Every ADHD client asks me how to get started on a task. For reasons both neurological and personal, it can seem like the hardest thing in the world just to know where to begin. The task is too big, the task is too small, the task is too boring... Whatever the issue, it's just hard to get started.
Task initiation seems to be a universal problem for the ADHD brain. We'll address related challenges with procrastination, avoidance, and perfectionism later. For now let's just start getting started.
Getting started is a type of transition. We have to change our brain's active state from thinking about a million things all at once, to thinking about one thing at a time, and then carrying out a specific sequence.
Getting ready to work is actually a task in itself! You have to shift your mental and physical perception from a diffuse state to a concentrated state. I know, it's the question of the millennium for the ADHD'er! That's why I"m giving you the good stuff up front. It's that important.
First of all: Identify that there's a transition to be made. Say to yourself ... And I do mean Say it out loud, even if you're alone in the room: "Now I"m going to take a few minutes to get ready to work." That's right, first you want to simply IDENTIFY THE TRANSITION. And you want to GIVE YOURSELF TIME to make the transition.
By the way, I really suggest you TALK TO YOURSELF OUT LOUD. Narrating your process vocally is giving instructions to yourself in the most effective way possible. You are taking your intention, activating your directive will, and training your cognitive process to respond to your own instruction in such a way that eventually you don't have to do it out loud--the voice will be happening silently in a new layer of thoughts. If anyone tries to hassle you for talking to yourself, tell them your Coach says it's OK,
So now you've Identified the transition and given yourself time to accomplish it. You're even talking to yourself. If your state of mind is pretty fluid today, maybe this process takes five minutes. If you're agitated, upset, or spacey, maybe it's more like thirty.
Here's where I'm going to tell you something SHOCKING: Contrary to everything non-adhd onlookers have ever told you, you DON'T need to "just concentrate," "just try harder," "apply yourself," "use your willpower," or other such unhelpful suggestions. Believe me, if it were just that simple, we would simply DO IT!
In fact, what an ADHD person needs is NOT greater willpower... NOT tighter focus... NOT squinting your eyes super tight and forcing yourself to concentrate... but (OMG!) a MORE RELAXED FOCUS, in fact... We need to start with a MUCH LARGER CONTAINER for our naturally diffuse way of thinking.
Here's my step-by-step, not-yet-patented, free-especially-for-my-readers, time-proven method for getting ready to work on a thing. You can use all the steps, or pick and choose your techniques. See what works for you.
OPEN UP. Get diffuse and spacious -- on purpose!
Set a timer for a certain timeframe (say, 5-25 minutes, depending on your state of mind and your available time period). Let your ADHD mind run free the whole time. Here are some ways:
- Brainstorming: List 10 of your favorite things, 5 nice things about today, 5 good things about this moment or this place or yourself. Definitely keep it positive.
- Walk around outside for a set amount of time, like 10 minutes. Deliberately notice everything and point it out to yourself. The ground feels squishy under my feet. The air smells like diesel fumes. There's a dog barking over there. Check out that bird flying overhead. Who's that person over there? Look, a squirrel!
- Research your favorite cosmic topics, or at least broad ones. Try philosophy, cosmology, consciousness, outer space, history, sociology, or art.
Remember to hem in your natural curiosity and inventiveness by setting a timer for this part.
STEP IT DOWN.
Here's where you start moving from the big picture to an increasingly narrow frame of mind... also known as "FOCUSING!"
This is where the magic happens yet again. Essentially, you are gathering your attention out of the potential reality and into the actual reality. You're now moving out of the conceptual realm and into the actual task immediately before you... in phases.
There are several ways to do this. I suggest the following sequence if you're really having a hard time reining in your brain.
You want to get ahold of the whole body with your active awareness. Since Western science has finally caught up with the ancient Eastern principle that the mind & the body operate together, not independently of each other, we can now say for sure that your physical state directly affects your cognitive capacity and intellectual flexibility.
Here are a few things to try:
Slow, controlled, deep breathing.
Count four in, hold for four, count four out. Some other time we'll have a long discussion about what this does to the Vagus nerve and why that translates to you focusing better. For now, just try it:
Inhale for one, two, three, four... Hold for one, two, three, four... Exhale for one, two, three, four.
With careful practice, see if you can build up to eight or even sixteen. Start with five breaths; work your way up to five minutes. Obviously, stop if you feel dizzy or start seeing spots.
There, don't you feel more clearheaded already?
Squats, crunches, back extensions, lunges, push-ups.
These exercises engage large areas of your body's musculature, using the body's own weight as leverage and resistance. Not only are they potentially good for building strength and density, they're good for your focus because they bring conscious awareness to your placement in space, your muscles and bones, and your immediate physical reality. Again, long slow breaths help regulate any discomfort. Don't do anything that hurts or will injure you.
V for Victory.
