Maybe you’re newly diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or maybe you’ve struggled with it since you were a kid. Maybe you’re not even sure if you have it but are consistently frustrated with how difficult it is for you to focus and concentrate. Your “to do” list is a mile long and you’re not making a dent in getting any of it done. You just assumed that you needed the pressure of a deadline to finish that work assignment. Or you’ve learned to rely on your trusty ADHD medications to get you through the day. It can be frustrating and confusing to navigate the symptoms of ADHD but I’ve put together some really great resources for you to help you find the tools for success. However, before we dig into uncovering the mysteries of how to live with ADHD, let’s first make sure to understand what ADHD is as well as what else may be going on.
Understand ADHD vs. Anxiety
As a therapist, I often get the question from clients: “I have such a hard time focusing and getting things done, do you think I have ADHD?.” Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between ADHD and anxiety symptoms. Sure, your lack of focus may be ADHD but it can ALSO be signs of anxiety. My first response is to encourage clients to understand the “why” behind their difficulty in focusing and concentrating. Symptoms of ADHD can definitely mimic other mental health issues such as anxiety and/or trauma.
Here are some of the more common similarities between anxiety and ADHD:
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
- Feelings of restlessness and difficulty in relaxing
- Poor time management
- Trouble with organization
While the two share many similarities, anxiety tends to include more of these types of symptoms:
- Excessive worry or nervousness
- Irrational fears
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Unexplained physical symptoms such as chronic gastrointestinal issues or headaches
- Difficulty engaging in social situations
After reading this list, you may be asking yourself “how do I know if I have ADHD or anxiety?” First, don’t use this list as a method of diagnosing your situation! The best thing to do is to have an evaluation with a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. They are experts in determining whether you may have ADHD or another mental health issue.
Let’s Understand ADHD More
Why is it so hard to get things done when you have ADHD? Don’t worry, it’s not about being lazy and it certainly isn’t a matter of willpower or self-discipline that’s keeping you stuck. Having ADHD makes doing certain things that many of us take for granted really difficult. What if I told you that it’s an actual difference in brain chemistry? Would that quiet some of the self-criticism in your head? Well guess what? It IS a difference in brain chemistry!
Without getting into too many boring scientific details, let me explain the ADHD brain a little better. First, ADHD is mainly about your brain’s executive functioning abilities (or difficultes). Simply speaking, executive functioning refers to our mental and cognitive abilities to achieve goals. It helps us stay focused, achieve goals, stay organized, and regulate behavior. Executive functioning helps us do the things we know we should do. It’s knowing “I should work on that assignment my boss gave me” or “I have guests coming over tomorrow and my place is a mess so I should clean up.” Research has shown that there are deficits in the executive functioning of people with ADHD.
Next, ADHD brains are different from non-ADHD brains. Research has shown that the brains of those affected by ADHD are actually smaller than non-ADHD brains. In addition, ADHD affects our neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting different messages throughout our brain, kind of like a major super highway! Dopamine and norepinephrine happen to communicate to the reward centers in our brain as well as regulate mood. That’s why it can be hard to resist distraction and you may be getting stuck in the here and now rather than doing what you need to do. But none of this is your fault!
ADHD is about being stuck in the present, despite knowing what should be done in the future. People with ADHD are more affected by what is happening now and what is going around them. Sure, we all get distracted from time to time by external stimuli and the occasional social media rabbit hole but those with ADHD have difficulty finding the motivation or ability to withstand the distraction. Deadlines and future consequences don’t don’t show up on someone’s mental radar until it’s too late. That’s why many people with ADHD rely on looming deadlines to get things done.
I really like to explain these things to my clients. It’s so easy to beat yourself up over not being able to focus or concentrate. But hopefully, you are getting a clearer picture of what’s really going on with ADHD. The bottom line is that none of this is your fault. You don’t get to pick the brain you’re born with. Ok, so what can you do to make your ADHD brain work for you rather than constantly feeling like you’re swimming upstream? I have a lot of suggestions!
Since ADHD significantly affects your relationship with time, creating a system to manage your time is really crucial. That’s why time management strategies are key. Here are some of favorite ideas:
- Be smart about your “to do” list. I’m a big fan of prioritizing your “to do” list. Most people tend to tackle the easiest thing on their list first and save the hardest ones for last. But if you’re a procrastinator, you might not be accomplishing your important tasks because those may seem the hardest. But that’s how you end up in the vicious cycle of not getting things done. Therefore, try to tackle the most important and timely items on your list, even if it’s not necessarily the easiest ones.
- Today/Soon/Someday List: if the first suggestion seems too daunting, break your “to do” list down even further by sorting tasks into 3 different columns: “today column” for things that need to get done ASAP; “soon column” for things that are important but can wait a few days to accomplish; “someday column” for items that aren’t time sensitive and can wait until you have time to tackle.
- Break things down into bite size chunks: we all get overwhelmed when our “to do” list is too long. And when the task at hand seems daunting, it can feel impossible to get started. Therefore, break each task down into super small, bite size tasks. The smaller the better. Go down to the tiny details of things. For example, instead of trying to accomplish the goal of “I’m going to do my taxes,” start with:
a) Gather my W-2
b) Put together my list of deductions
c) Reach out to my CPA
- Take regular breaks: since attention spans are shorter than we realize, try to schedule short, frequent breaks into your day. Start with 20 minute work intervals with 5 minute breaks in between. There are some really great apps that can help with this (I’ll get to that a little later!)
- Create routines: daily routines help your brain remember what it otherwise may forget. I suggest creating a well established morning and evening routine. You're less likely to forget to do something such as take medication, if it’s part of your daily routine.
Ok, we’ve covered how to manage your time. Another key component of managing your ADHD is to try to get your environment as organized as possible. Chaos breeds chaos so try to reduce the opportunities for chaos to creep into your environment.
