Effort — Our Sixth Executive Function
Welcome back to the ADHD: Bitesize Guide to our Six Executive Functions!
Last time we took a look at Memory, the fifth of our executive functions. We examined how ADHD affects our working memory, hindsight and foresight, and how those impairments can impact our lives. We looked at ways we can compensate for these impairments and improve several aspects of our memory. If you missed it, you can read it here!
This time we're looking at Effort—the sixth and final executive function.
Effort includes regulating our energy levels, our ability to sustain effort towards a task, and our processing speed—the speed at which we can understand and react to information we receive.
The result can manifest itself in the following ways:
Being slower to react and respond to complex information.
Having trouble regulating energy throughout the day—either bouncing off the walls, or feeling exhausted.
Starting a project really enthusiastically, only to run out of steam part-way through.
Sometimes, completing a task can feel physically uncomfortable.
Becoming easily frustrated when doing something complicated or challenging.
Feeling like it takes ages to understand something that others seem to grasp easily.
Do any of those sound familiar to you?
The Trouble With Our Effort
ADHD can affect our circadian rhythm—our brain's ability to stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule—meaning we often have issues getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up in the morning.
Bursts of physical or mental hyperactivity are often followed by fatigue.
ADHD is exhausting. The additional mental effort needed to function day-to-day takes its toll on our energy levels.
Studies have shown that people with ADHD report higher levels of mental effort required—as well as more discomfort as a result of that additional effort—than neurotypical people when completing the same tasks. It feels uncomfortable and takes a lot more effort for us.
Our reduced capacity for sustained effort means that often we run out of steam and fail to finish a task, even one we started enthusiastically.
Overall processing speed is unaffected by ADHD, but as the complexity of a task increases, the ADHD brain's processing speed decreases.
Our ability to take in more complicated information means we can lose track of things, miss important details, and become frustrated.
It's important to remember that you aren't stupid or lazy. These symptoms are neurological — literally the way your brain is wired differently — and are not character flaws or personal failings.There are many strategies and techniques you can try that can help with managing your energy levels, sustaining effort towards a task, and compensate for the reduced ability to process complicated information.
Why Do We Have Trouble With Effort?
Part of the reason we have issues with effort is the ADHD brain's lack of dopamine. Dopamine is the brain's "feel-good" hormone, produced when something is interesting or stimulating (and not always in a good way).
The lack of dopamine creates several problems. Not only is it harder for us to sustain effort towards a goal, but we also feel less rewarded when we accomplish that goal. We either experience less satisfaction, or need a higher reward to feel the same sense of achievement as a neurotypical person.
Brain chemistry also creates issues with regulating our energy levels. Those of us with ADHD often have a poor sense of time—things are either "now", or "not now"—meaning our internal clocks are not set. This can manifest in a disrupted sleep-wake schedule.
This disrupted brain chemistry can cause difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up in the mornings. It can also manifest as disrupted sleep, with lots of tossing and turning.
What Can We Do About It?
How can we compensate for our reduced processing speed, better regulate our energy levels, and improve our ability to sustain effort towards a task? Thankfully, there are several things we can try.
Remember your end goal. Sometimes it's hard to finish the things we start because we "tune out". Write down your end goal, or better still create a "dream board"—a collection of visual aids to remind you of what success will look like. A dream board for completing a work project might include a doodle of your boss giving you praise, or pictures of what you'll treat yourself to next payday.
Have a daily schedule. Keep a consistent schedule every week—building in the goals you want to accomplish—and stick to it as best you can. Use your Bullet Journal to divide your time into blocks, allowing time for other tasks (expected and unexpected) so they don't interfere with your goals. Maintaining a schedule is the most important thing you can do to avoid losing momentum!
Track Your Progress. If you can follow your progress and see what you've managed to accomplish so far, it will motivate you to finish your project. Use trackers in your Bullet Journal!
Reward yourself for completing stages. Give yourself a little reward each time you reach a particular milestone, such as watching one episode of your favourite TV show after you've reached a word count target in your essay. Try to make the reward healthy (maybe not the giant chocolate bar?) and ensure it doesn't take too much time away from completing your project!
Set alarms for bedtime and morning. This can help us stick to a regular sleep-wake cycle, something that's often a problem for those of us with ADHD.
Exercise. Post-exercise benefits include increased concentration, ability to focus, attention span, motivation, and learning ability. When energy levels are sluggish despite being well-rested, have a quick burst of exercise even if it doesn't sound like fun. Just five minutes is enough. If you aren't well-rested, take a moment to recharge.
Create a daily routine. Doing the same sorts of things every day at the same kinds of times of the day will help even out energy levels and avoid sudden peaks and troughs in productivity.
When you wake, stay awake. Sometimes we wake up in the morning feeling reasonably awake, but half an hour or so before our alarm is due to go off. It's extremely tempting to have a snooze for 30 minutes, but what tends to happen then is we almost pass out, so when our alarm does go off we feel really sluggish. It's better for your overall energy levels throughout the day to wake up naturally, even if it's earlier than you normally would.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals. One or two large meals a day can cause our energy levels to peak and trough. Try eating three to four smaller meals per day, increase the proportion of vegetables and protein, and choose complex carbohydrates over simple ones (like white rice instead of brown).
Stay well-hydrated. Adults need a little over two litres of water daily, and one of the first signs of dehydration is a loss of energy. Keep a bottle near you throughout the day to sip on. If you find water boring, add a little lemon or lime juice. Avoid soft drinks and energy drinks, as the sugar and caffeine can wreak havoc with your energy levels.
Start your day with exercise. Even if you feel like you have no energy, doing a little exercise first thing will help kick you into gear. It doesn't have to be extremely vigorous or for a long time—just ten minutes of yoga is enough to stretch and energise you for the day ahead.
Allow more time. Often, it just takes a little extra time to complete the tasks we need to get done. Allow 20-50% more time to do something than you think you'll need to avoid feeling stressed or rushed.
Obtain (or create) clear instructions. Overcomplicated tasks or instructions can overwhelm the ADHD brain as it struggles to cope with all the information at once. Simple, clear, short instructions are best.
If you can't obtain them, create them yourself! Take each step at a time and shorten it to its key point to end up with a concise, bulleted list that's easier to follow. Bonus — read them aloud or create a chart to engage multiple senses.
Summarise and outline. Working out the bigger picture before getting into the finer details can help avoid getting overwhelmed with too much information at once. Understanding the gist of a project, or outlining the main goals for the day, can help us put the finer points into context.
One thing at a time. If we monotask rather than multitask, it's easier to process the smaller chunks of information rather than trying to do everything at once. In an exam, for example, cover up all the questions except the one you're working on.
Shorten tasks. Instead of "clean the house," create a series of shorter tasks such as "vacuum the carpets," and "do the washing up". Tackling one shorter task at a time with small breaks in between prevents cognitive overwhelm.
The harmful results that can often occur as a result of our impaired Effort executive function can be mitigated or avoided altogether with support. Options include professional therapy, prescription medication, ADHD-focused life coaching, and self-help strategies.
That's it for our series on Executive Functions! I hope you found it useful. Next time we'll be taking a look at mindfulness and how it can help with ADHD.
And soon, we will be starting a new series on ADHD and mental health with a look at the relationship between ADHD, anxiety and depression. See you then!