This is another Vagus nerve toner, and I'll have more to say about it in a future post. For now, just stand tall, raise your arms over your head in a wide "V" shape, tilt your head back slightly (please don't fall over!), and breathe deeply, in & out a few times. Stretch enough so that your back extends backward a little, remember not to fall over, smile 'cause it feels so great, and declare yourself victorious!
Then slowly relax into a standing position, relax your limbs, lift your chest, breathe again, and give yourself a gentle shake to redistribute the circulation of energy in the body. Notice how you feel now. Hopefully it's bright & sparkling with new clarity.
This is a technique that came to me via several yoga and meditation teachers. It has been in use many centuries as a contemplative, cognitive, and physical practice. It's definitively not for everyone, so decide whether you like it by trying a tiny bit at a time. As before, if you see spots or feel woozy, quit or slow down.
Begin at a slow pace. Don't push it. You're supercharging your neurology here (again via the Vagus nerve), and oxygenating the body's tissues.
Sitting upright in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, loosen your belly and push out all the air from your lungs using your diaphragm and abdominal muscles. Releasing the belly just enough to take a small inhale, pump the breath in and out at the bottom of your lung capacity. You can either count breaths (start with 10, move up to 50 over a few days or weeks), or set a timer (start with 15 seconds, move up gradually to 5 minutes).
Again, be still and return to normal breathing when complete. Notice you you feel, how your mental clarity is affected, and whether your perception is changed at all. (Some practitioners experience a temporary change in hearing or vision.)
Now that the whole body is engaged, we move to the level of sense perception. These are the five senses we learned about in grade school. We engage each one in turn.
- Vision - Light a candle flame, gaze at it for a few moments, and appreciate how it flickers. Or put a living flower in a vase and think about how it grew from a seed. Or maybe try an image that makes you feel happy or hopeful, or one with colors that are peaceful or vibrant. Whatever is pleasing for you to look at.
- Smell - You can light some incense or a fragrant candle. You can sniff a sprig of pine or lavender from the garden, an air freshener, perfume, or essential oil. Basically, activate the sense of smell with anything you enjoy smelling.
- Taste - Provide yourself a little taste of anything you enjoy tasting that's good for you. My clients like to use chewing gum, a small piece of candy, one bite of dark chocolate, or even a small, tasty snack. (Just don't binge on sugar and coffee unless you have arranged beforehand to have someone peel you off the ceiling.)
- Touch - You can apply a bit of lotion, rub your hands together so they get warm and tingle, or squeeze a squeezy toy to engage the tactile sense. If you're super lucky, you can get someone to give you a hug and then leave you alone while you work! Or maybe your thing is wrapping up in a super-soft blanket at your desk.
- Hearing - This is a big one. The right sound environment can make or break our ability to focus, since our nervous system evolved to respond to the slightest sounds of danger and activity. You can experiment with different types of music in the background--and whether you like to have headphones blocking out other noise.
I often use classical music, certain kinds of ambient or electronic dance music, or shamanic drum tracks. With repeated use, very regular rhythms can effectively train the brain to anticipate the passage of time in structured ways -- a process largely unfamiliar to people with ADHD.
If you use background music, I suggest music without words, since lyrics can be so interesting that they take you off track. Or use a Zen meditation bell or gong and listen closely to the tone until it dissipates into silence.
You can do this sensory engagement process anew each time, choosing new stimuli, or make a routine out of it, using the same series again & again.
NOW MAKE A PLAN:
At this point, hopefully your whole system is more regulated. You feel calm and engaged. Now you're ready to...
Envision a successful outcome.
You do this by IMAGINING what the task will be like when it's complete. What does it look like to be done with this task? If it's for school or for work, what are the specifics of the assignment? How will you know when it's finished?
This step has the added benefit of helping you know when to stop working: that is, when your product meets the requirement of the assignment. Don't keep making small adjustments or improvements... Stop working and consider it done. (I'll say more on the dangers of perfectionism elsewhere.)
Break down the task into its component steps.
For example, if your assignment is a five-paragraph essay, the steps might be:
(1) Brainstorm everything you know about the subject.
(2) Pick your three most salient or unique points.
(3) Construct your outline around those points.
(4) Add supporting points and references.
(5) Add transitions between paragraphs.
(6) Write introduction and conclusion paragraphs.
(7) Proofread for spelling & punctuation.
(8) Turn it in.
Determine type of attention needed for each step.
Just as with getting started to work, the first step in doing a step may be to strategize your approach.
- What kind of "Scope" or "View" does this step require -- Is this close-up detail work, or is it broader conceptual work?
For our five-paragraph essay example, you need a broader view for the initial brainstorming, a medium-aperture view for the main points, and the narrowest scope for the proofreading.
... So there you have a number of new tools for focusing the ADHD mind. Good luck with your experiments, and call me if you need help!