Time & Productivity

6 Secrets to Goal Setting with ADHD

What’s the secret to achieving your personal goals with ADHD? In my work as a therapist over the last 15 years, I have found that these six skill sets have an outsized influence — learn to master them, and reach for a future that aligns with your dreams.

Personal goals: Goal,plan,action text on light box on desk table in home office.

ADHD has no “cure” — nor should it. Managing ADHD is not about fitting in or calming down; it is about standing out — identifying your competitive advantages and developing those strengths into skills that will help you achieve your personal goals.

Over 15 years of treating adults with ADHD, I have identified six interventions that are reported to be the most helpful in managing ADHD symptoms and challenges. I have found that mastering these six “super skills” empowers people to make progress in their lives with – not in spite of – ADHD.

Skill #1. Name Your Strengths

Many individuals with ADHD suffer from low self-esteem and poor self-concept – often due to years of negative messaging about their abilities compared to individuals without ADHD1. These negative beliefs can sabotage quality of life and contribute to the development of mood disorders, anxiety, and other complex psychiatric issues over time.

For all of these reasons, cultivating the skill of identifying your strengths — or “finding your gifts,” as I like to say — is powerful and essential to well-being.

To get you started, here are five ADHD gifts I’ve repeatedly observed and noted:

  • Creativity – some studies suggest that individuals with ADHD are better at divergent thinking than their neurotypical counterparts.2
  • Empathy — people with ADHD know that life’s biggest struggles are sometimes invisible to others and their care can increase positive social connections.
  • Emotional sensitivity – intense emotions can help us see parts of the world that need to be fixed as this intensity can make people more sensitive to life and therefore be motivated to repair the world. Their passion can become a source of motivation for unleashing focused attention and action
  • Nature smart – the ADHD brain blossoms in green outdoor settings3
  • Exuberance – another way to think of hyperactivity

[Get This Free Download: 25 Things to Love About ADHD]

How to Find Your Strengths

  • Have a conversation with yourself. Ask yourself these revealing questions:
    • How did you succeed this week?
    • What are the three biggest successes in your life?
    • When did you feel most appreciated?
    • What are five things that interest you?
  • Take a strengths inventory/assessment.
    • CliftonStrengths – categorizes answers into 34 themes and four domains
    • Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) – a free assessment. Values identified include creativity, bravery, teamwork, leadership, and hope.

Skill #2. Set Meaningful Goals

Life is but a series of personal goals – daily or long-term, big or small. Goals span education and personal enrichment, health and fitness, interpersonal relationships, career, hobbies, bucket list activities, and much more.

Setting and achieving goals increases our well-being – a fact supported by research4. But ADHD symptoms like poor working memory, inattention, disorganization, and overall executive dysfunction often derail efforts to set personal goals — and obtain results.

Knowing how to set reasonable, attainable goals is an important skill that helps narrow down what it is you really want and, eventually, the means to get there.

[Read: 10 Ways to Actually Beat Deadlines and Meet Goals]

How to Set Goals

  • Write out the goal
  • Write out the purpose of the goal – understanding the “why” is especially important to increase motivation in individuals with ADHD
  • Write out one action step – what’s one small task you can do today that would bring you closer to your goal?

Goal setting is closely tied to this next skill…

Skill #3. Chunk Up Your Action Plan

Chunking refers to breaking down goal-related steps into small, doable tasks.

A common problem with setting goals is the overwhelm that follows. Unsure how to proceed due to problems with planning, organization, and motivation, individuals with ADHD often resort to procrastination or procrastivity, which contributes to frustration, exhaustion, and stagnation.

But chunking, in my experience, is the most powerful and immediately useful skill I teach to my clients. We develop this skill through self-talk, or coaching our way through a task, with the following messages and reminders:

  • What’s the smallest amount of time I am willing to dedicate to this goal now?
  • I don’t have to hit a home run – a single or a double will do.
  • Walk, don’t run.
  • If I spend just x minutes on this, I can enjoy the rest of my time, guilt-free

Practice self-talk often, and you may find yourself steadily shifting from avoidance toward meeting your goals.

With this skill, give yourself permission to break down tasks to “low-effort” levels with which you’re comfortable. That might mean simply “previewing” a goal and laying it out on a schedule.

Skill #4. Strategize Your Self-Motivation

Motivation is a formidable challenge for many individuals with ADHD, and it is partly explained by the brain’s dopamine deficiency. This neurochemistry makes it especially difficult to get started on and complete tasks that aren’t inherently interesting, even with chunking.

