(And how to start tasks anyway)
You might not think that executive dysfunction and perfectionism have anything to do with each other, but you’d be wrong. People assume that if you have executive dysfunction, you’re a messy person with a messy life who doesn’t care about getting things right. (We all know those people are wrong, though).
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Do you struggle to start tasks, even if they’re important? Maybe you have a long to-do list, but you just can't seem to get yourself to actually start any of the items on it. Or maybe you need everything to be perfect before you can even start, which leaves you stuck in a cycle of procrastination and self-doubt.
As an executive function coach, I've seen firsthand how executive dysfunction and perfectionism can create a vicious cycle that makes it harder to get things done. In this article, we'll explore the link between these two issues and discuss some strategies for starting tasks anyway, even when you're feeling overwhelmed or stuck.
What are Executive Dysfunction and Perfectionism?
Let's start by defining executive dysfunction and perfectionism. Executive dysfunction is a term used to describe difficulties with the brain's executive functions – things like planning, prioritizing, initiating tasks, and staying focused. Many people who are neurodivergent, especially if they have ADHD, struggle with executive functioning.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, is holding yourself to impossibly high standards, and judging yourself harshly when you don’t meet those standards. This can lead to procrastination, avoidance, and a cycle of self-criticism that makes it even harder to get things done.
The link between executive dysfunction and perfectionism is complex, but in general, they tend to feed into each other in a negative cycle. When you have trouble initiating tasks due to executive dysfunction, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
At the same time, you already want to do the task perfectly, so the anxiety feeds into the idea that you’re going to mess it up. You’re afraid to start because you might not get it right, which exacerbates the anxiety. And when you're stuck in a cycle of perfectionism, it can make it even harder to start tasks and get things done, which in turn worsens executive dysfunction.
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Consequences of Not Starting Tasks
Procrastination can worsen executive dysfunction in a few ways. First, when you put off starting a task, it can create anxiety or dread because the task is hanging over your head, which can make it even harder to initiate it when you do finally sit down to work on it. This can then make it more difficult to plan and prioritize because you’re behind.
Secondly, procrastination can cause you to lose confidence in your ability to get things done, which increases anxiety and stress. When you repeatedly put off tasks or struggle to complete them on time, it can be easy to fall into a cycle of negative self-talk and doubt, which can make it even harder to start tasks in the future. You spend so much time doubting and berating yourself that it’s near impossible to even get started.
Lastly, procrastination can create a backlog of tasks that need to be completed, which can add to feelings of overwhelm and worsen your executive dysfunction. As the number of unfinished tasks grows, it becomes harder to prioritize and focus on the most important tasks because you have no idea where to start, which leads to paralysis and inaction.
While it's natural to feel anxious or overwhelmed at times, it's important to find strategies that can help you break the cycle of procrastination and avoidance. In the next section, we'll explore some specific strategies for starting tasks even when you're feeling stuck.
Strategies for Starting Tasks
It’s important to remember that no strategy is a one size fits all. You need to experiment to find the tools and strategies that work for you.
Break tasks down
Breaking down a larger task into smaller, more manageable steps can help reduce feelings of overwhelm and make it easier to start the task. Here are some benefits of breaking tasks down:
- It can help you identify specific actions you need to take to complete the task
- It can help you see progress as you complete each step
- It can make the task feel less intimidating and easier to start
To break tasks down, you can follow these steps:
- Identify the task you need to complete
- List out all of the steps you need to take to complete the task – the smaller the steps, the better
- Prioritize the steps in the order they need to be completed
- Focus on one step at a time until the task is complete
For example, if you need to clean the kitchen, break it down: throw out trash laying on counters, remove items from counters that don’t belong in kitchen, wipe down counters, unload and reload the dishwasher, wipe down the stove, etc.
Use a timer
Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and work on the task without any distractions. Most people can convince themselves to do almost anything for 10 or 15 minutes. Doing this can help you overcome the initial hurdle of starting the task. And often, once you actually start, you build momentum to continue working on it.
You can gradually increase the amount of time you work on the task as you feel more comfortable. However, when the timer goes off, you have to let yourself stop if you’re still miserable. Not allowing yourself to stop at the 10-15-minute mark defeats the purpose of the timer.
Here are some benefits of using a timer:
- It can help you stay focused and avoid distractions.
- It can also help you break the task into smaller chunks of time
- It can help build momentum as you work towards completing the task
Set realistic goals
Setting realistic goals and expectations can help reduce feelings of overwhelm and make it easier to start and complete tasks. Here are some tips for setting realistic goals:
- Be honest about how much time and energy you have to devote to the task
- Break the task down into smaller steps, as discussed above
- Set specific, measurable goals that are attainable within the time and energy you have available
- Celebrate small successes along the way to keep yourself motivated
Perfectionism can be a barrier to getting started and completing tasks. Embracing imperfection can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and make it easier to start and complete tasks. It’s not easy to embrace imperfection. While we know that perfection isn’t truly possible, we often still expect ourselves to reach that unattainable standard. Here are some benefits of embracing imperfection:
- It can reduce feelings of self-doubt and anxiety
- It can help you be more productive by focusing on progress, not perfection
- It can help you see mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
To embrace imperfection, you can follow these steps:
- Recognize that perfectionism is harmful and unproductive
- Practice self-compassion and kindness toward yourself when you make mistakes (treat yourself with the same kindness you would offer a loved one)
- Focus on progress, not perfection, and celebrate small successes along the way
- Use mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
Executive dysfunction and perfectionism can be major barriers to starting tasks and achieving our goals. They feed negatively off each other making every task more difficult. However, by understanding the link between the two and implementing strategies you can overcome these obstacles and move forward with confidence.
It's okay to struggle with starting tasks and it's okay to ask for help. You’re not alone in your journey. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try a variety of strategies and be patient. Change will come if you give it time.