(originally published October 12, 2017, updated May 12, 2023 )
When you saw the title of this article, perhaps you thought you’d learn more about what ADHD adults can do to manage their energy throughout each day, like eating, sleeping, etc. No doubt, these day-to-day efforts are important!
But to be productive and manage your ADHD symptoms, you’ll need to take a longer view. To do this, you’ll need to consider the four dimensions of energy – physical, mental, emotional, and human spirit.
But, like many ADHD adults, you may be primarily focused on trying to work faster and focus better — not be distracted. Have your efforts paid off? If not, I’m not surprised. After all, your time and willpower are limited. You only have so much time in the day, right? And your willpower is definitely too fickle to depend on when you need it.
One of the missing puzzles for you may be that you’re not taking care of the four dimensions of energy. So, your current efforts are just leaving you perpetually overwhelmed and exhausted. You can turn this around by learning how to recharge yourself and avoid energy-depleting activities, when possible
So you can do what is most important to you. Ready to see how you can do this?
Getting Things Done – GTD – Is Not the Answer to ADHD Productivity Problems
I know you wonder how everyone else gets their stuff done without seeming overwhelmed. You’ve probably spent plenty of time scouring the internet for just the right tool and strategy. Each time you do a little bit of searching. Maybe find something that seems promising, like GTD.
And then try it out. If it doesn’t work, you give up and keep on plodding along. Until the next time you think to yourself, there has got to be something out there to help me! Then you start searching again. It may seem like a shot in the dark at times. But you do not want to give up.
Sure, there may be strategies and tools you don’t have in your toolbox that might help you be more productive. And you may need support in learning how to implement and use these in a way that works with your ADHD.
But, if you don’t have fuel in your fuel tank, a new tool or strategy is not going to help you get to where you want to go, which may include:
- better productivity at work and home.
- improved relationships.
- more fun and downtime.
- service to others.
Instead, you will need to build and maintain your energy to reach your destination, in addition to adopting new tools and strategies.
How Meaning and Purpose Energizes ADHD Adults
According to Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project, one type of energy is meaning and purpose — the energy of the human spirit. Though I know this may not be on your list of top 10 ways to be more productive and reduce stress and overwhelm. At least not now. Maybe because you have not yet given it careful enough consideration. I think you should.
Remember you have an interest-based nervous system, rather than an importance-based nervous system. That is, your ADHD brain is wired to be motivated to do what is interesting to you. So, unlike neurotypical adults, you may not be motivated by what is important to you, but not intrinsically interesting.
When you have a visceral connection to the reward of the work you’re trying to do because it is meaningful to you and serves an important purpose, you will have more energy to do the work. That is, knowing the meaning and purpose of a task can make the task more interesting to you and make initiating easier.
How You Can Build Your Spirit Energy
I’m sure the above makes sense to you. And maybe you’ve even heard it before. But your ADHD challenges may make it hard to identify and carve out time to do what is most meaningful to you and gives your life purpose.
In part because, for ADHD adults, it can often feel as though everything is equally important and needs to get done now, if not yesterday. Right? So how do you take out time to figure out what gives your life meaning and purpose, never mind incorporating that information into what you do with your time and energy?
It can definitely be a chicken-and-egg type of problem.
The first step you’ll need to take to address this is to acknowledge it’s likely you can’t do everything you have on your plate. I know what you’re thinking. But I have to, Marla! Hang with me. Because this really is the good news. Once you accept you can’t do everything, you can be more strategic about how you spend your time.
One way to do this is to be an essentialist. So you can spend more time in areas where you want to go big. Presumably, these are areas that give your life meaning and purpose. To do this you may need to upgrade your decision-making skills regarding what tasks to drop, defer or delegate. And then you may also need to upgrade your delegation skills.
I know the above isn’t easy. But, if you want to do more of what is meaningful to you, you might need to do less of something else. The question is, what is most important to you?
Why Managing Emotional Energy Matters to ADHD Adults
To be productive you’ll also need to manage your emotional energy. A challenge for ADHD adults, no doubt. Because one of your ADHD symptoms is you may feel your emotions more intensely and they may last longer than your neurotypical peers. Knowing this can help you figure out effective strategies.
So you can be in the driver’s seat and not your emotions.
But, if the way you deal with your emotions right now is to try to squash them so they do not get in your way, you are likely exacerbating your ADHD tendency toward dysregulation. Your feelings will continue to build up until they combust, right?
So, you may end up being more reactive, which, of course, negatively impacts your relationships and also exacerbates your mental and physical health. Consequently, you have an even harder time being productive — doing what’s most important and meaningful to you.
In fact, when you don’t tend to your emotional well-being, you’re probably less productive. Because, even if you don’t want to deal with your feelings, they will come up. Just at the most inconvenient times right? And beating yourself up for having feelings we’ll just further drain your emotional energy.
If you’re in the habit of trying to ignore your feelings now, there is an alternative.
How ADHD Adults Build Their Emotional Energy
The first step to building your emotional energy is to recognize your feelings are not right or wrong. They are just a signal. And when you accept and acknowledge your feelings — be with them — you will be in a better place to respond the way you want.
One way to build your emotional reserves is to spend enough time with people who nourish you. It is so important that making sure you keep up regular contact with a few good friends is included in the ADHD expert, Dr. Ned Hallowell’s list as one of the Seven Critical Habits for ADHD Adults.
