Getting Things Done

My 25 Rules for Life: A Practical Cure for ADHD Shame and Stagnation

“Think of ADHD as a marathon, not a sprint,” says esteemed ADHD psychologist and author Michele Novotni, Ph.D. “To be a successful marathon runner, you have to conserve your energy, pick your battles, and pace yourself. You have to plan for the long haul.” Start your training now with these 25 ideas for shifting your mindset — and getting more done.

A woman working with her laptop and phone, to accompany this post on how to be successful with ADHD

When I was raising my son with ADHD, I kept thinking things would be better tomorrow. If I had known then what I know now — that this journey with ADHD goes on and on and on — I would have developed some different resources and strategies. I would have adjusted my mindset for the long haul not just getting through that day or week.

Helping individuals learn to manage and thrive with ADHD has been my life’s work. Over the years, I have strived to offer tangible, reasonable, and practical strategies for daily life. So, if you’re habitually running late, feel worn out before breakfast, or struggle to form meaningful relationships, read on for some of the “best of the best” rules for life devised with the help of my clients over the span of 30 years.

Set Yourself Up to Succeed with ADHD

#1. Celebrate Progress, Not Perfection. We all miss the mark from time to time, but so long as you’re making progress toward your goals, I encourage you to consider your efforts a win. Be kind to yourself over the flubs and take pride in the forward movement.

Here’s an example: Several years ago, my son Jarryd attended a wedding party for his older brother. Traveling alone for the first time, he got to the airport, made the flight and the connections. He managed all those moving parts well, but when he went to get dressed, he realized his dress pants were back at home. He had the right, shirt, belt, socks, and shoes — but due to his special-order, athletic-size thighs, his only choice was to wear a pair of torn jeans to the wedding party!

Some people were critical when they saw him. What they didn’t see was that  he’d carried out so many of the steps correctly. Yet no one noticed any of those — they just saw the one glaring misstep. Not acknowledging progress can be demoralizing for people with ADHD. So be on the lookout for opportunities to do this for yourself and your children.

#2. Value the Power of Praise. People with ADHD may be highly susceptible to poor self-esteem — in part because they hear criticism all day long from teachers, parents, and even themselves. If your child has ADHD, find opportunities to point out their successes along the way. Praise is a way of sharing love and building self-esteem.

[Click to Read: Why Praise Is So Important for ADHD Brains]

#3. Quiet the (Inner) Critic. Many of my clients really beat themselves up. They tell themselves things such as, “I’m not good at this and I can’t do that and I messed up, again.” It takes about seven positive comments to neutralize even one negative comment. It’s important to monitor this inner dialogue and to allow yourself to celebrate the good.

#4. Find Your People. The truth: Hang out with people who like and understand you, and you will generally come away feeling empowered and comfortable in your own skin. Seek out CHADD support groups or ADDitude’s ADHD-related groups on Facebook. Those sorts of groups are safe places — places you can relax and be yourself among people who really get it and won’t be offended when you blurt out something inappropriate or when you’re feeling squirmy.

#5. Feed Your Mind. ADHD is not new. Experts, thought leaders, and researchers have been thinking and writing about it for a long time. Much of that wisdom can be accessed on and through The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). For the best information, stick to national groups, government agencies, and reputable websites. Many of the challenges with which you are struggling have been solved by others before you. Take the time to see the wide variety of ideas out there before starting with a blank slate.

#6. Recognize When You Need a New Expert. No one conquers ADHD in isolation, and few people find solutions that last a lifetime. Whether you need a medical doctor – to adjust or prescribe medication — or a psychiatrist to address other issues that may be related to your ADHD, be sure to find a professional who understands the way the ADHD brain works. Psychologists and coaches who specialize in ADHD can be wonderful at assisting you with behavioral strategies, parent training tactics, and other support. Organizing experts and coaches may help you get on track at home or work.

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Many of my clients put off bringing in additional help because they think it means signing up for years of expensive counselling. It’s important to realize that sometimes it takes just a few meetings to make progress with the right expert. Sometimes you may also need to change out your expert. If you don’t feel comfortable or aren’t making reasonable progress, it may be time to find another expert to see if you are a better fit.

