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Overcoming a Lack of Self-Control

Impulsivity, low self-control, a lack of self-discipline – call it whatever you want, it’s part of ADHD. Despite the best intentions, we end up not doing the things we meant to do and doing the things we meant not to do.

When I talk about “overcoming” a lack of self-control, you might have flashbacks to all the times you’ve been told you should just use your willpower to “try harder” and be more disciplined. Don’t worry, that’s not where I’m going with this.

I want to talk about outsmarting your problem rather than overpowering it.

Self-ControlOver on the AllPsych blog, I just wrote about a study on what traits people who are able to stick to exercise routines have. You can see that post for the details, but the TLDR is that there are two important factors: how much self-control you have and how much you enjoy exercising.

Interestingly, it appears that having just one of these things is enough. If you have excellent self-control, you can probably stick to an exercise routine even if you don’t actually like working out. And if you enjoy exercising, you don’t need great self-control to exercise because, well, you enjoy it.

Let’s generalize this a little. There are basically two ways of motivating yourself to do something.

The first way is by forcing yourself to do it through sheer self-control. In this case, you are creating the motivation yourself.

The second way of motivating yourself to do something is simply by enjoying it. You do it because you want to. The motivation comes organically from how you feel about that activity.

As it turns out, we ADHDers aren’t very good at the first kind of motivation. That means we have to make up for it with the second kind of motivation. In other words, because we tend to fall short when it comes to motivating ourselves to do things through sheer willpower, we have to organize our lives so that, as much as possible, we’re motivated to do things because we actually want to do them.

To put it another way, we have to substitute the second kind of motivation, actually enjoying things, for the first kind of motivation, self-control.

In the case of exercise, that means we might not be able to stick to an exercise routine until we experiment with different forms of exercise and find one we actually enjoy.

The downside here is that until we find a type of exercise that inherently motivates us, we’re going to be less successful in sticking to an exercise routine than if we had more self-control. On the other hand, this lack of self-control actually forces ourselves to search for a kind of exercise that we really find rewarding because we can’t get by just by forcing ourselves into an exercise routine we’re not enthusiastic about.

Work is another example. Different jobs are going to require the two kinds of motivation to different degrees. If you enjoy your work, the work itself will energize you. With some jobs, though, getting your work done is more of an exercise in self-control than anything else because it’s about forcing yourself to focus on tasks you don’t enjoy.

That’s why unfulfilling jobs can spell serious trouble for people with ADHD. No one wants to have a job they don’t like, of course, but people without ADHD are more likely to have the self-discipline to adequately go through the motions of a job they don’t find intrinsically rewarding.

So, as I see it, “overcoming” a lack of self-control is actually about making self-control as irrelevant as possible in your day-to-day life. The more you do things you fundamentally enjoy, the less your life will tax your self-control.

Of course, it’s not realistic to expect that you’ll enjoy everything you do, but perfection isn’t the goal in coping with ADHD. We do have some say in how we organize our lives, so if you find yourself repeatedly saying “I wish I had the self-control to do X,” maybe it’s time to try replacing X with Y – where Y is a similar activity (a form of exercise, a job, etc.) that you enjoy more and that will therefore place fewer demands on your ability to conjure motivation out of apathy.

Image: Flickr/Jenni Konrad

Overcoming a Lack of Self-Control

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). Overcoming a Lack of Self-Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2018, from


Last updated: 28 Sep 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 28 Sep 2017
Published on All rights reserved.