Even before I was diagnosed with ADHD, the phrase “have you tried writing a list?” would set me on edge. I’m all for innovative productivity hacks but for well-meaning neurotypical people, getting something done can often be as easy as writing a list, but as Edward Hallowell, M.D., psychiatrist and ADHD expert tells SELF, things aren’t that simple for people with ADHD which, by the way, includes him: “Most of the organizational strategies we implement fail because they’re boring,” he says. And people with ADHD, he explains, cannot tolerate boredom. That intolerance leads to “supercharged version of procrastination, to the point of jeopardizing work and relationships.”
I use many of these ADHD-specific tricks and strategies to help me overcome the struggles—and also make the most of the benefits—of this neurodevelopmental disorder, but they’re not necessarily just for people with ADHD. You might find these tips more helpful than ever right now as most of us are dealing with some pretty big changes to our routines while we practice social distancing during the new coronavirus pandemic. Given our new day to day and work environments, it’s a great time to integrate some tips and tricks that can help you focus.
1. Make the first thing you do each day something relaxing and pleasurable.
Dr. Hallowell describes the dread for many people with ADHD of getting started on work or a project as a “colossal boulder of negative thinking.” The good news, he says, is that “You can turn that boulder into a pebble” with some smart strategies, especially ones that directly address that cycle of negative thinking.
If you don’t already, start your day with something pleasurable to attenuate the dread. It could be a nice breakfast—I like a healthy porridge with berries and seeds—some morning exercise, or a video chat with a friend or colleague to help you get fired up about your project or task. I keep a “Nice Things” folder in my phone where I paste any kind responses to articles and compliments about my work from colleagues. It’s really useful to read through on mornings when I want to start by reminding myself that I can accomplish anything.
2. Break down your tasks into tiny subtasks.
Once you’re ready to get started, start small. Like, very small. You can make just about any project more manageable by chunking it out into smaller components and setting yourself deadlines for each of those parts.
And I’m talking about setting a really low bar to just get yourself started, so one tiny task can be “open the document” or “do 10 minutes of research.”
3. And make sure your first tiny task is one that you have a 100 percent chance of succeeding at.
Susan C. Pinsky is a professional organizer and author of Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD. She recommends organizing your day’s tasks intentionally so that when you need a win, there’s one right there waiting for you. “Try to structure your workday so you do the easiest thing first,” she says. “You’re already giving yourself a success. You’ve accomplished something and now that big thing that sits in front of you isn’t so overwhelming.” Ceremoniously crossing something off my to-do list gives me a bit of a buzz and helps me move on to the next thing.
4. For every item on your to-do list, quickly jot down why it’s a priority.
The things that motivate neurotypical people don’t always work for people with ADHD. As Dr. Hallowell explains, motivation can be hard to come by, especially for tasks that are intrinsically boring, tedious, or uninteresting. Just because you know you have to get something done doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be motivated to actually do it. One thing that helps me is making sure I know exactly why I need to complete a task. I write a quick note to myself for these kinds of tasks, but you can also schedule a quick catch-up with a co-worker or supervisor to give yourself a refresher on why something needs to be completed. My other go-to strategy: I will often condense an email or project brief into bullet points and paste them at the top of whatever document I’m working on so I don’t forget any essential tasks or priorities.
5. Overestimate how long tasks will take.
Having a fundamentally different sense of time—specifically not being able to estimate and record the passing of time—is part of many people’s experience of ADHD. When your perception of time differs from the neurotypical-based deadlines and timelines most people are required to stick to, people with ADHD can find themselves struggling. Dr. Hallowell explains that for many people with ADHD, there’s “now” and “not now.” When, for example, a paper is due next Thursday, a person with ADHD might tag that as “not now” and put it on the back burner until it’s too late to get it done in time. All of a sudden “now” is almost here and you’re panicking.