- Limit distractions: I’m a HUGE fan of this! If you know that you will lose focus every time a text pops up on your phone, try keeping your phone in a different room from where you work. If that’s not an option, put your phone or computer on do not disturb. Some people get easily distracted by outside noise so perhaps invest in some noise canceling headphones to eliminate outside noise while you’re working.
- Block tempting websites and apps: there are some great apps and computer programs that make it easier to avoid getting sidetracked by what I like to call, “time sucks” (i.e. Instagram, Tik Tok). Even I get sucked into tempting time sucks and use a website blocker app to make it more difficult for me to get sidetracked. Check out the list further below of some of my favorite blocking apps and websites.
- Organize your physical space: organize your personal and work space so that you know where everything goes. If each item has its own place, you’re less likely to misplace something. A messy space also creates unnecessary distractions, making it much easier to lose focus.
- Schedule tasks: it can feel really overwhelming finding the time to get all of your tasks done. It can be helpful to actually put your tasks in your daily calendar and allot how much time you may need. For example, perhaps every Monday from 10am-12pm is your weekly block of time to take care of financial matters such as paying a credit card bill or depositing money into a bank account. If it’s on your calendar, you’re less likely to forget doing it and will have the time in your schedule to get it done.
- Add in buffer time: if you think it might take you 1 hour to do a certain task, it might be a good idea to actually give yourself 1 hour and 15 minutes. Or, if you know you need to be at work by 8am, consider planning to arrive at 7:45am instead. Things may take longer than you realize and giving yourself that extra time buffer will help decrease your anxiety in case you are running late.
- Avoid multitasking: set your goal to only tackle 1 task at a time. Few of us, including myself, are ever good at multitasking. It’s just a recipe for disaster!
I know, you may panic when you hear the word “accountability,” especially as someone living with ADHD. You may think of accountability as a source of shame or failure and certainly not a good suggestion for someone trying to work on time management. You may be reflecting on previous attempts at holding yourself accountable to get things done only to find that you had not been able to meet any of your goals. There are some helpful tips for increasing your accountability:
- Find an accountability partner. Even just the thought of this may make you freak out, especially if you envision someone saying “are you done yet?” But choosing an accountability partner you trust may do the trick. You both get to decide how to honor and support each other, in a manner that works for both of you. You can even have a different accountability partner for your professional and personal goals.
- Don't be afraid to fail: failing is a part of life yet we assign such a devastating meaning to the word failure. I hate to tell you but no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be perfect at achieving your goals 100% of the time. I certainly am not! Try to reframe failure as just an opportunity to try something a different way in the hopes of getting it right the next time.
- Set goals: many people make the mistake of biting off more than they can chew when setting goals. If you’ve never been to the gym before, expecting yourself to go to the gym 7 days per week is just not realistic! Start small. Make sure you and your accountability partner have clear, realistic, and timely goals. If you meet once a week, make sure accomplishing those goals within one week is actually achievable.
- Schedule and plan: tell each other how you plan to achieve your goals. And if you’re stuck, your accountability partner might have a great suggestion. It’s a great idea to keep a shared spreadsheet of goals so that you both can keep track.
In addition to improving time management and organization, here are some additional tips and strategies that I’ve discovered along the way that can also be very beneficial:
- Create incentives: as someone with ADHD, you’ve certainly walked around with enough shame and self criticism. But that’s probably not helping you be more productive. Rather, try setting some incentives for when you check things off your “to do” list. You’d be surprised how much more motivating it can be to tackle a task when there’s an incentive behind it.
- Reward yourself: maybe your favorite coffee shop is on your way home from work. Why not treat yourself to that ridiculously overpriced latte after a productive day (you may not want to do this everyday or your wallet will hate you!) Even small accomplishments deserve celebration. It has been shown that using rewards increases the likelihood that a new behavior will stick.
- Practice CBT: CBT or Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a form of therapy that trains your brain to reframe the way you think and therefore, improve the way you function. You’ve probably mastered the art of beating yourself up for what you haven’t been able to do or all the goals you never managed to accomplish because of your ADHD. Instead, try to reframe your ADHD in a more neutral or positive way. Remember, this is brain chemistry we’re dealing with and not a symptom of personal failure.
- Limit screen time: I’m sure this may sound difficult to some people especially because screens have become our way of “numbing out” at the end of the day. Trust me on this one-the more screen time you have, the more distracted and difficult it will be to refocus later.
- Exercise and meditate: if you’re going to limit how much time you spend on your screens, what will you do with that extra time in your day? Try creating a regular exercise and meditation practice. Research has shown that these 2 activities combined can help boost productivity, decrease anxiety, and make you more focused at work.
Medication decompression: many people report difficulty relaxing or experiencing edginess once daily ADHD medications such as Adderall wear off. It can be helpful to give yourself some time at the end of the day to practice yoga, meditation, or deep breathing to combat these side effects.
Finally, here are some of my favorite apps and websites that can help with productivity and focus:
Sensa: this is a great app to help you build habits, set daily tasks, and journal productivity.
Self-control: this is for Mac users and is a tool that will block tempting websites for a specific amount of time set by you.
Blocksite: there is both an app and Chrome version. Similar to Self-control, users can block those tempting websites for a set period of time.
Pomodor: The Pomodoro Technique is a time management tool that helps you set timers for frequent breaks, thus improving overall productivity.
Flora: an app version similar to the Pomodoro Technique.
I’ve shared some of my most helpful strategies and techniques for living with ADHD. I know none of this is easy. Change takes time and habits are hard to break. Feel free to reach out at any time and share your successes with me! Or, if you have found a really helpful tool that’s not listed here, I’d love to hear about it.