Time & Productivity

Popular Productivity Advice That Torpedoes the ADHD Brain

You know those best-selling productivity hacks that everyone swears by? Most of them don’t work for neurodiverse ADHD brains. In fact, standard tips may be counterproductive — and harmful to your self-esteem. Here, ADHD coach Linda Walker offers some better alternatives.

Stacked rocks signifying the time management strategy of doing big tasks first

“I’ve tried everything — and none of it works!”

As an ADHD coach, I hear this all the time from clients desperately seeking time-management breakthroughs. First and foremost, I tell them this: There is nothing wrong with you. The problem, it turns out, is that most popular organization tips and plans are not geared to the neurodiverse ADHD brain. More often than not, these strategies sound like they should help, but end up posing yet another challenge for adults with ADHD.

Here are five best-selling productivity strategies that I advise my clients to avoid:

Bad Strategy #1: The “2-Minute Rule”

David Allen introduces the “2-minute rule” in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (#CommissionsEarned). In short, it says this: If you’re doing something and a task comes up that will only take two minutes, you should drop what you’re doing and quickly complete that 2-minute task. This seems reasonable enough until you consider the ADHD weakness of time estimation and time management, wherein the task you thought would take 2 minutes actually needs 10 or 15 minutes of focus, and then afterward you have to remember to go back to what you were doing before. This rule also asks you to prioritize what just came up instead of what you’ve determined is the most impactful thing you could be doing.

Every time we move from one task to the next, we are adding transition time — you pull yourself away from whatever you were doing, change the gears in your mind, and then move on to the next task. That process adds as much as 10-20 minutes between tasks.

Instead of stopping what you had planned to do, carry a notebook and write down the tasks that pop up in the middle of the important activity you’re currently doing. If you prefer to use technology, you might consider a tool like Evernote to save your list. Then carve out times during the day or week to go back and review what you’ve written in this “catch-all” list.

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Bad Strategy #2: “Eat That Frog!”

Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (#CommissionsEarned) recommends tackling your hardest task first thing in the morning so that everything afterward feels easy. This theory doesn’t account for our varying degrees of focus and physical or mental energy throughout the day. If you aren’t a morning person, this strategy is going to feel very overwhelming.

Our productivity capability can be divided into three energy patterns:

  • Genius zone is the period of the day when you’re at peak mental ability and should tackle tasks that require more focus.
  • Kinetic zone is a period of high physical energy or intense mental energy — your brain is moving a mile a minute and you’re able to focus, but for shorter periods of time. You should tackle shorter, more interactive tasks during this period since you’re going to want to jump from task to task.
  • Recharge zone is the period where your energy is low, you can’t focus, and you feel very overwhelmed. For some people, this is the time of day when you feel like taking a nap. Take 10 to 15 minutes to recharge during this period — take a walk, stretch, or talk to someone.

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Warm up to daunting tasks by starting with easier ones. Every time you start losing traction on the more daunting task, return to a task that’s shorter or more energizing, and as soon as your brain kicks in, jump back into the more daunting task.

Bad Strategy #3: The Pickle Jar

The pickle jar plan asks you to imagine that time is a jar: The best way to manage it is to put big rocks, or tasks, in your jar first. Fill in the extra spaces with pebbles (your smaller tasks), and then fill in all remaining space with sand (quick/short tasks).

The “pickle jar” strategy assumes that doing more is always equal to success, and that is not true. You’ll always feel behind if you hold yourself to this kind of impossible standard. Doing more won’t make you thrive; doing the right thing will.

Bad Strategy #4: The To-Do List

Keeping a to-do list isn’t always the most productive time-management system. To-do lists can quickly become overwhelmingly long, making it more difficult to prioritize important tasks. Plus, all tasks are not created equal. Completing short tasks like checking your voicemail or cleaning your inbox can distract from bigger, more critical or time-sensitive projects.

Instead of keeping a to-do list, plan by project. Ask yourself: What are the projects I really need completed now? Then narrow down that project list to no more than seven, including any that are lingering unfinished. Once a week, look at your projects and ask yourself, “What do I need to do this week that would make that project progress?”

Bad Strategy #5: Time Management

Time management is a misnomer because time is not under your control. Time is a fluid thing. You can’t accumulate it or bottle it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. What you do have control over is what you do with your time and the energy you expend on a task. Manage your energy, not your time.

