Your heart sinks.
It’s a letter from the IRS.
You knew this was going to happen. But you still didn’t do anything about it.
You’ve been fined for not completing your tax returns on time. Again.
You’re furious with yourself, you just cannot get around to doing things. You feel like a mug, a fool, and an idiot.
If you have ADHD there’s a good chance that this situation, or something like it, is very familiar to you.
The strange thing is that when you’re faced with a task that you find interesting, you can charge through that task like Usain Bolt on rocket fuel. What’s more you’ll do it really well.
If it’s a task that doesn’t float your boat, one that you find boring to even think about, there’s a good chance that task will languish on your ‘To Do’ list for months … and months … and months.
Why is this? Isn’t it just a case of using more willpower?
Well no, the research just doesn’t support that theory.
The research actually suggests that an ADHD person is wired differently. Unlike a ‘normal’ brain, their brain chemistry reacts in entirely different ways to tasks that they find exciting and those they find boring. This makes it much more difficult for the ADHD person to find the motivation to do jobs which don’t fire their interest. It has nothing to do with willpower and isn’t under voluntary control.
The good news is there are hacks and tips that you can use to help you overcome your inertia and procrastination. Of course, everyone is different, and all of them won’t work for everyone, so pick and choose the ones that seem right for you.
1. Use and Organize Your ‘To Do’ Lists
Get into a habit of making a daily ‘To Do’ list. Prioritize the items on your list, grading them alphabetically or numerically from most to least important.
Then make one short ‘Must Do’ list. This is a list of things you must do today. Place your ‘Must Do’ list in a place where you can’t avoid seeing it frequently throughout your day.
You could use an app to create and update your ‘To Do’ lists, or you could write them manually on a writing pad or board. If you really get into organizing your ‘To Do’ lists, try starting a bullet journal.
2. Use a Timer
Decide on the length of time you’ll work before taking a break. Make sure you’ll be able to work for this length of time without getting frustrated. As an example, you might choose a period of 25 minutes to work without stopping. Set the timer.
When the timer goes off, take a short break of 5 to 10 minutes, then set the timer for 25 minutes again. Continue this cycle of timed working periods followed by short breaks.
After a few cycles, take a longer break. Alter the duration of working and resting as suits you best.
3. Break it Down into Microtasks
Make a to-do list for the task you want to achieve. Your to-do list should consist of tiny microtasks that must be completed to get through the task.
For instance, a microtask might be gathering the documentation you need to complete the task in one place. Or it might be opening the relevant work file on your computer to give yourself an overview of what needs to be done. Another example might be writing one paragraph of a report.
Give yourself a microtask each day. After a while, working towards your task becomes less difficult, and you can tick off several microtasks a day.
4. Design a Warm-up routine
If you find it hard to start work, devise a routine that you always do before you begin.
You could, for instance, do a short stretching exercise or something to get your heart pumping, like a 3-minute mini-exercise routine. Then make yourself a coffee to drink while you’re working. Make your warm-up routine easy to do.
If you always do your warm-up routine before you start work, it will become an integral part of your working routine. The idea is that it’ll be much easier to persuade yourself to do your warm-up routine, than to jump straight into work.
Once the connection becomes established in your brain, your work routine will naturally flow from your warm-up routine.
5. Make it a Habit Until it Gets Done
If your task will take several days, treat it like a daily habit. Do it at the same time each day, and always start with your warm-up routine. The more you do this, the easier it will become.
Place a tick on your calendar every day you work towards your task. Aim for an unbroken row of ticks until it gets done.
6. Use the Stand Up Technique
People with ADHD can find themselves in a sort of paralysis of inaction. They often find the most challenging part of getting a task done is making a start.
So you could find yourself scrolling through social media, time rolling on, knowing that you’re just avoiding work. But you don’t seem to be able to do anything about it. Instead, you’re crushed with inertia.
You need to jolt yourself into action as soon as you recognize you’re doing this.
Give yourself one objective – to put your phone down and stand up. You don’t have to think beyond this point.
So stand up now, with as much energy and intention as you can muster.
Move a little, then move some more. That’s it; you’ve broken the spell. You’ve made a tiny tentative move forward.
Now get started.
7. Use the Move Technique
You’re in the process of doing your mundane task, and you’re so bored and unfocused that you’re just sitting staring at the screen.
First, use the stand up technique.
Run up and down the stairs a couple of times, jog on the spot or do some star jumps. Short bursts of exercise are energizing and get the blood flowing. This will put you in a much better position to continue working.