But again, we can develop this muscle through self-talk and motivational interviewing, a treatment developed by psychologists William Richard Miller, Ph.D., and Stephen Rollnick, Ph.D.5

Here are four reliable strategies for boosting motivation:

  • Develop discrepancy between procrastination and what you really want for yourself. Distance yourself from avoidance to align more closely with your goal.
  • Build task-specific confidence. Remind yourself of past successes to support self-efficacy.
  • Roll with resistance. Don’t rely on “feeling good” about a task to do it. Repeat phrases like, “It’s up to me. I’m the one in charge” to move through a task despite discomfort.
  • Express self-compassion. Rather than bully and beat yourself up through a task, show some empathy toward yourself and your efforts. It’s a powerful way to shift motivation.

Use these phrases and questions in your motivation self-talk routine:

  • “I can do hard things.”
  • “I will review my goal list as a reminder of how important this is to me and that my time is limited.”
  • “Every time I say, ‘I don’t feel like it,’ I postpone my goal-getting.”
  • “How good will I feel when this is done?”

Skill #5. Actively Manage Your Mood

Managing your mood actually means managing your outlook, behaviors, and actions. Emotional dysregulation is a core component of ADHD, so emotional control is a vital skill that requires extra focus and work.

Psychotherapy and medications can help with mood management, but these simple, daily exercises also go a long way:

  • Build your emotional vocabulary. Research shows that high emotional granularity, or the ability to precisely express an emotional experience, is linked to better coping and mood regulation6. Each day, take a few minutes to learn or revisit words that better describe your feelings. Rather than sad, you may find that you’re feeling despondent or low-spirited. Accurately labeling your emotions can also work to shift perspective, particularly for a negative feeling.
  • Turn the channel. When you’re feeling stuck, think of your past accomplishments and episodes of perseverance as if you were flipping through the channels of a TV. It’ll remind you of what you’re capable of and give you hope.
  • “Flexible Thinking Now!” is a call to try another perspective on an emotion. Think: What would an observer say about your situation? What would your future self say?
  • Take a broader perspective. Focus on resources that can help you solve a problem, like asking for help.

Skill #6. Power Change Through Healthy Habits

We tend to undervalue the power of lifestyle choices and healthy habits to increase our ability to focus, pay attention, and achieve our goals. The areas with highest return on investment include:

 

Devote consistent attention to these six skills, and you’ll be better equipped to achieve your personal goals for the future.

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar Six Super Skills to Build Executive Functioning in Adults with ADHD [podcast episode #359] with Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on June 15, 2021.

Personal Goals: Next Steps

Sources

1 Cook, J., Knight, E., Hume, I. et al. The self-esteem of adults diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a systematic review of the literature. ADHD Atten Def Hyp Disord 6, 249–268 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12402-014-0133-2

2 White, H. A., Shah, P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: Creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 1121-1131.

3 Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004). A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. American journal of public health, 94(9), 1580–1586. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.94.9.1580

4 Bühler, J. L., Weidmann, R., Nikitin, J., & Grob, A. (2019). A Closer Look at Life Goals across Adulthood: Applying A Developmental Perspective to Content, Dynamics, and Outcomes of Goal Importance and Goal Attainability. European Journal of Personality, 33(3), 359–384. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2194

5 Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd edition). Guilford Press.

6 Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

7 Berwid, O. G., & Halperin, J. M. (2012). Emerging support for a role of exercise in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder intervention planning. Current psychiatry reports, 14(5), 543–551. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-012-0297-4

8 Berman, M., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Association for psychological science. 19:1207. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x

1 Comments & Reviews

  1. Thank you, Dr. Honos-Webb. This is exactly what I needed to know (back from the podcast). I am following other guidance (with my ADHS, I am REALLY good at finding the best sources i.e. people and their books), and have found that they all support your six steps.

    Still I sympathize with the responders who said that they have trouble writing things out or finding time for that. Will my goal right now be to do some goal setting, downchunked to just getting out a notebook and a pen each day? How will I ever learn if my calendar has three empty months and the notebook as well? I have not found a minimal action that would work to build upon.

    Should I live with the fact that I only manage some different little things each day? Some days, I brush my teeth. Some days I fast. Some days I turn on an exercise video and follow through halfheartedly. Some days, I open my notebook and see some things I wanted to do and did not. Some days, I read a book. A whole book. Some days, I write resposes in the middle of the night.

    I did the strength questionnaire and found I am creative. But I have not made any art for twenty years, although I have inherited my family’s paints and easels, because I am the artist in the family in my generation, maybe the last. I am also the scientist in the family after my father’s death. What help are all these gifts if I have squandered them? No employer is interested in my skills if I say things out loud and can’t read the room.

    I should mention that I am 64. I have managed to have a rather interesting life (interesting to me, but who cares?) and to function well enough to pay my bills, but consistently underachieving, no children, no job satisfaction, nobody will come to my funeral. I have considered joining a temple or a convent, but even there they won’t have me because I can’t keep their schedule or their serenity, I talk out of place, and disrespect others because I don’t get what they’re about.

    Thank you for your positivity, and I’m trying to learn from it.

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