ADHD is a condition that’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do. Avoiding tasks that are unpleasant or simply uninteresting is a common sign of ADHD.
The DSM diagnostic manual refers to this symptom as avoiding “tasks that require sustained mental effort.” Many people with ADHD report that it extends to tasks that are just tedious, like household chores, even if they don’t require a brilliant cognitive effort.
Of course, everyone is reluctant to engage in dry or cognitively taxing tasks sometimes. For people with ADHD, though, task avoidance is a regular pattern that interferes with their lives.
It’s easy to describe what ADHD task avoidance looks like from the outside: not doing that work or school project that you really need to get started on, neglecting basic household tasks beyond the point of reason, failing to respond to emails or follow through on commitments.
But what does irrationally avoiding necessary tasks feel like from the inside?
To me, it’s like having a wall stopping me from doing a task that I know, logically, I should do. It’s a total lack of motivation. I’m repelled from the task, and it’s just so much easier to do almost anything else.
This goes back to how reliant the ADHD brain is on immediate rewards. People with ADHD have deficits in their ability to manage their cognitive resources and tell their brains what to do or what to focus on. Instead, they depend on immediate rewards or sense of stimulation to get their brains firing on all cylinders.
Avoiding tasks happens when that sense of reward or stimulation is lacking. No feeling of reward + deficits in your ability to self-generate the appropriate mindset for a certain task = that task isn’t gonna get done, not right now anyway.
So when does the task get done? Eventually, most tasks reach the point where ignoring them is no longer possible, where it’s “now or never” – the night before a deadline, for example. Then either the sense of last-minute panic provides the necessary stimulation to focus the ADHD brain, or the ADHDer gives up on the task entirely.
I think chronic task avoidance is one of the reasons people mistake ADHD for run-of-the-mill “laziness.” Externally, procrastinating and avoiding tasks just looks like someone who’s decided they want to be irresponsible.
Under the hood, though, there’s a lot more going on that has to do with neuropsychological factors like the different way people with ADHD process rewards. That’s why ADHDers often find it hard to stop avoiding tasks no matter how much they want to engage with everyday life in a more planned and less chaotic way. And it’s why avoiding tasks remains one of the DSM’s core inattentive symptoms of ADHD.
Image: Flickr/Lynn Friedman