How To Get Things Done, According to People With ADHD

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“Getting in the zone with an ADHD brain is incredibly difficult, but not impossible.” Photo: Yasmina H, Unsplash

“Imagine you’re flipping through the channels on a TV — that’s how my brain feels most of the time,” said Elita Reign, a Los Angeles-based costume designer. She usually begins one activity only to lose track and think of something else.

Sending an email goes something like this: she opened her email app, realized she hadn’t copied the email address from Instagram, opened Instagram to get the email address from hers Retrieving DMs, saw a clothing ad in her feed, clicked the clothing store profile, spend the next 20 minutes looking at clothes, remember she sent an email, go back to exit, find that out the right word, open a browser to it, notice that it has 54 tabs open, spend a few minutes closing it.

“I can say with all my heart that every single task feels like this to me. Almost every day when I brush my teeth, I remind myself of other things I need to do and start doing them with the toothbrush hanging out of my mouth,” she said.

Reign attributes this to her ADHD.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder that affects parts of the brain that help people plan, focus, and complete tasks. It affects 11 percent of children and nearly 5 percent of adults in the United States.

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, it is characterized by a pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsiveness that interferes with a person’s day-to-day functioning. It can also affect professional life, interpersonal relationships, and self-esteem.

Behrad Zand, a small business owner based in Laguna Niguel, California, who also has ADHD, said even he is confused by his focus. He sometimes feels like he’s in a state of mind.

“It’s like my brain is in a low state of consciousness, drifting and struggling to let information stick,” he told VICE.

Sometimes his brain seems to be too fast.

“For example, reading is a struggle because my brain skips words or lines, or I often restart a sentence, or my brain fills in words in anticipation as it naturally assumes.”

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This makes it difficult to understand what he is reading and forces him to read sentences multiple times. But Zand said there’s another side to ADHD that many may not be aware of.

“Rather than being stuck in a cognitive fog, I experience something called hyperfocus,” he said.

In this state, Zand is able to focus on a subject or task for hours without eating, drinking, or using the toilet.

“Getting in the zone with an ADHD brain is incredibly difficult, but not impossible,” Zand said.

There are prescription medications and therapies that can help people with ADHD, but many who suffer from it have learned a few practical ways to manage it as well. Here are some tips from people with ADHD on how to focus and get things done.

Do the easiest (or most interesting) first

Having ADHD and trying to focus is like playing a game about finding something interesting or inspiring about the task at hand, said Connor DeWolfe, a content creator based in Troy, Michigan. He said it sometimes felt like a desperate search for stimuli to grasp and run with.

Laura Flick, an LA-based entrepreneur, said that doing the simplest tasks first helps create momentum to complete the more difficult tasks.

But what if the simplest task is… boring?

When the simplest task just isn’t enough, Zand suggested working on something enjoyable or exciting first.

“When it comes to reading, I usually start by reading the chapters or sections that I personally find cognitively appealing first,” he said.

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Make sure you see your tasks

“Since we ADHD people often have trouble remembering things we don’t see, the most helpful lifehack I’ve found is adding the Reminders or To Do List widget to my iPhone’s home screen,” Reign said.

She writes everything she needs to remember on the widget because she sees it every time she looks at her phone. She also writes assignments on a standing whiteboard on her desk so she always has them in view.

“These are the most effective methods I have used to plan my schedule as planners don’t work for me as I forget to open them.”

Flick also said that if she sees all the things she needs to get done, she’s much more likely to actually get them done. But instead of just checking things off a to-do list, she designed a spreadsheet for her daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.

write things down

It also helps to write things down, not so much so you can remember them later, but so you stop thinking about them now.

“Always have a notebook with you and just write down whatever comes to mind that you want to remember later,” Flick said. “That gets it out of your head and onto paper so it doesn’t add to all the thoughts you already have.”

Wiggle your legs in the air

Zand said that sometimes an unusually high level of nervous agitation prevented him from starting a task. When that happens, he does something “physically insane” to get that excess energy out of his system.

“For example, sitting on the couch and shaking my leg or wiggling in the air until I feel physiologically or psychosomatically comfortable.”

If you’re not a leg shaker yourself, Zand says getting some exercise or walking your dog works, too.

Try The Rule of 17

Reign said the best way for her to maintain focus is to combine momentum with set goals. For this she uses what she calls “The Rule of 17”.

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“If you have to clean, pick up 17 things. Once you hit 17, you’ve probably lost count or built up enough momentum to just keep going. When I do things like study, I use numbered blocks. For example, I study a certain number of flashcards at once and don’t stop until I reach that number. I often use 17 for that too. Something about that number just works.”

Plan things close together

Some people with ADHD struggle with what Reign calls “the ADHD waiting room.”

“Let’s assume we have an appointment in the afternoon. We’re going to spend all day waiting for the appointment and we can’t do anything else because our sense of time is disrupted,” Reign explained.

In order not to waste hours of her day, she tries to schedule things close together so she doesn’t have to wait a lot in between.

Bonus: Don’t beat yourself up when it comes to getting things done

Flick said the ADHD battle varies on a daily basis. Some days they have no problem concentrating and completing their tasks. With others, she feels paralyzed by even the smallest.

“On those tough days it feels like one of those dreams where I run and get nowhere. I tell myself all the things I “should” do instead of lying on the couch. I used to tell myself that I’m lazy, that I should just get up and do whatever I have to do,” said Flick.

Now she has learned to show herself some compassion.

I’ve learned that my brain just works a little differently and I have to adjust my life accordingly. Once I did that, it only benefited my productivity and the relationship with myself,” she said. “Being embarrassed to do chores only makes the situation worse in my experience.”

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