Having a gratitude practice can also help. Because, when you acknowledge and express appreciation for what you have, you will feel your positive emotions, right? Maintaining a gratitude journal is one way to do this. A regular practice of letting people know you are thinking of them, perhaps via text or card, can also help engender positive emotions.
To build your emotional capacity you may also have to work on managing your negative thinking traps, like catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions. Research has shown CBT, in particular, delivers positive results for ADHD adults. So, while you can do some of this work on your own, if you need help, you may decide to work with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist.
Another one that I have found helpful is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). You may also try doing some work on your own, using The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. It is an accessible way to learn more about ACT if you’re interested.
Why ADHD Adults Need to Pay Attention to Their Physical Energy
When it comes to your physical energy you already know you need to get enough sleep, exercise, adequate nutrition, and rest to operate at your best. While this is true for everyone, if you’re trying to create an effective treatment plan and symptom management plan for your ADHD, this is a critical piece of the puzzle.
Because without attention to these factors, you may inadvertently be exacerbating your ADHD challenges. Think about some of your ADHD challenges, like being able to attend, make decisions, plan, and manage your emotions. These are all harder to do without enough sleep, nutrition, etc.
I know that’s not news to you! Where is the one place that if you improved would help you build your physical energy and manage your ADHD better?
How ADHD Adults Can Build Their Physical Energy
Like many ADHD adults, you may struggle to maintain your physical energy because it is so overwhelming. After all, you have to decide which area to work on improving. Then you have to create an execution plan. And follow through on that plan. Yep, these are all challenges for ADHD adults.
The first key is to be compassionate with yourself by acknowledging that taking care of your physical energy is hard! And then bite off just a little bit at a time. That is, do not try to tackle sleep, exercise, nutrition, etc. at once.
For example, maybe you decide to start improving your sleep. You already know what good sleep hygiene for ADHD adults looks like. Yet, if you have been working on this for a while, you know knowledge isn’t enough, right? If all you need is information, you would be getting plenty of sleep by now.
Remember ADHD is a challenge of performance.
This means you’ll need to dig into what’s getting in your way of doing what you know you need to do to get more sleep. In the example I’m using of sleep, you may find, like many ADHD adults, one reason you stay up late at night is to get the downtime you crave. Craving down time is not a bad thing.
In fact, ADHD adults need downtime to be productive. Yet, because you just have too much on your plate, you may not have figured out how to get that downtime at any other time than late at night. It seems like the perfect time, as no one expects you to do any work, right?
Obviously, the tradeoff is you don’t get enough sleep. But the solution is definitely not to ignore your need for downtime. Rather, it’s to figure out how to get the down time you need regularly, not just late at night.
Taking care of your physical needs so you have enough energy is complicated, to be sure. Aside from sleep, perhaps, what else could you do to build your physical energy capacity?
Why Building Mental Energy Is Key for ADHD Adults
In addition to the other types of energy, you also need mental energy to focus and pay attention. Yet, one of your ADHD challenges is that you pay attention to everything! Because you have difficulty in the moment filtering out irrelevant stimuli.
So, your mind may be full of external distractions and internal distractions — thoughts and feelings — pulling you in different directions. When all you want to do is get the report, email, etc. done!!
As a result, especially when you’re overwhelmed, you may be in the habit of multitasking. You may even have internalized the belief that you’re good at multitasking. After all, that’s how you’ve always gotten stuff done, right? ADHD adults don’t operate well when multitasking. The cost to frequently switching between tasks can include:
- the time needed to re-engage in a task each time you start again.
- forgetting to come back to the task.
- not having time for deep thought to do your best work.
- getting distracted as you transition back and forth.
- making mistakes
- becoming overwhelmed.
Of course, the more distractions you have in your environment, the harder it will be to avoid multitasking. Trying to use your willpower to avoid distractions will likely not work, either. And, when it inevitably doesn’t, you might shut down out of frustration.
Part of the solution is to unlearn old habits and learn new habits that will serve you better.
How ADHD Adults Build Their Mental Reserves
The way to do this is to create an environment with fewer distractions trying to get past the gatekeeper in your ADHD brain. Below are a few suggestions to get you started. If you already know these suggestions, but are not managing your distractions well, think about revisiting these options.
To start, consider your internal distractions.
Remember your memory is a little wonky because of your ADHD. And you know trying to keep information in your head is contributing to your mental clutter and overload. One solution is to use a trusted container — calendar, task manager, electronic notebook, etc. Rather than trying to rely on your memory.
Next, consider the external distractions in your environment.
For example, you may be in the habit of responding immediately to the ping of an email, text, or interoffice messaging service, like Slack. Maybe you don’t need to answer all of the messages immediately. Could you turn off the notifications? Would it work for you to have a schedule of when you respond?
Of course, how you choose to address these distractions will depend on the culture of your office.
Also, to counter the siren call of multitasking, give yourself permission to focus on one task at a time. You could use the mantra. I’m doing this and not that. I’m doing this and not that. I’m doing this and not that. Yes, you may need to repeat it often! 😉
In addition, if you are in the habit of going at a fast pace, practice slowing down. Not because your fast-paced energy is bad or wrong! But, rather because slowing down can help you build your mental energy reserves. For example, one of my former clients does a 1-minute breathing exercise each time she starts a new task.
What could you do to better focus and attend to what is most important to you and operate as efficiently as possible?
Do You Have the Energy You Need?
What are you doing right now to help build your energy capacity in the four dimensions — spirit, emotional, physical, and mental? What could you do to avoid depleting your energy in these four dimensions?