My Fellow Distractoids,

Do you find that you make agreements that you don’t keep? That you let people down or make them angry when you drop the ball or don’t follow through? That your word is not quite your bond?

It’s important for ADHDers and their friends and partners to understand how people with ADHD struggle with keeping agreements. Let’s take a look.

Agreements are shared designs or plans that help guide and govern our future actions. They require us to act in accordance with their provisions consistently over time, which might be days, weeks, months, or sometimes years. The complex actions that allow us to pursue a course or a goal consistently over time are governed by the Executive Functions of the brain. And that is where the problems arise …

So what about ADHD undermines the ability to make and keep agreements?

MAKING Agreements — some factors of ADHD lead to problems MAKING agreements. Usually, this means agreeing to something without giving it proper thought. Sure, I will take out the trash. Yes, I will go to the PTA meeting. For sure, I will remember that date night this week is Thursday not Friday. Saying “yes” is easy. An easy “yes” does not require us to pause and think. It’s a good way of not having to shift our attention or getting out of an unwanted conversation by putting things off until the agreement again arises in the future.

Here are some reasons why I might make an agreement without thinking. I don’t want to think about it at the time, I agree impulsively, my mind wants to go somewhere else, it’s a boring conversation, I am actually already thinking about something else and I answer on auto-pilot, the agreement seems trivial, the agreement sounds like an attack and I am annoyed and want to make it go away. If I am a verbal processor, I might say yes as a way of “thinking out loud” to figure out how I really feel sometime down the line. In all of these cases, I am giving a very weak, soft yes that in reality means something more like “maybe, maybe not.” That’s not a real agreement.

KEEPING Agreements: There are other factors that help explain a decreased ability to keep agreements over time. As someone with ADHD, I have a compromised sense of time — “time blindness.” I don’t experience events over time the same way non-ADHD people do. I have weakened powers of hindsight and foresight. My perception of cause and effect lacks strength and solidity. To me, life sometimes feels like a dream. Therefore I have a relatively poor sense of how actions have consequences in the future. These weaknesses mean that I might be prone to making the same mistake over and over again, and that life will be like Groundhog’s Day. Well, they also mean that I will struggle to keep agreements. Compared to a person with full Executive Functions, the force of an agreement is simply not the same. How could it be?

In addition to this fundamental issue, ADHD might also in other ways undermine my ability to keep agreements. Distraction, impulsivity, overwhelm, boredom, lack of novelty, and forgetfulness are some examples stemming from typical ADHD symptoms.

And here’s the thing: making and keeping agreements are fundamental to friendships, romantic relationships, professional relationships, and even more casual relationships with other people in the world like service providers and on and on. The ability to make and keep agreements bestows personal integrity. Breaking agreements with other people hurts our integrity in their eyes and leads to judgments that we are unreliable, irresponsible, uncaring, and so on. But we can also break agreements with ourselves, which undermines self-belief, self-trust, self-worth, and even our sense of who we are.

The consequences of broken agreements come in all sizes: small, medium, large, and catastrophic. Sadly, too many of us don’t see the gravity of the consequences until it is too late. It takes losing a friend, a job, or a marriage before we understand.

Therefore, it is critical to see agreements in their proper perspective and to become a Master of Distraction in the keeping agreements department. Here are some steps in that direction:

— Be mindful and careful when making an agreement. Learn to let a proposed agreement be a trigger for you to pause and think and make a conscious choice. Start by practicing never saying “yes” right away to any agreement. Instead, say “let me think about that” or “let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Then take some time to consciously consider whether you really do want to say yes and also how you will insure that you will follow through.

— Recognize that you almost certainly drastically underestimate the consequences of broken agreements and drastically underestimate how others emotionally experience your broken agreements, such as their level of irritation, annoyance, anger, upset, and even despair and hopelessness.

— Make it a priority and an imperative to keep your agreements. Do whatever it takes to put systems in place where you need support. Communicate if you are having a hard time with an agreement to see if it might be improved.

— When you make a mistake, as we all do, clean up the mess as soon as possible. Take responsibility without excuses, make a heartfelt apology, and make right anything that you can as fast as you can. Do this without self-judgment and without beating yourself up. You made a mistake. We all make mistakes. How you deal with it is a great opportunity to show your true character and to regain the integrity that you have lost.

One major frustration of ADHD is knowing that world is apt to judge me not on my good intentions or my true feelings, but in the ways my inner self fails to manifest in the outside world. To become thoughtful about making agreements and determined in keeping agreements help close the gap between who I am and how that translates in my actions. By keeping agreements, I say to the world, “See me, not my ADHD.”

-Coach Drew