Goal setting when you have ADHD can help you create and achieve a plan that works for you, not against you.
When you want to learn something new, accomplish a specific task, or become more successful, you’ve likely been taught that setting a goal is the best way to do it. But what if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Won’t your symptoms get in the way of achieving those goals?
Not exactly. Instead of looking at what’s hindering your ability to follow through on your plans, focus on your strengths. Some symptoms of ADHD may make completing tasks seem challenging, but other symptoms may work in your favor.
“ADHD is a superpower,” says licensed clinical social worker and ADHD coach Andrea Jaffee. “There are so many positive aspects of ADHD. People with ADHD have the ability to hyperfocus on a task, plus, they’re often very creative and intelligent. And, they really enjoy research.
When you have ADHD and you’re setting a goal for yourself, don’t try to change or fix who you are. Instead, work with your strengths and create appropriate accommodations for your weaknesses.”
Most goals can be broken down into either learning or performance goals, and short- or long-term goals. For each grouping, the former is typically the easier type of goal for people with ADHD to achieve.
Whether it’s learning how to build a website or how to renovate your home, if you want to learn and do something new, set a learning goal first. If you have ADHD, this is likely where you’ll shine.
“While everyone is different, I’ve found that my clients with ADHD usually enjoy the research part of a goal,” says Jaffee. “They love doing an intense, deep dive into a subject and they often become experts on the topic.”
If you love learning, you may not even need to set a learning goal.
Actually doing the thing — creating your website or redoing your kitchen — well, that can be a little more difficult for folks with ADHD.
“When it comes to doing the project, it can feel daunting because many people with ADHD lack organizational skills,” Jaffe explained.
“They find it difficult to prioritize their tasks and see the big picture. It’s also because the ADHD brain is so brilliant that there’s so much going on at once — it becomes too overwhelming. That’s where having a coach to help you lay out the steps can be helpful.”
Short-term goals are things you want to accomplish soon. It could be something you want to accomplish by the end of the day, week, or month. It may involve just one step or several steps, but it isn’t something that will require months or years of preparation.
With a short-term goal, you’ll enjoy the results of meeting your goal rather quickly. And for folks with ADHD,
If you need instant gratification, then waiting months or years to reap the benefits of a long-term goal might seem difficult, if not impossible. The key with long-term goals is to set numerous short-term goals along the way.
For example, if you want to become a doctor, you’ll need to complete college, four years of medical school, and between three and seven years of a residency program. But if you start by making a goal to apply for college or medical school, you can achieve that one rather quickly.
Tip #1: Create SMART goals
The first step to setting a goal is to make it SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.
Here’s what we mean:
- Specific. The goal answers questions like, “What do you want to do, and how will you do it?” The goal shouldn’t be to become a great basketball player; it should be to practice or play basketball for an hour a day.
- Measurable. Use numbers in your goal. Instead of saying you want to learn to play guitar, make a goal to learn five songs on guitar.
- Achievable. Your goal should be something you can actually accomplish. If you hate math but set a goal of becoming an accountant, that might be unrealistic.
- Relevant. Why does your goal matter to you? If your goal is to exercise five times a week because you read that’s what’s good for you, it’s going to be much harder to achieve than if you’re doing it because it makes you feel good.
- Time-based. Set a deadline for your goal and any steps along the way. This can change, but without any sort of deadline, it’s much harder to know if you’re reaching your goal.
Tip #2: Get organized
Once you’ve figured out your exact goal, it’s time to get organized and create a routine for yourself.
“Create a routine for how you’re going to reach your goal and write it down,” says ADHD coach Kit Savage. “Having a plan in place is the best predictor of whether you’ll reach your short- or long-term goals.”
“But, also accept that your daily performance may vary. You may do really well for several days, then have a few days where you just can’t seem to get started, and that’s okay. Once you recognize you’ve fallen out of your routine, remind yourself how great you did while you were on track, and pick up where you left off.”
Tip #3: Keep it simple
Create as few steps as possible toward reaching your goal. The more steps you have to take, the more likely you just won’t do it.
For example, if your goal is to save $7,000 to buy a car, putting $5 in a jar every day then depositing that money in a bank once a week might be too many steps.
But if you use your bank’s website or app to transfer $5 to your savings account each day, that’s one quick step.
Tip #4: Set reminders, alarms
Once you’ve planned out your steps and created a routine, put it in your calendar with alarms. If you tend to ignore alarms, set several and make them loud.
“You should pick a sound or song that you won’t ignore,” Jaffee recommends. “Or even choose different ones for each reminder.”
But, when your alarm goes off, do what you need to do. Don’t procrastinate. If you plan to focus on the task for a certain amount of time, then also set an alarm to go off when your time is up.
Tip #5: Make it fun or enjoyable
If what you have to do is actually fun to do, you’ll be more likely to do it.
If your goal is to keep your house clean, play music that you love and sing along or dance as you mop, vacuum, and dust. But if your goal requires your concentration, consider sitting in your favorite spot or wearing something that makes you feel happy.
Tip #6: Find an accountability partner
Maybe it’s a friend, a partner, a colleague, or even a group — find someone who will hold you accountable for completing your tasks.
Then, decide how they will hold you accountable. You could text them each time you complete your task, talk on the phone once a week, or even send pictures or video of the project as you go along. Whatever way you choose, make it something that won’t create a lot of extra work for you.
Tip #7: Reward yourself in a healthy way
“Reward yourself each time you complete a task, but try to do it in a way that’s healthy, meaning that it doesn’t require you to spend money and it isn’t food-based,” Jaffee recommends.
Or, consider rewarding yourself while you’re doing the task, if you can. For example, if your goal is to run outside three times a week, and you love to read, pick an audiobook that’s a real “page-turner” and only allow yourself to listen while you’re on your run.
Tip #8: Reassess if you’re struggling to achieve your goal
“If it’s consistently not working, then you have to look at why,” Savage says.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the goal really that important to me?
- Is it taking longer than I originally thought to complete each task?
- Am I trying to work toward my goal at a time that doesn’t work for me?
- Is my plan not working?
- Am I too concerned about doing it perfectly to even get started?
“Nobody’s perfect and nobody achieves all their goals,” says Jaffee. “I always say that I don’t believe in laziness. Procrastination often comes from negative thoughts related to perfectionism.”
Tip #9: Ask for feedback and for help
If your goal is work-related, such as getting a promotion, talk to your direct supervisor about what you’d like to achieve.
“Let them know what you’re trying to do, what you know you do well, and where you struggle,” Savage advises.
“Then, ask them for feedback and for help. We often try to avoid these discussions, but knowing exactly what your boss really wants you to do means you aren’t focusing on something your boss doesn’t care about.”
If the goal isn’t work-related, but you need help, don’t be afraid to ask someone who can assist or guide you.
The right help could be an expert in whatever it is you’re trying to do or an ADHD coach who can help you map out a step-by-step process that will work for you.
Achieving goals when you have ADHD is possible. It’s about knowing yourself and knowing what will work best for you.
What are your strengths and how can they help you achieve your goal? What motivates you and will be a great reward each time you complete a task toward your goal? What are the areas where you need to make accommodations for yourself?
It may take some trial and error to figure out what works best for you. But you’ll never know what will work until you start setting goals.