(originally published Jun 23, 2017, updated December 2, 2020)
Once you’ve decided what’s essential to you, and you have a task list that reflects this (per my previous post), it’s time to execute. And to do this you’ll need to use ADHD time management tactics to decide when to work on your various tasks. Because you know just having a list of essential tasks is not a guarantee that you’ll follow through, right?
Especially since, as is common for ADHD adults, you may often default to your sense of urgency to decide what to work on at any given moment. If this is the case for you now, even with a well-curated task list, you’ll likely continue to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Unless you break this urgency cycle.
To do this you’ll need to upgrade your skills, be with the discomfort of operating differently, and trust that slowing down will help you do more of what is important to you. Are you ready to learn how to use your time to be productive and feel more grounded?
#1 Using the Important-Urgent Matrix as a Guide
The first step to break free of over-relying on your sense of urgency for motivation is to learn which “low-return” activities are contributing to your urgency cycle and which activities can help you escape this cycle by using the Urgent-Important Matrix. If you’re not sure how you are using your time, rather than guessing, keep a log for 3 days.
Once you know how you spend your time, you may choose to use it differently. For example, you may want to learn how to minimize your distractions — Q4 activities. You may also decide to upgrade your skills to better manage interruptions, set boundaries, and say no graciously to better manage your Q3 activities.
Then you will have more time to incorporate the Q2 activities that will help you do more of your important work. No doubt, fitting these activities into your schedule will be hard. But, with patience and self-compassion, you can do it.
Of course, you don’t always have complete control over your schedule. There will always be some Q1 last-minute emergencies, time-driven deadlines, requests from your boss, etc. you can’t anticipate. So, you’ll want to leave enough buffer in your schedule to account for these.
But you also have some agency in minimizing your Q1 activities. As some of these are the result of not doing the Q2 activities that are seldomly urgent but would help minimize some Q1 activities, like:
- going to urgent care and missing work because you didn’t call the doctor when you started feeling sick last week.
- pulling an all-nighter because you didn’t create an execution plan during your weekly review.
- slogging through your day distracted because you didn’t take the time off you needed.
I’m sure you’re all too familiar with the above scenarios.
#2 Preparing Your Execution Plan for Non-Urgent Tasks
Discovering where you want to reduce your Q3 and Q4 activities and include more Q2 activities into your schedule is a good first step. Yet, even when you have a list of what you consider your essential tasks, you might still look at it, and think, “I don’t have time to do all that stuff.”
The list may still look overwhelming. Part of the reason is when you look at the list you think to yourself, “I can’t do this all now.” No, you can’t. You’ll need to think about how to execute on your tasks over time. Not easy for ADHD adults. But you can do it step by step. And the next step is preparing your execution plan, including:
- breaking down your project into discrete tasks, which will make it easier to estimate the time needed.
- due date.
- rough time estimates for the discrete tasks. I know this is hard. You might want to add 25% to your estimate.
- start date. You will need to defer some of the tasks.
- delegation plan
- other considerations?
These necessary preparations are all part of your execution plan.
#3 Identifying the Value in Working on Non-Urgent Tasks
As an adult with ADHD, it’s also important your execution plan includes an identification of the value in doing the task. This will help you tap into your mojo. So, you don’t end up at the critical moment of choice deciding to work on a different task that feels more interesting or urgent. Then telling yourself about the original task, “I’ll do it later…” Right, later.
Knowing the value for you in doing a task will help you feel a visceral connection to the reward — something good or avoidance of something bad. And this connection can help you choose to start the task when you intend. As long, of course, as you remember the reward in the moment you intend to act.
For example, a former client, a professor, frequently ignored the reoccurring block of time he set aside for administrative tasks. Yet, he valued being seen as a professional and knew he would need to do these low-interest tasks if he wanted the respect of his colleagues. To remember this, he put “be a pro” next to “admin time” in his calendar.
Then, much to his surprise, as he built the muscle memory of how good it felt to follow through on these administrative tasks, it became easier for him to be pulled to honor the admin time. Because he brought the reward into the now — the moment when he needed to act.
#4 Honoring Your Energy When Managing Your Time
To make executing easier it’s also important to consider the ebb and flow of your energy in deciding when to do a task. Obviously, you won’t always be able to decide when to work on a task. But, when you can, think about what will help you have the energy reserves you need to focus on your intended task.
So, as you take into consideration your energy, consider:
- when typically, is the best time to set reoccurring blocks of time to do certain types of tasks — finances, blog writing, email, etc.
- how long you can focus on the task you are intending to do.
- since inconsistency is the hallmark of ADHD how much in advance of the due date would it makes sense to start the task to allow for some “off days.”
- your best work hours for different types of tasks.
- best time to take breaks/end the day.
To find out more about how managing your energy can help you, check out, Manage Your Energy Not Your Time. Be More Productive.
#5 Be Ok with Some Discomfort
If you’ve done all the above, but the task is not intrinsically interesting, you know it may still be hard to start. When you’re feeling this discomfort the first step is to acknowledge the discomfort. And remind yourself starting is often the hardest part. Then just try to touch it. You may find once you start, you keep on working.
For example, if you need to reply to an email you’ve been putting off, open the email and set the timer for 10 minutes. Then reread the email, sketch out bullet points for your reply on a piece of paper. If you still have time left, start typing. Once the timer goes off decide whether you want to continue or come back to it another time.
#6 When You’re Totally Out of Fuel for a Task
Then, of course, there are going to be times when you’ve got nothing left in the fuel tank, at least for a particular task. It might feel like wading through quicksand. But you still want to do some work because you have a lot on your plate.
In these situations, you can use David Allen’s Four Criteria Model to decide where to direct your time and energy in those moments, as Ella did in the example below.
Time Available – How much time do I have available?
I have to leave to meet Ben for lunch in about an hour.
Energy Available – Do I have the capacity to do this right now?
I’m kind of hungry and low energy.
Context – What tasks could I do right now?
I could just read through the instructions for the AFC presentation and, if I have time, I could sketch out a few ideas. So, then I’ll be ready to start on it right after lunch.
Priority – Is this an important task to do right now?
I need to get started preparing for the conference, for sure. It’s the biggest one this year!
Using this model when you’re not sure what to do can help you avoid procrastination or procrastivity.
#7 I’m Doing This and Not That!
Then, once you’ve decided to do a particular task, trust your past self that you made the right decision. Otherwise, in the moment when you’re ready to act, you’re going to think of other tasks you could do and will be tempted to do them instead of the task you started. Happens, right?
Resist this temptation! Think of how grateful your future self will be when you follow through on your intentions. And remind yourself in that moment:
“I’m doing this and not that!”
Because, if you end up multitasking, jumping from task to task, you will be less productive, as you switch back and forth between different tasks. This time loss will be due to:
- the time needed to ramp up to the other task.
- distractions you will inevitably incur in the transition.
- needing to fix the mistakes you will inevitably make when you’re juggling too many tasks.
As Dr. Ed Hallowell noted in his book, Crazy Busy, multitasking is a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” So, when a different task comes to mind, write it down on a piece of paper to put it in your task manager later.
ADHD Time Management Tactics Coupled With Task Management
To be productive you’ll have to have a combination of task management and time management. After reading this and the previous post what would you like to try this week to get more of what’s essential to you done?