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Achieve Your Goals in the New Year (and Beyond!) When You Have ADHD

Man Writing in a Notebook

Auld Lang Syne has been sung, the champagne corks have been popped and the ball has dropped. The New Year has arrived and maybe you’re starting to think about your New Year’s resolutions. What goals would you like to achieve this year? How will you move past thinking about those goals to putting those thoughts into action? Will your resolutions be forgotten by May (or even February!) or will you have started working towards your goals?

Setting—and achieving—goals is a daunting task for anyone, but can be particularly difficult for folks with ADHD. Why is it more difficult for them? Because adults with ADHD have the added challenge of problematic executive functions. The brain’s executive functions are at the core of ADHD difficulties. Executive functions allow for purposeful orchestration and monitoring of resources, knowledge, skills, and motivation toward a goal. Adults with ADHD are not naturally set-up to create purposeful step-wise goals. It can feel wrong, create resistance in the mind, and simply be downright difficult. The difficulty of creating these kinds of plans combined with the downright busy-ness of daily living can be overwhelming.

So what can people with ADHD do to overcome these challenges?

One of the most effective tools I’ve found is using a goal pursuit model. There are several goal pursuit models out there, but the one I think is the most effective and brain-friendly is the AIM Model of Goal Pursuit. The AIM Model was developed by Elliot Berkman and David Rock (Your Brain at Work) of the Neuroleadership Institute. They noticed that people were still relying on older models based on behavioral sciences, so they created a new model that is based on neurological sciences: on how the brain creates, plans for, and follows through on goals. This model is more useful because it goes beyond defining a goal and action steps. It accounts for motivation, interest, relevance, emotions, cues and rewards–all things that people with ADHD will immediately see the value of.

The AIM Model of Goal Pursuit:

  • Helps people with ADHD turn wishful thinking into purposeful action.

  • Gives people with ADHD articulated goals with strategies for derailments or their own attempts to avoid unpleasant work and life’s inevitable interruptions and keep their goals front and center.

  • Gives people with ADHD a framework for those problematic executive functions.

  • Focuses on the process rather than the outcome and provides support throughout the journey.

The AIM Model consists of three steps: Antecedent, Integration, and Maintenance. The Antecedent step challenges core difficulties like making decisions, prioritizing, organizing, creating steps and managing time. The Integration step considers the why and how of the goal and looks at it from the big picture to today’s picture. The Maintenance step helps create follow-through toward the goal and helps develop long-term habits by taking action repeatedly. It is loaded with reminders, cues and habit-forming rewards.

Let’s look at each of these steps in depth. To make the goals more tangible, I suggest actually writing down each step of your goal planning—maybe even drawing pictures or creating a collage to help you visualize the goals you want to achieve. Whatever works for you to make your goals clear and concrete!

First, the Antecedent step.

The Antecedent step is the goal setting phase. It involves planning: the why, what, when, where and with whom. This is the step where you think about your motivation. Are you more motivated by the possibility of good outcomes or the avoidance of bad outcomes? Either one is fine! It just depends on your personality traits. This step also looks at self-relevance. Does the goal match the “enduring sense” of who you are? Is this goal something you are trying to achieve for yourself or is it something you are doing to please someone else? And you want to make your goals as tangible as possible, so place your goal and the goal actions in your external environment as notes, reminders, cues and support. Here’s where your journal or workbook can come into play.

For this step, write down (or draw) your goal by:

  • Describing your goal as specifically as possible.

  • Giving your goal a name.

  • Deciding how you will measure the success of your goal.

  • Asking yourself what will make this goal realistic for your life right now.

  • Choosing an anticipated deadline.

  • Listing three actions you will take toward your goal.

  • Deciding who you can enlist for support and partnering.

  • Deciding when is the best time for you to take action toward your goal. Mark it on your calendar or in your planner!

  • Choosing the best place or space for you to be in when you take action toward your goal.

  • Figuring out how you will deal with frustration or feeling stuck as you work toward your goal.

  • Describing what benefit you are working toward, or approaching, with this goal.

  • Or, describing what bad consequence you are working away from, or avoiding, with this goal.

  • Describing what about this goal matches who you really are—your “enduring self.” (Think about your values, traits, preferences and identity.)

  • Listing how you will make this goal tangible enough to stay front and center in your life—how to make it “sticky.”

Second, the Integration step.

This step involves the why and how of pursuing your goal. The why connects your goal with your “self” to create motivation. The how connects your actions with your intentions. This step can be applied at a range of hierarchical levels from highest (long-term) to most immediate (short-term).

In your journal or workbook, write down your answers to the following questions (remember to be as specific as you can):

  • Why do you desire this goal? Think about it at the highest level (for your life in the long-term).

  • How will you work toward this goal at the highest level?

  • Why do you desire this goal at the mid-level (for this year in the mid-term)?

  • How will you work toward this goal at the mid-level?

  • Why do you want this goal at the most immediate level (for yourself today in the near term)?

  • How will you work toward this goal at the most immediate level?

Third, the Maintenance step.

This step is where the goal becomes a habit. Maintenance requires the person with ADHD to repeat actions toward the goal many times and reward themselves enough times to make the goal actions routine. This is the step where you set up cues to make actions happen: for example, posting large sticky notes where you will see them at the same time every day or setting up phone alerts. Neurologically speaking, people tend to be more able to create routine habits that are based on strong external cues more than those based on rewards, so people with ADHD really benefit from lots of external cues.

People with ADHD also tend to take action when things are last minute or in a state of chaos. Logically they know that it is easier and more effective to do things earlier, but without the addition of crisis conditions it can seem impossible to get started. Neurological research shows that people can become stronger at doing things earlier with the appropriate use of cues and lots of practice, so that not waiting until the last minute becomes easier over time. Pile on the ADHD-friendly tactics, which are predominantly cues and rewards, and engage supportive people in the process because others are the most effective cues of all.

For this step, write down your maintenance plan by:

  • Choosing what internal cues you can use to make the actions toward this goal more routine.

  • Deciding what external cues you can use to make the actions toward this goal more routine.

  • Figuring out if any of your cues need cues of their own to make sure you are keeping this goal front and center.

  • Making a plan of how you will reward yourself for taking action. Make the reward as immediate and tangible as possible.

  • Choosing who you can rely on for your accountability partner for support or for inspiration toward your goal.

  • Figuring out what micro-changes you can make along the way to keep your actions towards this goal interesting and new-feeling (what is the smallest possible change you can make?)

  • And finally, deciding how you will know when your goal has become complete, routine or habitual.

Now that you have planned your journey and have the tools you need (like cues, reminders, rewards, and an accountability partner) to assist your ADHD mind, the last thing to decide is when will you begin? Many people chose the quieter time of winter to start planning their goals, but whenever you decide to start, here’s to successfully achieving them. Cheers!

Reference: Berkman, E., Rock, D. (2014) AIM: An Integrative Model of Goal Pursuit (Vol. 5). Retrieved from

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