8. Use Rewards
Reward yourself when you’ve done something towards your task. It could be anything you find pleasurable; a walk outside, a coffee, some chocolate, a hot bath or reading a book. Reward yourself consistently, so you subconsciously start associating the mundane task with the reward.
9. Work for Very Short Chunks of Time
If you find a task particularly painful, work on it in small chunks. Five minutes or even one minute will do. Just commit to working on it every day.
As you start to make a habit of working on your task, you’ll find it easier to increase the amount of time you work on it. Try increasing by a minute each day.
Push yourself a little, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed.
10. Get a Whiteboard
Write your ‘Must Do’ list on a whiteboard. Then, hang your whiteboard where you’ll see it frequently.
Hell, get two whiteboards, or hang whiteboards all over the place. The more you see your ‘Must Do’ list, the harder it is to ignore.
11. Place Reminders Where You Can’t Avoid Them
This works on the same principle as the whiteboards. Make your ‘Must Do’ list impossible to ignore. If it’s written on paper, place it on your keyboard, on top of the kettle, or anywhere else it can’t be ignored.
12. Analyze Your Underlying Thoughts
What is it about this task that makes it so challenging to start or complete? Is it fear of failure? Feeling that you’re not up to it? Knowing that you’ll struggle to find everything necessary to complete it because your paperwork and computer files are all in a disorganized mess?
Or is it simply so mundane and boring that you think you’ll find every minute of it excruciatingly painful?
These thoughts are often under our radar. We’re not entirely aware of them, but we just know we can never get around to doing that particular thing that needs doing.
Only once you’ve brought these thoughts to the surface can you actually do anything about them. And sometimes just acknowledging them is enough to let you move on.
13. Let go of Perfectionism
One of the things that can prevent us from getting started is an underlying fear of not being able to do it perfectly. In certain situations, perfectionism can be good. But if aiming for perfection is preventing you from completing or even starting a task, it’s far from good.
Make the phrase ‘Done is better than perfect’ your new mantra. Say it to yourself each time you get caught up in a perfectionist mindset.
14. Work at Your Best Times
Working on something you find difficult can require a ton of mental energy and momentum, so keep your best working times for the things you find most difficult. For instance, if you’re a morning person, get your challenging tasks done as early in the day as possible.
15. Make it as Enjoyable as You Can
Take some time to set up a comfortable work environment. Have everything you need to hand before you start. Make sure your desk is uncluttered, you’re warm enough, and have drinks and maybe a snack.
Do your warm-up routine.
If you don’t find it distracting, listen to music.
Look forward to a reward when you’ve finished.
16. Compete With Yourself
ADHD people often respond well to challenges and competition.
If you believe that you’re the world’s worst at getting things done, try turning this idea around completely.
Challenge yourself to be brilliant at the thing you hate to do. Become the world’s best at getting things done well and in good time.
This might seem the opposite of ‘letting go of perfectionism’, but this isn’t so much about doing things perfectly, but about having great systems in place and being good at starting and completing tasks.
17. Envision How You’ll Feel When You Get This Done
Just imagine that feeling you’ll have when you complete the task that’s been niggling away at the back of your mind for months.
That niggling’s been depleting your energy and focus all that time, even if you haven’t been entirely aware of it. Once you’ve dealt with your task, you’ll be free from that niggle and have more energy to work on the things you find more enjoyable.
18. Eliminate Distractions
People with ADHD find it very hard to work with distractions, so make your environment as distraction-free as possible. Also, preempt any distractions that might occur.
- Work in a room where you aren’t going to get interrupted
- Inform everyone in your household that you don’t want to be disturbed while working. Give them a set time.
- Make sure you have everything you need before you start
- Make sure you’re not hungry, thirsty, needing the bathroom, or that the cat doesn’t need letting out
- Use noise-canceling earplugs
- Put your phone in another room
- Disconnect from the internet
19. Make Good use of Apps and Tools
A vast array of tools and apps are now designed for increased productivity.
Here are a few suggestions that might help:
- Use ‘To Do’ list apps
- Schedule your work with Google Calendar and use the ‘tasks’ feature
- Listen to Spotify playlists for enhanced focus
- Use social media blocker apps
- Get a BoogieBoard reusable writing tablet for your ‘To Do’ lists
- Block distracting websites and apps with Freedom
- Use noise-canceling earplugs
- Try Brain.fm for music specifically designed for productivity
20. Delegate or enlist help where you can
Is there anyone who could help you with your task? Could you pay someone to do the job in its entirety? If the answer’s yes, give yourself permission to ask for, or pay for help.
