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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Shepard, MD

How to get stuff done with ADHD

If I give the average person with ADHD a list of things to do, they will probably complete those tasks in a very different order than someone without ADHD would. Maybe the most glaring difference would be that neurotypical people often prioritize tasks based on their importance, whereas those of us with ADHD struggle to do the same. We tend to bounce around from task to task with no clear plan. Or, even worse, we may struggle so much to prioritize that we completely freeze and don’t get anything done.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. I make the biggest, most beautiful to-do list only to end up off in left field doing something completely unrelated. Something shiny ends up catching my attention and I simply can't help but be pulled away from what I should be doing. In fact, I've noticed that the most surefire way to make sure I clean my house or office is to have a big ole to-do list that I need to avoid.

But since I've learned more about how the ADHD brain works, I've been able to (mostly) avoid this problem (it's not perfect, but it is much better). And don't worry, you too can adopt some strategies to make the important shit happen!

First thing to know is that the ADHD brain is more reliant than the non-ADHD brain on four important things: novelty, interest, challenge, and urgency.

If you want to make it more likely that you will get things done, focus on maximizing those four qualities. Here are some ideas (and examples) of how you can increase the level of novelty, interest, challenge, and urgency so you’re less likely to put important tasks off:

Some ideas to increase novelty:

  • Change the setting by rearranging your desk or moving somewhere else (like a coffee shop or even just a different room in your house).

  • Add new sensory experiences by lighting a scented candle, putting on some music, or trying a new type of tea.

  • Get some new stuff to use for the task that you need to complete. New pens or highlighters can make studying much more intriguing. If you’re struggling to wash the dishes, try a new pair of gloves or some new soap. Just don't overdo it on the spending!

  • Change up your routine. If you’re struggling to exercise, take a different route for your run or try a class at the gym that you’ve never tried before.

Some ideas to make tasks more interesting:

  • When you can, choose things that are naturally more interesting. If you have to choose between writing an update on the company’s finances or an update on the company’s long-term goals, go with the finances if you're a numbers person.

  • Add some spice to the task by adding some new and exciting things (like those mentioned above when discussing novelty).

  • Do some body doubling. Body doubling involves having someone around while you work. Body doubling keeps you accountable, but your body double can also serve as entertainment, keeping you focused when you start to lose interest. We do an online version of body doubling sometimes in The Squirrel's Guide and there are other online companies that do the same.

  • Use fidgets or other physically stimulating distractions. Things like poppers, slime, bouncy balls you can sit on, rocking chairs, etc. can keep you busy while you're doing something that isn't that interesting. My under the desk treadmill has been the most amazing purchase and I get so much more done when I'm walking.

  • Envision what the future might look like if you do tackle the boring task. You can do this by visualizing the outcome, writing about it, talking to someone else about it, or even creating a vision board. If we can envision the boring task positively impacting our future we may be more interested in getting it done.

Some ideas to make tasks more challenging:

  • Ask a friend to do it with you and turn it into a competition. If you both want to eat healthier, see who can eat more veggies this week. If you want to move through your task list, challenge a friend to see who can complete the most in a certain amount of time. This is part of what we use our support group for in The Squirrel's Guide.

  • Set little goals for yourself. See if you can stretch yourself and accomplish your task in a certain amount of time or in a certain way.

  • Take on new projects and challenges. Decide to take on the tougher stuff, knowing that doing so will give your brain an opportunity to shine.

  • Choose tasks that require you to learn a new skill. I may be bored by video editing, but if I learn to use a new program to edit my videos I'll likely be more engaged (and have a new skill to show for it!).

Some ideas to increase urgency:

  • Take large deadlines and break them into a bunch of smaller deadlines. If you're setting those small deadlines yourself it can be easy to ignore them because you know they aren't "real." If you can, ask someone else to check in and make sure you're meeting those small deadlines.

  • Use the Pomodoro technique (or some other version of regularly scheduled breaks). With the Pomodoro technique you set a timer for 25 minutes of work alternating with a 5 minute break. After 3-4 cycles of work, take a 10 minute break. Watching the time tick down makes you want to speed up.

  • Set any timer- it doesn't have to be Pomodoro style! Sometimes just telling yourself that you are going to work for 5 minutes is enough to get the motivation snowball rolling. It's really helpful if you can use an analog clock or visual timer (break out that hourglass!) that shows the passage of time.

  • Don't start a task until it's almost time to leave for something. Buyer beware if you're using this for a hard deadline (us ADHDers tend to underestimate how long it's gonna take us to complete a task). But if you just need a little push to get boring shit done, wait until an hour before you have to leave for an appointment or something, and see how much you can get done!

For more tips and tricks like these (and a supportive community to help you actually put what you learn into place) join us over at The Squirrel's Guide to Overwhelm.

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