Raise your hand if you’ve been here: You know you have a small return window for a shirt you bought, but you put off bringing it back to the store day after day. Or maybe you’re buried in a project at work and can’t possibly imagine tackling another task at the moment ― even if it has a more urgent deadline.
There’s a name for when you are able to overcome this and get things done: task initiation. Think of it like your brain’s get-up-and-go. You have to turn the key, put the car in drive, then press on the gas — otherwise, you won’t actually go anywhere.
Your mind works the same way. Long to-do lists, big projects or annoying household chores can sometimes feel so overwhelming that starting your metaphorical ignition may seem impossible. But if you can’t get started, then you’ll be stuck with wheels spinning, frustrated that you’ve missed deadlines, were late again, or ignored assignments, texts, emails, dirty dishes ― or anything else you wanted to do but just couldn’t.
Anyone can struggle with task initiation, but it is especially prevalent in those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is associated with executive dysfunction. Chanel Johnson, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Altus Home Counseling and Behavioral Services LLC in Detroit, has worked with several adults with ADHD or who need help with task initiation. In fact, even she needs help with this sometimes.
“I’ve found myself struggling with task initiation as well, including waiting until the last minute, missing deadlines, or neglecting things completely,” Johnson told HuffPost. “This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you are a perfectionist or the person other people look to to have it all together.”
There can be many reasons you struggle to get started on something, including fatigue, anxiety, perfectionism, procrastination, executive dysfunction and lack of motivation, according to Johnson.
Billy Roberts, a therapist at Focused Mind ADHD Counseling in Columbus, Ohio, said underlying anxieties are a big contributor to task initiation challenges. This includes fear of failure or perfectionism.
“Since their expectations of themselves are so high, they feel frozen when it’s time to get started,” he said. “Another possibility is a general sense of overwhelm. Having so many tasks or steps, it’s hard to know where to start.”
It can be so frustrating when you want to do something but can’t make yourself start. Luckily there are tools to help. Keep reading for these expert-backed things to try if you struggle with task initiation.
“A great way to get started is a skill called ‘chunking,’ which means breaking things down into small actionable steps,” Roberts said. He also suggests people should “lower their expectations if they find a task too daunting and recognize that done is better than perfect.”
Kate McCann, a licensed mental health counselor who has a private counseling practice based in Worcester, Massachusetts, gives an example of how to break down an overwhelming task.
“Rather than think, ‘I have to clean the whole kitchen, and it’s a mess, I don’t know where to start, and it will take forever,’ break it down into, ‘to clean the kitchen, I have to first put away any food that’s been left out. Then get the dish rack emptied. Then I have to empty the dishwasher. Then I can get the dirty dishes loaded. Then I can wash the pots. Then I can wipe down the counters. Then I can watch the Real Housewives as a treat because I will be done,’” she said.
“Breaking the task down into small do-able parts that get paced out can help break down that wall of total resistance,” McCann added.
Transition to the task by doing another activity first
Kara Nassour, a therapist at Shaded Bough Counseling in Austin, Texas, suggests using another activity to help you transition to the task you want to do.
“If it’s hard to get off the couch to mow the lawn, it may be easier to get up, walk around the yard while listening to music, and then mow the lawn,” Nassour said. “If you’re struggle to start your homework, looking over your previous homework might help get your brain on track.”
Narrow your list down to just three items
Sometimes huge to-do lists can be overwhelming — not to mention impossible to get done in one day. Katie Ziskind, a therapist and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling, suggests picking three main goals.
“If you don’t have any clean laundry and you need clean clothes for work in the morning, but you still have some fruits, beans, rice, and pasta to eat, doing laundry will be more important than going food shopping,” she said. “Even if you think you’d find food shopping more fun than laundry.”
Ziskind added that “when you don’t feel motivated, that can come from feeling like you have too much responsibility.”
Telling yourself you have to finish everything to feel accomplished is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, Johnson recommends rethinking what you consider a win.
“Redefine success of a task to make it more manageable or easier,” she said. “An example is to tell yourself that washing half of the dishes today will count as a win instead of saying you have to do them all and clean the whole kitchen to feel accomplished.” Sometimes, just doing a few dishes is all you can do that day, and that’s OK.
Figure out exactly how much time it takes to do the task
Sometimes it’s hard to get started on something when we think it’ll take longer or shorter than it really will.
