I know you want to know how to be productive each day without the overwhelm when you have ADHD. Because right now you may be starting each day wondering how you’re going to get everything done. While maybe ending the day with feeling like you didn’t get enough done. It’s frustrating to start and end your day like this, for sure.
Maybe you start your day by stopping for coffee on the way to work. You get to the office — ok, maybe a little later than you planned. But you are ready to start your day! You look at your calendar, see you have a 1:00 meeting and think, “Good, plenty of time to get ready for that.”
Even though you’ve probably already checked your email on your phone, you look at it again on your work computer. If there are no surprises and nothing urgent that needs your response, you think, “Great, I can get some work done!” Like many people, you start with your email.
Totally makes sense. It’s the path of least resistance, right? That is, it doesn’t take a lot of thought to reply to emails you can easily answer. And, after all, it makes you feel productive first thing in the morning. While you got some work done, is it the best way to start your day? Is email your most important task?
I’ll look at those and other questions, as I offer guidelines to help you focus on your most meaningful work. So, you can be truly productive, rather than ticking off boxes to feel productive.
What Does It Mean to Be Productive When You Have ADHD?
Before starting this exploration, let’s make sure we’re clear on the definition of productivity. Right now, you may think you will reach “productivity nirvana” when you check off everything on your list. Since your experience has probably shown you that is unlikely to happen, let me offer you a different definition to consider.
What if instead, you start viewing productivity as doing what is essential to you — engaging in activities that bring meaning to your life. What would change about where you focus your time and energy each day? Would your calendar and task list look different? Take a few minutes to visualize what’s your days and weeks would look like.
I know being productive is important to you. But, if you’re in reactive mode just trying to get everything done, your stress and overwhelm will continue to skyrocket. What if you tried to exert more control to the extent it is possible? If you can decide what is essential to you, and plan accordingly, you’ll have more confidence at the end of the day that you were truly productive.
At the same time, it’s important you feel like enough regardless of how much you accomplished. Because basing your self-worth on how much you accomplish will not only contribute to your overwhelm but also get in the way of your productivity, right?
#1 Start with a Weekly Review Practice to Be More Intentional
While taking time for upfront thinking is critical if you want to maximize your chances of focusing on what is most essential to you, you just don’t have time to do this each, right? Instead set aside an hour or so once a week to do a weekly review.
As David Allen of Getting Things Done (GTD) says of people’s lack of productivity:
“It’s not one thing, but five, all wrapped together: People keep stuff in their head. They don’t decide what they need to do about stuff they know they need to do something about. And they don’t organize action reminders and support materials in functional categories. Also, they don’t maintain and review a complete and objective inventory of their commitments. Then they waste energy and burn out, allowing their busy-ness to be driven by what’s latest and loudest, hoping it’s the right thing to do but never feeling the relief that it is.”
But, if you do a deep dive 1x week, you will have more clarity about what is important for you to do each day, which will minimize your overwhelm. This practice will also help you resist the pull of immediate gratification. So you can work toward your long-term goals and not rely exclusively on your sense of urgency for motivation.
Check out The ADHD Adult’s Guide to the Weekly Review to explore suggestions on how you can create your own weekly review and planning checklist.
#2 Plan Each Day Before Diving In
While a practice of weekly review will inform what you choose to do each day, you’ll still want to plan out each day. Because your wonky ADHD memory means you will likely forget what you decided was important during your weekly review.
Another reason for planning out each day is, if you don’t, you will either default to old habits or do whatever comes to mind. As I noted above, one habit may be starting each day with email. Then, if you’re not already down some rabbit hole, aside from meetings, you may rely on your sense of urgency to decide what to do next.
Sounds familiar? Then this is one of the reasons you may end many of your days feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Because you didn’t steer the ship — decide what was important to get done. And, because you didn’t, your day was dictated by other peoples’ agendas, your sense of urgency and distractions, etc.
While the control you have over your schedule will vary, planning out your day will help you do more of what is important to you.
One strategy is to choose the 1-3 tasks you must get done each day. This works well for those whose day is highly structured with students, clients, etc. While you’ll need to do more, setting an intention will help maximize the chances of getting these tasks done.
Another strategy, and the one I use, is block scheduling what you’re going to do each day. This is particularly useful if your days do not have a lot of external structure. Below is a hypothetical example. Notice the buffer time in between the blocks. Because stuff happens, right?
#3 Make the Plan Visible
You can make a plan in the morning. But remembering your intentions is a whole other story, right?! Maybe you tell yourself, “Oh, I can remember that.” Alternatively, you might write the plan down — somewhere. And then, at the end of the day, you find the piece of paper and think, “Oh no, I forgot to do…!” Out of sight out of mind, right?
Instead of trying to keep it in your head or on a random piece of paper make your plan visible. Write it on a whiteboard, a piece of paper prominently placed where you can see it or in another visible place. Want more ideas? Check out these 20 ways to remember what you want. Just don’t try to keep it in your head!
