I work with so many adults, teens and children in my clinical practice who are afraid that they are lazy. This is often messaging that we heard (or are currently hearing!) as a child, from important adults and authority figures in our lives.
In the best of cases these messages may have been misguided attempts to motivate us to achieve our full potential, and in less ideal situations the term “lazy” may have been thrown around to shame or belittle. The end result is often the same: an internalized pattern of self-critical thoughts that can lead to sadness, frustration, worry, and behavioral “stuckness” making it even more difficult to get things done.
If you’re wondering “Do I have ADHD or am I just lazy” you’re probably having trouble directing your energy as far as where to pay attention, and where to take action.
These skills fall under the umbrella of “self regulation” or “executive functioning.” For me, these terms boil down to the mental muscle by which we get ourselves to do things that aren’t immediately fun or rewarding, but that we know will benefit us later or put us in line with our values.
You use your self regulation muscle all the time throughout the day – for example when you wait through a boring line at the post office, when you write out a grocery list rather than just winging it, or when you call a challenging family member on their birthday.
There are lots of reasons why you might be struggling with self-regulation, including but not limited to ADHD.
Self-regulation is a finite mental resource. That means if we are “spending it” regulating ourselves in one area of our life, we may not have much left over to put toward the productivity we may be expecting of ourselves.
If you are wondering if you have ADHD or if you are just lazy, my guess is that for some reason, your self regulation is being used up before you can get to many of the “productivity” tasks on your list. ADHD is one common drain on self-regulation, but so are anxiety, trauma, and other forms of neurodivergence including autism.
The good news is that regardless of why you are feeling unmotivated or unproductive, lots of the same things can often help.
Do you have ADHD, are you just lazy, or are you in fact low on “bandwidth”? Typically the first step to increase productivity is to free up more “bandwidth” in the mind. My favorite way to do that is by increasing internal basic safety, or convincing our nervous system that you are ok in this moment.
A safe brain is a smart brain, meaning that if our brain has any concern that we are not “ok” in the moment, it tends to prioritize more primal, survival-level brain functions which steal energy from the more advanced parts of our brains that more often help us achieve our goals.
Getting back to a safe brain is the first step, and in my practice I often go to self-compassion to help people do this. Practices of self-compassion allow us to treat ourselves kindly enough that we stop firing up our own anxiety response due to essentially yelling at and criticizing ourselves in our heads all the time.
There are also mindfulness-based approaches that can help tap into our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest-and-digest” setting of our nervous system that we use when we sleep, enjoy a wonderful meal, or deeply relax. We want to switch our brains to this setting more often in order to replenish our self-regulation muscle and access our full brilliance and potential.
Once the nervous system is convinced that it is safe and well-resourced, we can think about fostering motivation in other ways. It can also be helpful to get clear on what your core needs and values are, so that you might feel more motivated to undertake tasks once you realize more deeply why you want to do them.
Similarly, finding ways to be productive in areas that are already inherently interesting or exciting to you (i.e. cleaning the house while listening to your favorite music, advocating for your professor to allow you to do a graphic novel for a final project rather than writing a boring term paper, aligning your work projects with a cause you feel passionate about) can also create less drain on your self-regulation making it easier to achieve your goals.
In summary, if you are struggling to get things done my guess is you have good reasons for that. These are not a character flaw or a moral failing, but in fact are valid needs that can be met to help align you with your goals and dreams.
If you are concerned about ADHD or laziness in general, a great step is to be evaluated by a psychologist who can help with self regulation challenges regardless of the source.
I am a licensed therapist in Portland, OR. If you are ready to explore your life in therapy, whether that’s talking about ADHD, or something else on your mind, please contact me to explore working together.