“Say your goal is to unload the dishwasher,” said Mary Hadley, a speech language pathologist who specializes in executive functioning challenges at Signpost Speech and Language Therapy in Austin, Texas. “Write down how long you think it will take, time yourself and see how long it really took.”
This isn’t so you can judge yourself on how long it took; rather, it’s a way to build awareness and get a better understanding of yourself. This can make it easier to plan your day and say no to things you really don’t have time for. Once your day feels more manageable, it can be easier to get started.
“Being unrealistic about what you can get done in a day often makes initiating tasks harder,” Johnson said. “You set yourself up for failure.”
Allow yourself a set time to be distracted
Distractions are going to happen, so embrace them. “Allow yourself to be distracted, but set a timer for your distractions,” Johnson recommended.
Ziskind suggested an alarm to stop yourself from scrolling Instagram or TikTok, “which can eat into the time you would have to complete tasks and do chores.”
There’s nothing wrong with asking for or seeking help. If there’s a task you find you consistently aren’t able to motivate yourself to do (like cleaning the bathrooms), then hire someone else to do it, if you can. Or offer a trade with a partner or friend. Ziskind said even doing this one time can help you.
Speak kindly to yourself
Cheer yourself on like you would a friend. “Speaking kindly to yourself, being your own cheerleader, and encouraging yourself are keys to starting tasks and getting tasks done,” Ziskind said.
Hadley agreed, encouraging people to regularly engage in “positive self-talk.” “This is a simple, free, and surprisingly powerful tool to implement into your daily life,” she said.
“Talk to your anxiety or distractibility as you are getting started on a task: ‘Hey anxiety, good to see you, thanks for stopping by but I don’t need you right now,’” Hadley explained. “Or, ‘I’m going to set a time and work on this for 20 minutes. I’ve got this.’ Remind yourself this is a process; it will take a while to feel accomplished and there is no such thing as perfection.”
Ditch the old advice of doing the hardest thing on your list first. Instead, start and end with something fun.
“Do something that you want to do first and plan something that you are looking forward to do afterward as a reward,” Johnson said.
Focus on the end result
Make a vision board, write down your goals, or just picture what you want your end result to look like to keep you motivated.
“Have visual reminders of the overall goal,” Johnson said. “For example, if you have issues getting started on work projects, but you’re looking forward to moving up in the company, have a sheet of paper you can look at with your name and the title that you want behind it.”
If that doesn’t work, think about how happy you’ll feel in the short term. “Imagine how grateful your future self will be to your present self for getting it done,” McCann said. “I do chores on Thursday mornings so Weekend [Me] doesn’t have to do them, and Weekend [Me] LOVES Thursday [Me] for that.”
She explained that avoidance offers a momentary relief, but ultimately makes you feel worse at the end of the day. “No one wants to do the task now or feels like doing a chore but consider how you would like to feel afterward,” McCann continued, adding, “If you complete some small steps, and give yourself lots of praise for doing so, you will feel good about yourself at the end of the day.”
Pay attention to how you feel
Nassour suggested paying attention to how you feel when you find yourself avoiding tasks. “If you’re feeling tired, depressed, anxious, irritable, or in pain, that’s likely interfering with the task you meant to do,” she said. “Address the underlying problem and you will probably get more done.”
“Don’t criticize yourself for struggling to start tasks, because feelings of guilt and shame can make your brain associate that feeling with the task, and subconsciously make you want to avoid it in the future,” she added, suggesting treating the underlying anxieties or other issues.
Take care of your health
Making your health a priority can help make task initiation easier. “Take care of your mind and body,” Nassour said. “If you’re not getting enough food or sleep, or come home exhausted, or are in pain all the time, these things will interfere with getting things done.”
She added that a regular use of cannabis, alcohol or other substances could affect you as well, and limiting them “may improve your motivation in other areas of life.”
Reach out to a therapist for help
Therapy can help those struggling with task initiation. A cognitive behavioral therapy approach that reframes “negative cognitions and beliefs into positive ones helps you see a problem as less daunting and yourself as more competent, which helps you engage in different behaviors,” according to McCann.
Psychodynamic therapy, otherwise known as “why do I feel the way I feel” therapy, may help as well. Roberts explained it “can help with resolving any underlying emotional issues related to task initiation.”
Discovering tricks to jump-start your brain and improve task initiation can be a game changer. We all have bad days or times we struggle with procrastination, but with some health maintenance, self-kindness and plenty of rewards, it can start to get easier.