Attention Deficit Disorder is not an Excuse for Failure.
As an adult who has “suffered” with attention deficit disorder my entire life, I understand how it feels to be perpetually distracted by both external and internal stimuli, to feel overwhelmed by daunting tasks, and to have multitudes of unfinished jobs going at once. ADHD types can be a creative bunch, filled with great ideas and overflowing with enthusiasm for our projects. But alas, we can be a bit like firework sparklers sometimes. We light up, pop, shine, and sizzle, then start to dim, and eventually can simmer out altogether. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Having ADHD is not an excuse for failure. We have too much to offer the world to be thwarted by our own hyper-stimulated brains. Through the years, I have learned methods to reign in my focus, and I use these practices to stay on task and get my missions accomplished. So whether you are trying to study for a test or just need to get your house cleaned up, perhaps some of these tips will work for you.
- Make lists. It sounds oversimplified, I know. But making a daily list is a tried and true method of figuring out what you need to do, and giving yourself that instant sense of accomplishment by checking off something as “done”. The list takes the abstract and makes it concrete. Thus your goals become tangible and easier to achieve. And don’t worry if you don't get everything checked off that day. Anything that is left undone on one day simply goes to the top of the list for the next day.
- Set timers. Before I start any mundane or overwhelming task that will surely fizzle my focus (like folding the hateful laundry), I set a timer on my phone - say twenty minutes - and then I work like an army ant doing laundry for those twenty minutes. I allow myself to do nothing but laundry in that time period, while it is a race against myself to see how much I can accomplish. Then, when the timer goes off, I force myself to stop. I literally throw in the towel at the ringing of the bell. Then later, if there is still laundry to do (or additional laundry because it has already procreated), then I set another timer and start again. That way, the job doesn't overwhelm me. I know exactly how long I have to work on something, so I am able to give it my best effort, knowing I can see the end of it. The timer method works for anything: studying for tests, filing papers, even exercising. It is also a good idea to set a timer for activities you enjoy, and therefore might get lost in doing them. For example, if Facebook is a time-sucking vortex for you, set a Facebook timer for ten minutes, then when the phone dings, it is time to close out that app.
- Set task alarms. The advent of the Smartphone has made available all kinds of task managing apps, and you should certainly check those out to see if any are suited to your personality. Personally, I just set alarms on my clock app to signal the start of each activity that I need to start throughout the day. Here’s how it works: After I have made my morning list, I go through it and decide what time I need to start on each activity and how long I should give myself for each. Then I label an alarm for each task, such as “9:00: File Reports,” “9:45: email insurance company,” “10:00: snack!” That way I am kept on task all day long. Sure, things come up and you can’t always prepare for everything, but the alarm system helps keep you guided in the right direction. Notice I put in a snack alarm? That’s because it’s essential to give ourselves tangible rewards to keep up motivated. Even if the reward is just a banana. Heck, we earned that banana.
- Make peace with your procrastination. It may sound odd, but I have learned that it really is ok to put some things off until absolutely necessary to do them. For example, if a report is due at the end of the quarter, and you keep telling yourself, “I need to start on that report”, berating yourself with, “I should have started on that report,” and beating yourself up because, “everyone is halfway finished with their report”, then you are just going to drive yourself crazy. And for no reason! Most people with ADHD, myself included, work best under pressure. I have learned to stop stressing over a project that is out there on the horizon. Then, the week that it is due, or even a couple days before the deadline, I work like a beaver on a dam and get it done. Because when I’m under pressure, that’s when my creative juices really flow. So, I don’t feel guilty about procrastinating anymore. I know I will get it done when it needs to be done.
- Break apart big jobs into small ones. My little boy is just as ADHD as his mom, bless his heart, and like his mom, large jobs overwhelm him. He can end up “working at” a task forever, and never getting anything accomplished. So I help him break his large jobs into smaller ones. For instance, when his bedroom reaches the inevitable five alarm disaster stage, and I insist that he get it cleaned up, I instruct him to, “first pick up all the clothes off the floor, nothing else but the clothes.” Then when he is finished doing that, I will tell him to get all the Legos up. Then the action figures. And so on and so forth. Little by little, he whittles away at each small task, and the end result is a clean room and a job completed. This concept works for any major task. Break it into chunks, and get the job done piece by piece.
- Get rid of external distractions. It’s fine to have the earplugs tuned into Pandora while engaging in mindless tasks like vacuuming the floor or scrubbing the shower. Sometimes the rhythm of the music is the cadence you need to help you reach the finish line. But when performing a task that involves concentration, turn the technology off. Silence the email notifications, turn off the phone ringer, anything that can steal your focus needs to be suspended.
Those of us with ADHD are not good multi-taskers, nor do we need to be. It is simply good enough to focus on one job at a time, finish that job, and do it well. And if you set the right parameters and institute useful habits to aid in task completions, you really can finish anything you start.