-judgemental curiosity.

Let’s lose the shamey words like lazy or self-sabotage.

Procrastivity isn’t good or bad. It’s just a coping mechanism.

And if we can zoom out and look at ourselves a little, it can give us some valuable information and entry points to understanding our own perception of effort.

But there’s no doubt about it. Procrastivity is self-defeating. It’s another way we get in our own way.

Procrastivity is intrinsically linked to our perception of effort.

And the kind of tasks that we go for when we’re avoiding something higher priority can give us a lot of clues into how we can make our perception of hard tasks less effortful.

Tasks we do instead of what we ought to do usually have these things in common:

  • They're often more manual or physical tasks rather than things that require more thinking.
  • They have a clear beginning and end point. We know what done will look like.
  • The end point is comparatively close. We can see the reward of completion pretty quickly.
  • There is a clear process for completing the task that is not very confusing or overwhelming

If we use these factors to understand the task we’re avoiding, we can reverse engineer our process to get the big thing done.

1) Break the cognitive load of the task into more manageable, discreet chunks

2) Get a clear picture of what done looks like. (And understand that for some tasks, the nebulous uncertain nature of done can be a big road block.)

3) Break the project into smaller steps that bring the rewards of completion closer.

4) Map out the process of how it’s going to get done to get more clarity. Where there is confusion, seek clarity.

Ultimately, if you find yourself in a pattern of opting for low hanging fruit instead of what *******really******* needs to be done, you can loosen the grip of these behaviours by getting creative and making the task feel less daunting.

ADHD -friendly strategies to help lower the perceived effort of tasks and get things done

  • Start noticing your task demoting thoughts.

Common ones I hear in coaching include:

“It’s too much”

“I don’t know if I’m going to do a good job”

“I don’t know where to start”

Some variation on “the conditions aren’t right”. (Fan favourites include “tomorrow I’ll have more time/be more rested” or “I’ll have lunch and a nap first and just clear off all this other stuff and *****then***** I’ll be ready).

  • Call yourself on your BS (again no judgement please).

Not with a “just do it”, but as an entry point to understanding that there is something about the thing that you’re avoiding that’s making it hard.

  • Instead of “doing” the thing, focus on what you can produce.

So break off a step from the task that will give you something to show for your effort at the end of the work block.

Instead of sitting down to do your essay, a step might be “draft the first paragraph of the essay” or “find three research articles on the topic”.

  • Start the task with a verb (always).

  • Be aware of frying your executive function capacity on seemingly easy tasks.

Preserve your juicy EF bandwidth for the stuff that counts (or get the harder but important things done early in the day).

  • Expect discomfort.

Sorry. This should be a whole post on its own. But if you’re making progress on something hard, your plan needs to include how you’ll deal with uncomfortable emotions.

Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.

Get non-judgey, actionable ADHD advice to your inbox weekly(ish)