ADHD is so often a problem of inertia. The stereotypes say we can’t get the ball rolling on anything, but we know the truth: stopping can be as difficult as starting.
When we get on a roll, our brains mightily resist any effort to disengage.

Sometimes we justify it by looking at our past failures and saying, “I’m actually making progress — I can’t stop now or I may never come back to this.”

We spend so much time feeling behind, we can’t imagine stopping the momentum, even if it’s too much of a good thing.

But we need to.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal gets at the neuroscience of why overdoing it is such a bad idea in her wonderfully engaging book The Willpower InstinctWillpower, that keystone of executive functioning, is a finite resource. If you max out on one thing, you may find yourself powerless to resist the next temptation that walks in the door.

Overextending your brain leaves you open to willpower failures

I recently experienced this firsthand. I planned my evening out so neatly, accounting for putting my son to bed, cleaning up and doing the dishes, and spending an hour on an essay for my monthly critique group.

Surprisingly, this all went great until the essay. It had frustrated me for days. At long last, I’d generated some momentum and the words came freely.

Before I knew it, the clock struck 9:15: the time I’d told myself I would wrap up, take a shower, do a few final chores, and turn my light out by 10:15.

I decided to skip the shower and work on the essay a little longer.

A natural stopping arrived when I still could’ve gotten into bed by 10:15, and I saved and closed the file.

At around 10:30, I finally pried myself away from Facebook.

Where did I go wrong here?

I’ve learned, through trial and error and plenty of misused hours, that I max out at 60 minutes of writing productivity — and that’s on a good day.Then I need to switch contexts and come back later.

On this particular evening, I experienced a willpower failure — I failed to pull myself away. Instead, I ran my brain ragged with too large a block of nonstop writing time. When I saw one temptation on Facebook, down the rabbit hole I went.

If I had budgeted 45 minutes and allowed myself a small window of extra time to wrap up, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

Know your limits…and respect them above all

The key to learning your limits is to observe, observe, observe. When do you start encountering resistance to staying on task? When do you start pushing yourself because you’re “on a roll?” When does your rational mind realize you’re tired, but something else propels you forward, eager for a reward?

Chances are, if you get to know yourself, you’ll learn your tipping point — the time when it’s best to stop and make a note to come back later. Developing a trusted system so you actually will come back later helps a lot.

Not only that, setting boundaries may help you make more reliable progress on your projects. I started limiting myself to 30 minutes per day in our basement, where I’m cleaning out clutter and preparing to turn it into a real living space. Some days this means stopping before I feel ready, but that left me with the energy to clean up any messes I’d made. Other days, setting a timer for 30 minutes forced me to stick with it even though I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Don’t keep working for the sake of making progress

It takes discipline to stop before you truly need to, and it can seem counterproductive. It’s not. You’re making sure you give the task your best effort while leaving some cognitive energy behind to deal with other aspects of your day. You’re pausing to reevaluate, asking, “is this how I want to spend my entire day, or is there something else I’m neglecting?”

Is this a skill you’ve been working on? Where do you feel stuck, or what tricks have you found to stay on track?