As an ADHDer, you probably find that your to do list gets unruly and you wonder how to get things done. How many weeks has “clean the house” been on that list? It’s ok, no need to raise your hand– we’ve ALL been there.
And once you get around to it, how many times do you get started on cleaning and organizing the house but after an hour or two, it actually looks messier than it did before you started?
Yep. We’ve all been THERE, too.
You’ve probably asked yourself as I have, “Is there a guide on how to get things done? There’s an app right? One that tells you how to plan your day with ADHD to make sure you can actually accomplish that to do list or at least make headway?”
That would be a pretty thick guide and knowing us, we wouldn’t read it. That’s ok though– There are blog posts. Like this one. Blog posts that give you bits of information at a time because you’re more likely to read a blog than an encyclopedia.
Why is it so hard to get things done when you have ADHD?
For most people, if you give them a list of things that need to get done, it’s fairly easy for them to decide what is most important or most urgent and adjust accordingly.
But for the ADHD brain, it’s a bit of an uphill battle. We’re generally fighting between prioritizing the wrong thing or trying to prioritize everything at once. That makes it pretty difficult to figure out how to get things done at any given time.
The ADHD brain isn’t naturally inclined toward easily prioritizing tasks and time management the way most people are.
We start cleaning the kitchen. And then notice there’s a shoe in the kitchen that needs to be put away in the closet. Speaking of the closet, we realize we’ve been meaning to reorganize it for weeks!
We start reorganizing. Then we notice that the paint on the door jam is chipped. We head to the garage to get the paint and realize there’s recycling we forgot to put out for pick up.
Before we know it an hour has gone by and somehow it’s an even bigger mess. Why? Because the ADHD brain looked at every task needed, but couldn’t decide which one was more important. So, it assigned priority to whatever task hit the brain when it hit the brain.
That means we end up with multiple tasks that we start but never finish. It’s not that we don’t understand how to get things done. It’s more like our brain just conspires against your efforts to do it.
The ADHD Brain Complicates Priorities in How to Get Things Done
And Sometimes we get overwhelmed by how hard it feels to begin the tasks. To manage that, we prioritize the tasks we want to do.
Or the ones that are urgent because nothing is more motivating than realizing your in-laws will be at your house in 30 minutes.
We pick want over should and urgently need over should.
We have to learn how to prioritize. Think of this post as more of a starting place than a comprehensive resource. More like a checklist and an encyclopedia.
Here’s your Checklist for how to get things done when you have ADHD!
How to Get Things Done When You have ADHD
This “how to get things done with ADHD” guide is broken into 3 categories: Creating and Understanding Your List, Organizing Your Schedule, and Strategies for Follow Through.
Remember, overcoming ADHD challenges requires those extra, necessary supports that put us in a better place. Then we can use other strategies appropriately–supports like medication, quality sleep, an ADHD friendly diet, consistent exercise…you get the picture.
Step 1: Create Your ADHD to do list
Sounds simple right? Not exactly. Making the list might be, at least! Don’t worry, there’s alot more to this than just be telling you to make a list and do what’s on the list.
Though, it IS frustrating that a lot of ADHD resources consider that the strategy, isn’t it? Like HELLO! ADHD here. Just doing what’s on the list doesn’t work for me or I wouldn’t be here. But anyway, I digress…
Action Step: Do a Brain Dump, but in List Form
When it comes to the list, just write out everything you can think of. Similar to a brain dump but with a list. Don’t bother critiquing your list yet, we’ll get there.
Here’s an example with the one I did:
This is where my list started. I tried not to talk myself out of adding things because they were “to-do list” worthy. Did I need to remind myself to play with the dogs? No, but it came to me so I put it on the list. Don’t overthink. You will organize your list in the next steps.
Action Step: Ask Good Questions to Effectively Prioritize the Items on Your List
Once you’ve got everything you need to do out of your head and on to your list, we start organizing our list. I start by asking some important questions.
- Which tasks have deadlines? I write those beside the task
- Which ones have consequences if they don’t get done and how bad are those consequences? Also, write those beside the task
- Do any of them need to happen before I can do another task? I call these pre-requisits
- When am I most likely to actually do the task? Day/time of day, anything relevant.
- Can I combine any task with something I like to do? (like Netflix lol)
Here are a few examples from my own priority list to give you a better picture:
Once you’ve got all of this down, we move on to organizing.
