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I Can't Start and I Can't Stop: Tips for Managing Projects with ADHD

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Projects can be an enigma for people with ADHD. Here’s how Terry Matlen finally crosses to-dos off of her list.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could just take 60 minutes and finish that overdue work assignment?

How would you like to have a basement that’s clear of old furniture, tax returns, and your college-bound daughter’s old clothes?

Wouldn’t you love to get through that pile of damp laundry on the basement floor?

You’d feel great, right? Then why is it so hard to start these tasks… and finish them?

I also have ADHD. I understand the struggle to start and finish a project. It can sometimes feel like everyone you know does their chores, reports, homework, and paperwork in the blink of an eye.

But your ADHD symptoms get in the way.

Why it’s hard to start a project with ADHD

Many behaviors common to ADHD can make starting a project hard. These including being:

  • easily distracted
  • disorganized
  • likely to procrastinate
  • overwhelmed by tasks that require sustained mental effort
  • constantly on the go

Adults with ADHD struggle with organizing tasks and activities. You might say:

  • “Where do I even start?”
  • “It’s impossible!”
  • “I can’t focus long enough to tie my shoes.”
  • “How am I supposed to clean the garage?”

You end up procrastinating because you avoid tasks that are boring or difficult. You probably would rather have a cookie than file the paper piles stacked on your desk, right?

Why stopping is hard with ADHD

And when you finally jump back in after procrastinating for days, weeks, or maybe even years, have you ever found yourself unable to stop? Even for a bathroom break?

Well, if the answer is yes, you might be wondering why this is.

ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity and impulsivity don’t help.

You feel great! You’re relieved. You bit the bullet. You’re enjoying the ride after avoiding the project for so long. And you want it done. NOW.

Poor time management may also be at play. Time slips away when you’re absorbed in a project. Before you know it, it’s 2 a.m.

Perhaps, you’re also avoiding something else that’s far more boring or taxing than the task at hand.

Why ADHD makes it hard to finish a task

Here’s the odd thing. You still haven’t finished your paperwork or laundry even if it feels like you’re zooming through.

Next thing you know, you’re wiped out. Totally spent. Exhaustion sets in.

And yet another project is left incomplete.

Tips for starting a project

Next time you start a project, I would recommend trying these easy tips:

  • Make a list. Jot down every step and the materials necessary to get the job done.
  • Add it to your calendar. We can’t always rely on our brains. Make a note of when you started and when you want to stop. Whatever keeps you on track is your best friend.
  • Break down large tasks into small steps. This makes the task seem more manageable. When each step’s completed, there’s a sense of accomplishment. It’ll remind you to take a break.
  • Add timers. It helps to have a reminder.
  • Team up. A buddy can help you complete your project. Or, you can hold each other accountable on separate projects.
  • Be positive. This is my secret sauce. I tell myself: “Don’t do it because you have to. Do it because you can.” That jump-starts me to do almost anything.

Tips for taking a break

You’ve finally started! Congratulations! But how can you get yourself to stop and rest? Use some of the same tactics:

  • Set your trusty timer. Build in break times. Some people do well working for 15 minutes and stopping for 15 minutes. Others are energized by an hour or two of nonstop work.
  • Plan breaks with your project buddy. Agree on a time to stop whether you’re working together or in parallel.
  • Rely on natural transitions. Take a break if you normally eat dinner at 6 p.m.

Tips for finishing a project

  • Give yourself a deadline. Note it in your planner.
  • Picture the finished project. Imagine how great you’ll feel once it’s done.
  • Work at your optimal time. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
  • Ask a friend or family member to check in on you. Moral support can do wonders.
  • Find an ADHD coach. They “get” what it’s like to have ADHD and can help keep you accountable.

There, you’ve done it! Now, take a picture of the completed project and tack it on the wall. Then go get yourself a cookie or two!

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for ADHD evaluations, management, or treatment. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 

NPS-ALL-NP-00898 MAR 2023

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