This isn’t an admission of failure; it’s a sensible decision to get things done in the most efficient and time-effective way.
21. Factor in Time for Recuperation
People with ADHD can feel drained of energy by carrying out a difficult task. So allow yourself plenty of time to rest afterwards.
This doesn’t necessarily mean physical rest. If you feel mentally drained, the best kind of ‘rest’ is often physical. So go for a walk, a swim, or a session in the gym.
But if you feel physically drained by all that mental effort, allow some time to chill out with a book, TV, or a nap.
22. Redefine Yourself
How does being disorganized and late with paperwork make you feel? Does it make you feel unprofessional? A bit foolish? Incompetent? How could you turn this around?
Start to think of yourself as a professional, responsible and competent person in all areas of your life. Then ask yourself throughout your day how this person would act? Are you acting in accordance with your new definition of yourself?
Give yourself written reminders of your new identity on your whiteboard, your ‘To Do’ lists, or in your diary. Write ‘I am professional, responsible and competent’ somewhere you’ll see it often.
Say it to yourself whenever you remember.
23. Make an Appointment With Yourself
Set an exact time and place to work on your task. Put it in your diary, and set a reminder the evening before, an hour before, and just before your appointment. Treat it as if it were an appointment for a job interview, and don’t be late!
24. Set Deadlines
People with ADHD often work better with deadlines. Break your task down into small chunks and set deadlines for completing each chunk. Write your deadlines on your whiteboard or where you’ll see them often.
Challenge yourself to constantly meet your deadlines, and place a tick beside them once they’re completed.
25. Enlist an Accountability Partner
Accountability partners can work well with deadlines. Ask someone you trust to check in on your progress regularly. Tell them when your deadlines are and ask them to hold you accountable.
26. Take One Small Step
Set a ten-minute timer and look at the work you’re putting off. That’s all you have to do. Just look at the work to get an overview and a seed in your mind.
27. Feel the Pain and do it Anyway
Sometimes a task will never be pleasant, no matter how many hacks you use. And sometimes, you just have to suck it up. Acknowledge and accept this. Set a timer for ten minutes and get to work.
Then do the same every day until you get it done.
Anyone can endure a bit of pain for ten minutes.
28. Don’t Wait for Inspiration
If this is a task you find boring and mundane, inspiration is never going to happen. You need to find other ways to get started.
29. Use Habit Stacking
Do you have a habit that you already do every day? For example, it might be coffee, walking the dog or eating breakfast at 9 am. It doesn’t matter what that habit is, as long as it’s an established habit that you do every day.
BJ Fogg, as part of his Tiny Habits program, created this formula for establishing new habits:
After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
So, your formula might read:
After I have my 9 am coffee, I will spend 10 minutes on paperwork.
By linking your new habit to one that has already been well-established, you’re much more likely to stick to the new habit.
30. Rotate Between Two Tasks
After you’ve spent a set period of time on your task, reset the timer and switch to something else.
If your task was sedentary, such as working at your computer, choose something that requires movement. So if you’re at home, you could spend 20 minutes tidying up or sorting the laundry.
Make sure you factor in rest periods too.
31. Beware of getting side-tracked
Beware of your tendency to get side-tracked onto something more fun. Browsing the internet or getting sucked into conversations on social media are prime examples. Instead, treat your brain like a small child. Tell it gently, yes, you can go back to scrolling the internet when you’ve spent ten minutes doing this.
32. Start Anywhere
You don’t necessarily have to start at the logical beginning of a task. Instead, start with the easiest bits, even if that might be something you would be expected to do at the end. The satisfaction of getting something done will help motivate you to carry on with your task and make the more challenging parts easier to tackle.
Now Let’s Get Started
So there you have a smorgasbord of little tips that can help you get things done.
Nobody’s suggesting that this will make things easy for you overnight. If you have ADHD you’re always going to find organization and overcoming procrastination more challenging.
But equally, the idea that you can never be organized or motivated because you have ADHD is just not true. There are many high-achieving people with ADHD.
Use the tips and hacks above that work for you, and if necessary, adapt them to fit in with your own unique challenges.
But don’t stop there.
Chances are that if you have ADHD, you’re also a creative thinker. So use your creativity to think of other hacks that might help. It doesn’t matter if they’re a bit odd; they just need to work.
Now go through your warm-up routine, set a timer, and get to work. Finish all those outstanding mundane jobs, and become the professional, responsible and competent person you want to be.