#7. Take the Time to Get Your Meds Right. Far too many of my clients tell me they’ve tried ADHD medication and it didn’t work. One or two disappointing trials doesn’t mean medication won’t work for you. It takes time and patience to properly titrate medication — meaning increasing the dose to see what happens or experimenting with a different medication altogether — and many people skip all too quickly through this process. Please invest the time and energy in this process so you don’t drop out too soon.

For Those Who Are Always Late

#8. Redefine ‘On Time.’ It doesn’t take much to make you late if you aim for the exact time of your appointment. If dinner is at 6 and you aim for 6, you’ll be late if there is traffic or an unexpected problem with parking. I recommend establishing an 8 ½-minute cushion to help you arrive on time. The reason I suggest 8 ½ minutes rather than rounding up to 10 minutes is intentional. It turns out that my clients tend to ignore the 10-minute marker; for some reason, using an odd number works better!

#9. Be Realistic About How Long Tasks Actually Take. Many people with ADHD are terrible estimators of time. If you’re frequently late in the morning, consider timing how long showering and getting dressed actually take. Many people guesstimate 10 minutes, but it can actually take twice that long for most. The next time you set out to build a plan, time the components of that plan so you’re working with accurate information.

#10. Use Backward Planning. Start with your end goal and work backward. Cooking a roast? If the recipe tells you it will take 3 hours, count back from the time you plan to serve dinner and voila, you will know when to start your oven. Be sure to also factor in additional steps like taking out the roast, seasoning it, putting it in the pan, finding the pan, preheating the oven, etc. The prefrontal cortex in the ADHD brain often struggles with this kind of organized detail; establishing codified systems can help corral your brain and reduce the risk of mistakes.

#11. Understand the Social Cost of Tardiness. Yes, it’s bad manners to arrive late. Tardiness is also often viewed as inconsiderate, selfish, and inconvenient to others. People might be waiting for you to eat or play a game; your kids might be waiting to go to an activity. Many people with ADHD don’t realize how their tardiness impacts others’ lives. Lateness translates into a lack of caring and respect. When you’re late, the other person may feel that you don’t value their time or them. Relationships suffer as a result.

Less Stress at Home

#12. Create a Home Base. Creating one space to house all your important stuff is crucial. Some people call them launch pads — a counter or corner near the door where you can put a basket to collect your cellphone, computer charger, wallet and car keys. Get into the habit of dropping off those items in a designated spot, and you’ll be less likely to lose them. (Many of my clients also swear by the Tile system, which helps save time and frustration when you forget to use your launch pad.)

#13. Smooth Out Dressing’s Wrinkles. Hypersensitivity is common among adults and children with ADHD. Common irritants like itchy tags on shirts or seams in socks can easily trigger a morning tantrum. Try to buy tag-less shirts and seam-less socks, which are more and more common today. Type of fabric may also be an issue for some. Stick with clothing items that are comfortable.

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#14. Pick a Week’s Wardrobe. For people with ADHD, setting aside half a dozen outfits is sometimes easier than picking just one. I recommend clothing stackers or sweater stackers, which allow you to store several entire outfits folded and ready to go. This way you are choosing from 6 to 10 outfits, not the infinite number available in your drawers and closet.

#15. Manage Your Closet. Apps such as Closet, Smart Closet, Outfit Planner and Get Wardrobe can really help you get organized with your clothing — the secret to unlocking precious time in the morning. Use these apps to take photos of your clothing and assemble outfits virtually or track of what you’ve previously worn. Haven’t worn an item in a year? Purge it.

#16. Free Your Laundry. Do you hate sorting laundry? Color Catchers (#CommissionsEarned) are sold in the laundry aisle in most grocery stores and put an end to the task or separating whites from colors. They work by catching the dye in the water so lighter clothes aren’t ruined by bright colors that bleed when washed. No more sorting!