Step 2: Organize Your List in an ADHD friendly way
This is where I start actually putting it into my calendar based on what I discovered. Now that I know my notes are most likely to happen during the middle of the day at a coffee shop, I look for a day before Thursday where I could get that done.
Knowing myself, I know that I’m more likely to get my notes done if I’m at a coffee shop and more likely to get an article done if I do it in the middle of the day.
So I treat my calendar like a Sudoku puzzle and put my list items down for the spots that seem to fit them best.
It often looks like this:
Helpful Hint: Plan to Be Flexible With Your Schedule
Life rarely works out the way we have on paper. Just count on that.
You’re not likely to ever have a week that will work out exactly how you planned it. That’s okay. Adapt. Re-adjust. Re-work your Sudoku puzzle of a calendar for the rest of the week. Worst case scenario, this’ what your ‘catch up’ day is for.
If I find that I have overbooked myself and there are things I absolutely will not be able to get done, I go back and make sure all of my deadlines and tasks with big consequences are on my schedule and that I only take off the things that don’t fit those categories.
If You need to readjust your schedule, it’s helpful to ask yourself these questions:
- What are the things that–even if nothing else gets done–they are the things that MUST HAPPEN
- What are the things that–if everything else on the list get’s accomplished–in the scheme of things, it’s ok that they didn’t get done?
- Are there any items on my list that would be best to just let go of and not worry about anymore?
- Are there ways to make some of the things on my list easier for me?
Now you know how to plan your day with ADHD and you have a plan. A flexible plan, but a plan nonetheless. Now we move on to strategies to help you follow through.
Step 3: Ways to Stay on Task to Get Things Done with ADHD
I glossed over one important strategy above that deserves to be pointed out more specifically. One of the questions I had you ask yourself is if there were any supports or times of day that make your task more interesting or at least more tolerable. It turns out, that’s a key to staying on task.
1. The “What Would Make Me WANT to Do it?” Question
I really hate writing my notes but when I asked myself “What do I need in order to not hate writing my notes?” It turns out the answer was a coffee shop. For whatever reason, it really does help. So now, I mostly write my notes at a coffee shop.
When it comes to doing my taxes, the answer is a set up that allows me to stand and move around. It helps if I can take breaks to do something active (like cartwheels hehe), a fun snack and Starbucks. I’ll plan it for a mid day when I have plenty of time because once I get going, I don’t want to have to break my focus.
There have been times that the answer was that I actually needed to plan the task for a different day.
If it’s 10pm and I’m having trouble focusing and I was trying to do my taxes, the answer would be to plan it with fresh eyes at the earliest time I could satisfy the above needs before my deadline. Sometimes that’s your answer.
Take a look at your to do list. Of the tasks you have, pick one that you feel the pull to procrastinate on and ask yourself what supports would make it more interesting or more bearable.
2. Figure out why you are wanting to procrastinate… SPECIFICALLY
I’ve started paying attention to the desire to put something off. Like, REALLY pay attention. I’ve discovered that there’s usually a reason other than just “it’s boring” though sometimes it is because it’s boring.
I hate doing the dishes and I really put it off. I sat with the feeling of hating the dishes to try to figure out what it is I actually hate. Turns out, I really hate my hands being wet, when food gets on them, and the smell of the sink.I hate my hands being wrinkled and damp when I’m done. Apparently, it’s a sensory thing.
Now that I know why I hate it, I can problem solve. I can have a really strong candle nearby to change the scent. These gloves work really well to prevent the issues with my hands.
Sometimes We Procrastinate Because We’re Starting at the Wrong Spot
It’s helped me to also realize that sometimes we procrastinate because we’re totally overwhelmed thinking at we need to jump in at step 7 (because we assumed step 7 was step 1). And what we need is to go back and figure out what the first step truly is.
So, you’re writing a paper and you’re avoiding it because the thought of sitting down to write it feels overwhelming. Paying more attention, you realize it’s because you’re not actually read to sit down and write it.
In fact, the first step is you have to review the assignment to make sure you’re actually clear on what you’re supposed to be doing.
After that, you decide what you want to write about. Then you do some research. And you plan your paper. THEN you write it. In other words, we’re procrastinating because we’re trying to jump to step 10 and that’s overwhelming…because it actually would be overwhelming if you haven’t completed the first 9 steps.
