When I thought of writing this article I was surprised to discover I had not directly addressed this question before. After all, I thought, “I’ve been writing for a long time, and this is a core part of what I do. How is it possible I’ve not tackled this question head-on, yet?” Time to remedy this.
Because I know this is something you think about all the time when you wonder:
- Why can’t I enjoy my time away from work and not think about everything I “should” be doing?
- How can I manage my time and tasks better so I can follow through more consistently?
- What would help me focus better and not get so distracted?
- How can I do what I really want?
What all these questions have in common is a desire to figure out how to do what’s important to you — be productive. The strategy for doing that might surprise you, and, I’m guessing, is not what automatically comes to mind.
What Does It Look Like When You Are Being Productive?
If I were to ask you the above question right now, I bet I know what your response would be. The first words out of your mouth might be, “I’m getting all my work done.” That is, like many other ADHD adults, you may instinctively define productivity according to how efficiently and effectively you do your work.
But I also know it is important to you to live a full life that includes much more than checking tasks off your list. You want to participate in meaningful activities, whatever that means for you. Yet, defining productivity according to task completion may be getting in your way of doing this.
Because, if productivity is important to you and you define it according to how much work you get done, you may be consumed by trying to reach this goal. You may even measure your self-worth according to how productive you think you are. (More on that in a bit.) If you want to change this, the first step is to define productivity differently.
Productivity is doing what is essential to you — engaging in activities that bring meaning to your life.
What would be different for you right now? Think of today. How would you be and what would you be doing today? Take a minute to visualize this. Maybe it would mean spending more time with friends and family or taking better care of yourself.
I don’t know what being productive would look like for you. But, before figuring out how to be more productive, you’ll want to figure this out. Otherwise, you might be chasing the wrong goal. And, once you get on the train, you’ll get someplace, no doubt. But maybe not where you really want to go.
So, let’s make sure you’re going in the right direction, first.
Why You May Feel Less Than When You Don’t Get Stuff Done
I get why you may define your productivity according to the number of tasks you complete. You can see it and measure it — it’s concrete. And it’s rewarding to tick things off your list, right? You may even think having a goal — finish line — will help you be productive. Because then you know where you are heading. And you just need to get there, wherever there is.
But using task completion to measure your productivity is problematic. Because what you are really doing is measuring your self-worth according to how much stuff you get done.
Think about it. How often do you say, “I didn’t do enough today.” Maybe your go-to phrase is, “I didn’t get anything done.” Then again, you might think, “I wasted my day.” Whatever the wording, you don’t feel like you are enough because you didn’t do enough.
And, if you only feel like enough when you can reach the finish line, you might always feel as if you are lacking. Because the goalpost isn’t static. There is no there to get to.
Obviously, part of the reason for this is that tasks are constantly being added to your plate. The other reason is that the finish line is dependent on the expectations you and others have of what it would look like for you to be productive. And whenever those expectations change, which they will, you’re back to feeling like you didn’t do enough.
So, because you only feel good enough when you’re getting all your work done, you might feel you don’t deserve to stop working. Instead, you might continue to strive toward an illusory goal. And this striving can actually make you less productive.
Defining Yourself by Your Ability to Complete Task is Counterproductive
Because striving to get all your stuff done can leave you in a perpetual state of overwhelm. In part this is a byproduct of the Zeigarnik Effect whereby:
“Our minds quickly forget finish tasks. However, they are programmed to continually interrupt us with reminders of unfinished tasks.”
And, if you don’t feel like you are enough when you don’t get enough done, your list of unfinished tasks will support this belief. You’ll continue to collect evidence of this every time you don’t follow through. Then, the more inadequate you feel, the more stressed and overwhelmed you become, right?
As you become more overwhelmed you will likely default to any number of nonproductive behaviors.
This may include avoiding work that makes you feel incompetent. Alternatively, you may hyperfocus on an easier task, whether it is important to you or not. And then again, unsure of what to do, you may jump from task to task, struggling to close the loop. In addition, the more overwhelmed you become, the more magnified your ADHD symptoms become.
The key reason you need to stop measuring your self-worth according to how much you get done is that it’s just not true. There just isn’t a metric that can tell you whether you’re good enough. Because you are inherently worthy regardless of how much you get done. I know it may not feel like it sometimes, though.
Besides, does beating yourself up help you be more productive? No, of course not. And I know you need to get your stuff done. So, learning how to follow through better on your essential work is a good thing. And, if you really want to do more of what is essential to you, the first step is to stop asking, “How do I know when I’ve got enough done?”
Instead, there is a better question you can ask yourself.
Answer This Question To Do More of What Is Essential To You
The more useful question you need to answer is:
“How can I be enough regardless of how much I’ve accomplished?”
When considering how you can improve your productivity I think this is the most important question for adults with ADHD to start with. Because, when you can use what you discover, you’ll be able to reach two related goals I know are important to you.
First, you’ll be able to stop feeling like you are on a never-ending hamster wheel. Every unfinished task will stop being evidence of your lack of worthiness. And you’ll stop feeling the need to accomplish everything. Because, remember, you can do anything. But you just can’t do everything, right?
Second, you’ll be in a better space to create an environment that is conducive to doing what is essential to you — in sync with your values. This will happen in part because you’ll be in a better frame of mind — feel better about yourself. And then you will be able to be more intentional about where you focus your time and energy.
I know that’s what you want.
3 Steps ADHD Adults Can Take to Feel Like Enough
To start feeling like you are enough, pay attention to your thoughts. And notice when you say, “I didn’t do enough today” or any other similar phrase. And notice how you feel. I bet, each time you have one of these thoughts, it is likely accompanied by the subconscious thought that, “I’m not enough.”
But it is so hardwired — automatic — you might not even notice you’re thinking or feeling this way. Because it has just become your habitual way of responding. So, to unlearn this and start to respond differently, pause every time you think, “I didn’t do enough.”
Then list at least three things you did that day that were important to you. It could be taking time to talk to a family member or friend. Maybe it’s responding to an old email you’ve been sitting on. Whatever it is, start to give yourself credit for what you did do each day, instead of shaming yourself for what you didn’t accomplish.
And, as you reframe your thinking, you will slowly make the shift away from needing to do enough. Instead, you will start to feel as though you are enough, regardless of how much you get done.
Being Productive With ADHD
Here are the two key takeaways.
First, decide what productivity looks like for you by deciding what is essential to you.
Second, practice developing a mindset of being enough no matter how much you accomplish on your journey to following through better.
When you take these two steps you’ll feel better and consequently be more productive. Really. Nice, right?