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Goal Setting with ADHD: How I Make Them Stick

Reading time | 5 mins

Whenever people with ADHD tell me they simply can’t follow through on their goals — whether it’s keeping their house tidy, finishing a work project, finding a new job, or losing weight — I ask them if they’ve considered that their ADHD may play a role in why they’re struggling.

Why? Because our ADHD — yes, I have ADHD as well — can create a zigzag in how we work toward a goal. It’s like we can see the result in our minds, but have no clue how to find and stay on that yellow brick road.

Why is that?

It may come down to our executive functioning skills, or lack thereof, to be more precise. In a nutshell, executive functioning is how your brain works to get things done — whether that’s packing a suitcase, choosing what to cook for dinner, paying attention to your partner/spouse/child, or organizing your closet.

It’s holding onto a memory. It’s making decisions. It’s regulating your behavior. It’s the conductor of your internal orchestra, making all the parts work together just like in a musical orchestra where everyone needs to know their part — when to stop, start, play loudly, slow down, etc. The conductor helps each member with their role.

Our ADHD conductor, our executive functioning, is typically not in top working order, so we can get derailed easily. We may know in our head what the song should sound like, but often we jump in too quickly or our tempo is too slow. Or we get distracted by the audience and forget to play our piece altogether.

That’s why it can be incredibly difficult to set a goal, figure out how to achieve it, and then stick with it in the long term. At times it can feel like our conductor is on vacation.

How does a person with ADHD set up a goal and see it to fruition, then? Check out a few steps that have been effective for me and people I’ve worked with.

How to set up your goal

One of the hardest parts of goal setting can be deciding which goal you want to work on. Too often, we might have a long list and then can’t decide where to start. Or we might try to set really lofty, big-picture goals instead of more manageable tasks.

I’ve discovered a way around this. Instead of looking outwardly at, say, paper piles, unpaid bills, unfinished tasks, or daunting projects like painting a room or planting a huge garden, go inward and check how you’re feeling.

Which things on your list are making you feel anxious? Which items, if not done soon, will make your life miserable (think: would my electricity be turned off? I’d better pay that bill!)?

By going inward and taking your ADHD “temperature,” you’ll have a better idea of which goal you need to start with. It’s the one that’ll make you feel better once it’s off your to-do list.

Next, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the time to do this now? If not now, when?
  • Do I have the materials needed for the job? For example, if it’s bill paying, do I have stamps, envelopes, invoices?
  • Would enlisting the help of someone else make the job easier and more efficient?

It’s important to recognize your needs and find people who understand — people who are helpful, not critical or unsupportive.

How to stick with your goal: Staying motivated

Many goals can feel overwhelming, whether it’s planning a holiday or setting up interviews for a new job. If your goal is boring, attention spans can wander. Here are a few things to consider:

Break down your goal into smaller doable parts. Make a list and write down each step needed to achieve your goal. For example, if you want to improve your health for the coming year — a big-picture goal — that can seem like a tall order. A simpler list might look like this:

  1. Make an appointment with my doctor to discuss current health issues and get advice.
  2. Research various diets that match my needs.
  3. Choose an exercise I know I can stick with.
  4. Join a gym, buy a DVD, etc., that will be specific to my needs.

Be sure to make reasonable goals. If you can’t afford a gym membership, for example, think of other options, such as walking.

Once you’ve identified clear steps, choose a starting date, set a clear metric by which to measure your goal (e.g., how many pounds to lose, how many times a week to exercise) and start a log to track your progress.

In general, it’s important to understand how your specific ADHD type and symptoms impact you. This can help you to know which goals to set and identify strategies that work for you.

How to complete your goal

Just like the list example above, creating measurable and visible steps not only breaks goals out into more manageable tasks, but can also help you stay motivated to reach the end result.

Keeping a journal and writing down each step of your journey or using an app to track your progress can be a huge help.

With ADHD, out of sight means out of mind, so keep your journal in one place at all times where you’ll remember to write in your steps and review your progress. You can also set up a reminder notification in your app if you choose that route.

Find someone who can help hold you accountable without being toxic. In other words, find someone who can check in with you to see how you’re doing — someone who understands your flavor of ADHD and can be your personal cheerleader.

Working with an accountability partner can also be extremely helpful. For example, if you need to file paperwork, working with a friend who also needs to work on a project could help both of you stay on track. You can check in every 15 minutes or so via text message, phone call, or email and encourage each other to keep going.

Lastly, make sure your goals are reasonable and achievable. If, for example, you need to lose weight, don’t expect to lose 20 pounds in two weeks.

Celebrate your achievements

When you hit your goal, be sure to take a moment to congratulate yourself on a job well done!

Next, look back in your journal or app and note what went well and what didn’t go so well. Maybe you needed more time, or perhaps you might have fared better if you had talked it through with someone you trust. This is all useful data that can help you in the future.

 

Always keep in mind that your ADHD can make the way you set and achieve goals a bit different than someone else. Your conductor — your executive functioning — needs to be taken into consideration, which means making accommodations for yourself so that you can (and will!) get to your goal.

For more information on how to manage ADHD, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

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