Other times we are procrastinating because our energy has been depleted
And we really need some rejuvenation before we have to expend a bunch of mental energy on something we don’t want to do. Rewards often work better inverted for us.
I don’t know about you but the concept of treating myself to my favorite lunch after I finish my taxes sounds nice but isn’t enough to get to actually want to do them.
I think to myself I’m an adult. There’s nothing and no one stopping me from skipping straight to the reward if I want to so why not bypass the crappy thing I don’t want to do? Besides, even a great lunch isn’t enough to make me want to do taxes.
3. With ADHD, it Helps to Use Rewards Differently
Can you relate?
It may have to do with the whole “low dopamine” thing. If you’re brain is low on dopamine, the concept of waiting to increase it with a reward until after you’ve done the thing that you need dopamine to be able to do doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
You’re going to LOVE this! When you have ADHD, it’s more effective for us reward ourselves before we do the boring task.
Instead, you give your brain what it needs first then you have a better chance of getting the task done. It’s cool because that’s like permission to have desert before dinner (as if we waited for permission, right?!)
If you find yourself unable to work on the thing that you planned to be doing in the moment and no matter what strategy you are using, you can’t bring yourself to do it, trade tasks.
Do SOMETHING that’s on your list and put what you had been planning to do (but can’t bring yourself to do) on a different day.
See if you can figure out what it is about this moment that prevents you from being able to do it so you can put strategies in place for the next time you try to do it then move on to a different task.
4. Start with the Item You have the Most Energy for
It’s better to get something done than to get stuck on what you should be doing and end up doing nothing.
Even if that means you are starting with a lower priorty to do list item. If you can’t get yourself started anywhere else, start there. Many times, once we get started and we get to check something off, we can do a little more than we expected.
5. Remembering Your Tasks
Use reminders if you struggle to remember your calendar plan. Experiment with an electronic vs. paper planner to see what works best. For me, I need paper.
For some reason I have this weird thing where it feels like anything in my phone doesn’t really exist and I actually NEED to Write. Things. Down. Like, physically write them down in order to feel like they are concrete and organized.
Many of us are like that and if you are that way but forget to look at a paper planner, then use a recurring alarm on your phone to remind you. If you do better with electronic calendars, setting alarms for things is a lot easier. Either way, experiment and go with whatever works.
And regardless, consider using alarms because forgetfulness should be another word for ADHD, am I right? Half way kidding…kind of.
It May Sound Like a Lot but…
I know this process seems like a lot of work, but it actually isn’t. The first time or two you try it, it may feel a bit time consuming but once you get used to it you start finding appropriate short cuts that don’t lessen the effectiveness and that helps.
For many of us, the concept of taking time to plan like this seems like wasting more time that we don’t have. It felt that way to me at first and I had to work through the frustration arising that I was wasting time that I should be using to do the things that I was putting off.
As I kept doing it, I realized that planning allowed me to feel so much calmer and more organized while making me waaaaaaay more productive.
The difference has been huge. Needless to say, I don’t really get that “But I should be just doing it!” feeling anymore.
Remember Your Plan
Learning how to get things done and stay on task with ADHD comes down to these steps.
1. Create a detailed list
Action: Brain Dump in List form
2. Organize it in a way that works WITH your ADHD brain
Action: Prioritize with good questions. Add to calendar in ways that work best for you.
3. Put specific strategies in place that help you learn how to get things done.
Action: identify why you are struggling with good questions. Ask What would help you want to get started. Use rewards differently. Start where you can. Use Reminders.
We know that the ADHD brain works differently. Learning how to work with it starts with asking it what it needs and actually listening. Well, and of course the other stuff you just read about!
Need resources to help you minimize distractions? Check out these productivity tools.
Want more strategies for increasing motivation and becoming more productive with ADHD?
I took this Udemy course written and produced by a mental health clinician who has both Autism and ADHD discussing practical ways that ADHDers can get things done with motivation to spare.
Seriously, it was a fantastic course and the strategies I learned through it have been incredibly helpful in my personal life and those ADHDers that I work with.
Sometimes Udemy runs a sale on it, which is awesome. I can tell you that it’s worth the sale price, it’s worth the regular price. It’s a great, hands on course with strategies you can start using immediately. Definitely Check it out.
Connect with me!
Alright guys! I want to know if you tried this and how it went. Need help with some strategies or extra supports? Put them in the comments! Or better yet, join the facebook group That ADHD Life for more timely support 😉
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