Four Productivity Hacks for an ADHD Brain

ADHD signsOctober is National ADHD Awareness Month and so in tribute, let’s bring some awareness to how ADHD can interfere in your life and what you can do about it. First of all, ADHD or its side effects, has nothing to do with intelligence. It has a neurobiological (read chemical) basis related to the neurotransmitter hormone levels in your brain. Those chemicals are responsible for transmitting messages from one side of the brain to the other. Sometimes they complete their mission and sometimes you forget part or all of that previous thought.

ADHD is often related to weaknesses in Executive Function skills. Those are the processes that are the last to fully develop and are in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. It’s interesting that those EFs (task initiation, inhibit, monitor, planning/organization, working memory, organization of materials, cognitive and behavioral shift and task completion) are necessary for completing most projects (and homework too).

It’s easy to see how difficulty planning can cause us to work harder and longer than we really need to simply because our plan is not the most efficient or cohesive. When that happens, we also may have difficulty getting started, and then watch out when our emotions take over. Can we notice how things are going or do we just jump up and go do something else? When a simple shift in our method, environment or state of mind or body may be all that is needed to stay focused.

An ADHD brain often finds it difficult to persist through boring, complex or difficult tasks as it prefers creative, interesting and fun projects – who doesn’t? When faced with this dilemma, it will seek out stimulation that it prefers and that’s where distractibility comes in. The brain is searching for something to make it “happy” and so it distracts us. Once distracted, since we weren’t monitoring the situation, it is challenging to regain control (inhibit our response) and all that we were holding in our working memory may be forgotten. Thus, adding more time to a task we didn’t want to do in the first place. Making it impossible to complete the task.

So, often it is the brain that is interfering in our ability to complete tasks and not our intelligence, age or state of overwhelm (although that has its own issues). Knowing that, we can be on the lookout for signs and use strategies and routines to mitigate its impact.

Brain and Body Check

First, we want to be sure our brain has everything it needs to be happy. The brain is continually sensing and responding to variations from the norm so it needs to have certain things like food, water, sleep, and safety to begin with. I would also add that stress can impact the brain as well. The higher the stress the less the brain can think and it sets off the fear alarms. Do what you can to be sure the brain and body have what they need and anticipate any needs that may come up while you are working.

Find What Helps Your ADHD Brain Focus

Check around you. Is your environment filled with distractions? Are there any changes you can make to reduce the irritating distractions and include some more helpful ones? Remove the clutter, face away from the window, turn off the TV, add some music, maybe add a few photos that make you smile or a small plant for some fresh oxygen. Read a previous post called Hack Your Workspace for more helpful tips.

Make A Plan

I confess, I am a paper planner (with digital backup) enthusiast. It doesn’t matter if you prefer a notebook, planner, digital calendar, master task list or a spreadsheet but you need to find a way to hold onto the tasks, appointments and ideas that are important to you. If you ask your brain to hold that info, it can hold 5-7 things until something distracts it and your working memory deletes it all. I am sure your task list is longer than 7 items. (The master task list that is….not the plan for today.) Whether you like to plan your day the night before or just start fresh in the morning – here are three questions to ask yourself.

  1. What are my 3 priorities for today?
  2. How much time do I have to spend on each?
  3. Where can I schedule the time to work on each into my day? (Taking into account my energy levels and other commitments in the day)

Work the Plan

Now that you took the time to make the plan, respect it. Don’t ignore the timeframes, if you scheduled a task for a specific time, do it then. Do not wait until you “feel” like it – because that rarely (if ever) happens. In fact, if you are easily distracted, you may want to set an alarm for 15 minutes. Then check in with yourself that you are still focused on the task.

Each task should be a single step and you may have several for each project. If you think about what the end needs to look like, you can easily work backwards to get the individual tasks that need to happen. Each project has a beginning, middle and ending, all the way to the clean up of any materials you used and other completion tasks.

Adults may be able to maintain focus for about 90 minutes, but if that is not you then be sure to break your “on task” time into manageable blocks and take breaks in between. The Pomodoro method uses 25-minute work blocks and a 5-minute break in between. After 4-Pomodoros, a longer break is encouraged. You can see how it works by joining our Work it Wednesday Focus group Wednesdays at 10am ET.

Whenever you stop working for the day, take the time to “close out the day.” That means leave a note of where to pick up tomorrow. Figure out your priorities for tomorrow and any responsibilities you may have at specific times. Check off what you completed. Savor the moment. That’s right, too often we don’t take time to appreciate and congratulate ourselves on what we did accomplish. A “done list” really helps us see our successes and can be motivating too. Clear off your workspace and set it up for tomorrow.

Work with your brain and your energy levels by frequently checking in with yourself. Take time to reward yourself and recharge your batteries. There will always be more to do, just make sure it is worthy of your time and effort.