#17. Store Clothing in Laundry Baskets, Not Drawers. Many of my clients detest folding clothes and putting them away, so I suggest using a system of laundry baskets instead — one for clean clothes and one for the dirty ones. If your child fights putting away their clothes, ask yourself if the battle is worthwhile and consider sticking with the basics.

#18. Allow Dinner for Breakfast. If you or your child isn’t hungry for eggs or cereal in the morning, I suggest eating dinner leftovers — perhaps even pizza. Eating breakfast is important — especially those who are taking ADHD medication — but no one said traditional “breakfast” food is the only option. Keep grab-and-go items like Kind bars, fruit, and bagels on standby.

#19. End the Struggle with Paper. I had a client who solved her paper problems by scanning bills and other important papers into her computer to avoid losing them. You can also take a photo with your phone to serve as a backup copy. But if you’ve already amassed a messy pile, I suggest hiring a professional or finding a high school kid or friend to help you work through the pile and devise a system for moving forward. Trading services may be a long-term strategy. For instance, if you like to cook, consider swapping your talents for theirs.

#20. Find Body Doubles. If your child resists homework, have someone sit with them while they do it. For example, kids sometimes find that working in the kitchen while a parent is cooking dinner helps to keep them accountable. I have clients who use family pets as body doubles. This is also true for adults in the workplace. You may find that working with others nearby helps to keep you directed on the task at hand.

#21. Root Out the Source of Whining. People whine when they dread doing something. To stop the whining, find the source of that dread by analyzing the whiner’s self-talk. Underneath “I don’t want to do it” lies the challenge, so ask your child what’s hard about the task to get insight into the negativity in their heads and ideas for talking them through it. Or try making a game out of finishing the task by saying something like, “Let’s see if you can finish these math problems in less than 15 minutes.”

#22. Hop To It. Some really creative alarm clocks available today actually jump off the counter and roll away. You have to get out of bed and “catch” the clock to silence it. Some find this effective. Others prefer to put an alarm clock on the other side of the room, which also requires your sleepyhead to kick off the covers and move.

Be the Best Version of You

#23. Ask a Follow-Up Question. For working to form social connections, asking questions demonstrates to that you’re listening. It says, “I’m interested in you. I’m interested in your life.” This is perhaps the easiest way to connect with another person, but many people with ADHD fail to do it. Instead they talk at a person — monologue style — instead of talking with a person, dialogue style. In your next conversation, challenge yourself to listen carefully and to ask two follow-up questions related to what the other person has told you — without bringing the conversation around to you.

When Jarryd was little, I discovered that fear was stopping him from asking questions. He was so afraid he was going to forget what he wanted to say that he’d just blurt out what was on his mind. As an accommodation, we encouraged him ask a question first so he could get it out of the way and then be free to talk back and forth freely.

#24. Fight Boredom with Exercise. Both John Ratey, M.D., and Daniel Amen, M.D., have written extensively about the positive impact of exercise on the executive functioning parts of the brain. Exercise also tires you out and helps with sleep — key for brain health as well. Over the years, I’ve found that many clients perform best right after they exercise, so I advise them to tackle a task they’ve been dreading right after going for a run or working out at the gym.

I also frequently recommend a 5-minute video on YouTube called BrainGym. It’s a series of movements intended to reactivate your brain when it’s tired or bored. The video starts with an energizing massage you give yourself by stretching one hand across your clavicle and pressing the other hand on your abdomen. It’s followed by a series of simple moves that cross the median (the imaginary line down the middle of your body) like touching your left ear with your right arm or tapping your left elbow on your right knee. Frequent breaks and listening to music can also be tremendous motivators.

#25. Block Out Noise. Noise sensitivity is an issue for many individuals with ADHD. Noise-cancelling headsets can be a game changer. I also recommend some very good cancellation apps designed to limit distractibility. The Freedom App can be used on the computer or cell phone to block out various social media platforms for different periods of time. Another app called focus@will has helped many of my clients. It was designed by neurologists to improve concentration, learning, and retention through specially curated music tracks.

The content for this article came from the ADDitude webinar titledThe Best Life Hacks for Adults and Kids with ADHD.”

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