#4 Trust Your Plan Is the Right One for Today
Yet, you’ll still have a difficult time following through. Because, contrary to what you may have heard, rather than having a deficit of attention, you pay attention to everything, right? And this makes it hard to self-regulate so you can stick to the plan.
You’ll need to first trust the plan. Sure, there may be a compelling reason to change the plan, like an emergency. But, if you don’t trust you made the right plan at least for today, with so much competing for your attention, you’ll spend too much time second-guessing the plan. Even when there isn’t a compelling reason, like an emergency, to do so.
Tomorrow? Well, you can write a new story — a new plan!
One strategy that will help you follow through at the critical moment of choice is to use self-talk to guide your actions. For example, you could tell yourself,
“I may not be remembering why this is important right now. But I had a good reason when I made the plan. So, I’m going to stick with it. Even though answering Bob’s emails really feels more important right now.”
Another strategy that will help you stick to the plan to remember the reward. One way to do this is to add a cue word to the task, such as “tenure” or “promotion.” Otherwise, because of your ADHD working memory challenges, you may forget at the critical moment of choice why you would choose to follow through.
The third tip you can use to turn down the volume on the continuous loop playing in your head, “But I need to do…,” is to remind yourself:
“I’m doing this and not that!”
“I’m doing this and not that!”
“I’m doing this and not that!”
So, you can be the stamp today.
#5 Resist One – More – Thingitis
“I’ll do _______ (fill in the blank), and then I’ll really be able to focus.” When is the last time you said this?
Take the example of physical clutter. Sure, physical clutter can contribute to your mental clutter, which, of course, makes it hard to focus. Organizing your space is definitely a good thing.
But, if you choose to do it when you have more pressing tasks to do, that is not such a great thing. So, the next time you want to clean up because you think, “If I did this, then I could really focus,” resist the urge. Find another time. Instead, clear a space or move to another space so you can work
What about the temptation to do another task as soon as it pops into your mind? It might be an errand, phone call, email, online transaction, etc. And you tell yourself, “I’ll just do this now. It will only take two minutes. Then I won’t be distracted, and I can really focus.”
Of course, it rarely takes 2 minutes, right? Again, resist the urge. Not easy, I know. Instead, write it down on your task list so you won’t forget and find another time to do it. Also, remind yourself, “I’m doing this and not that!”
#6 Practice Good Self-Care
When you have a lot to do it can feel like taking a break is impossible. But what happens when you stay glued to your seat for hours on end? Most likely, whether you intend to or not, you inadvertently take the break you so badly need. Maybe you end up:
- getting distracted on the computer surfing the web mindlessly, getting caught up in social media, reading articles, etc.
- working on something that caught your attention but wasn’t part of the plan. And may not be very useful in helping you reach your long-term goals.
Sure, it could be procrastination — a way to avoid doing something you don’t want to do.
But I bet sometimes you just really need a break — your brain and body need a rest. So, while you inadvertently end up taking the break you need, you still tell yourself you don’t have time. And you continue sitting at your desk, maybe even beating yourself up for not being more productive.
Regardless of what you have scheduled, when you are feeling drained, ask yourself:
“What is the best thing I could do to be productive in the long-run — the rest of today, tomorrow, this week?”
Because surfing the web or similar activities is just not going to give you the respite and energy you need to continue working.
You might decide, at minimum, to get up, stretch and drink some water. Then maybe you decide you really need a longer break. Go for a short walk. If you’re hungry, eat. I know these are all things you know and are just sensible suggestions. But you may often forget in the moment to check in with yourself about what you need.
And sometimes the best thing you can do is to call it a day!
#7 Create a Work Shutdown Ritual
There are many reasons to have explicit boundaries around your workday. For one, you may want to balance your work life with your other priorities, including family/friends, hobbies, volunteer work, etc. And you also want to take care of your physical and mental health, for sure.
But having enough playtime/downtime can also help you do better in your professional life, too — be more productive. Check out my article, How Play Helps ADHD Adults Be More Effective at Everything! for a more in-depth explanation of how time away from work can help you:
- improve your executive functions.
- connect with others
- reduce your overwhelm and stress
- think creatively
Then decide what boundaries you want have around your workday. That is, when is it time for you to stop working? Having a shutdown ritual can help you explicitly end your day. Curious to learn more about this? Deep Work author, Cal Newport, details his shutdown ritual here. While your ritual will probably look different, the objective is still the same.
You are explicitly giving yourself permission to stop working, as well as going through some type of review and planning process. So, you can minimize the chances of ruminating about all your open loops — unfinished work.
As Newport says at the end of his day, “Schedule shut down complete.” What mantra would you like to use?
Ready to Be Productive Each Day Without Overwhelm When You Have ADHD?
What can you do today to do what is most essential to you and also reduce your overwhelm?