I recommend Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (#CommissionsEarned), if you’re interested in learning more about the different patterns of our energy. 

This content came from the ADDitude webinar by Linda Walker, PCC, titled “ADD-Friendly Productivity Strategies for Adults with ADHD” That webinar is available for free replay here.

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8 Comments & Reviews

  1. When a student, I wrote a timetable for every waking hour of every day that had my classes, my assignment times, and study times, and meal, jogging, fave TV shows, and everything else times. It worked then.
    Now that I am retired, the Daily Project timetable seems to be working:
    – Monday is gardening
    – Tuesday is paying bills and shopping
    – Wednesday is a rest day for reading
    and so on.

  2. Another great axiom of ‘time management’ that makes me want to scream is the “one touch” rule for dealing with mail and other documents. (Especially when his is preached by someone who has mastered it and thinks everyone can and should.) Sure, it’s not too hard to toss obvious junkmail directly into recycling/shredding, but if I had to decide immediately how to deal with more important documents before I put them down again, I’d likely end up carrying them around half the day and wouldn’t get anything done besides opening the mail. Especially if it’s a document that triggers any resistance or anxiety. I need to use a cooling-off/quarantine basket for things that are not extremely urgent, and are too ‘radioactive’ to handle immediately.

  3. Love love love this article. I finally abandoned traditional time management methods created by people whose natural abilities are so different from mine three years ago, and have been becoming more organized every year. Abandoned preprinted calendars for a bullet journal. Realized the “do it now if it takes two minutes” idea is ridiculous when faced with 30 tasks that supposedly take two minutes but really take more-the whole day can be shot doing nothing creative. Finally understood I have to address my low tolerance for boredom. So many time management books and articles insist on doing exactly the same thing everyday for maximum productivity, which puts a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. We can be organized enough, but for long term success we need to work with our natural inclinations instead of against them.

  4. The one that drives me BONKERS is the “get up at the buttcrack of dawn!” nonsense. I, like a lot of people with ADHD, do NOT have a circadian clock that responds well to that sort of thing. And it doesn’t respond well to my efforts to go to bed early either. My brain DOES NOT ADJUST.

    Getting up earlier than about 7AM makes me feel like someone’s shot me up with drugs. My brain is sludge. And don’t even get me started on how my brain isn’t that great in the morning even when I do wake up naturally at my regular time.

    I think better advice is to hammer your night routine. Pick your clothes out and hang them out where you get dressed. Have a spot where you put all the things you’ll need for the next day and make sure everything is in it before you go to bed. Set up your coffee pot. The possibilities are endless depending on your morning needs. I have a goal of not thinking or making decisions in the morning when my brain is slow and inefficient.

  5. “Instead of keeping a to-do list, plan by project.” Ok. So, how should I keep track of which projects I’m working on and what tasks are required to complete them? “Once a week, look at your projects and ask yourself, “What do I need to do this week that would make that project progress?” wait… so, instead of keeping a list, I should remember each project exists, remember what’s already been done, then re-determine what’s left to be done *every week*?! Maybe I missed something or am misunderstanding (entirely possible, even likely) but from what I’m seeing, this “method” is… insane…

  6. I appreciate someone writing articles, yet after coming to this site (procrastinating on the Web..?) in a state of overwhelm, I leave kinda spun out more. There is an article right before this that tells me YES to do list, 2 minute rule….ARRgh

  7. Oooooookay, #1, why does ADDitude earn a commission on books purchased that are NOT recommended for our “neurodiverse brains?” #2, the advice under the 2nd bad strategy: “Warm up to daunting tasks by starting with easier ones. Every time you start losing traction on the more daunting task, return to a task that’s shorter or more energizing, and as soon as your brain kicks in, jump back into the more daunting task.” does JUST what the advice under the 1st bad strategy told us NOT to do: “Every time we move from one task to the next, we are adding transition time — you pull yourself away from whatever you were doing, change the gears in your mind, and then move on to the next task. That process adds as much as 10-20 minutes between tasks.” This has got to be the worst written article I have ever seen up on this site!! All I can say is WOW!

  8. Thank you for this article! It’s like you found my list of top productivity myths that I’m always getting worked up about. I wrote a blog post about the “big rocks” strategy and I regularly write about the myth of time management. Time is not created equal. Not only is energy management a crucial component, but also timing. Understanding my rhythms and working with my rhythms as well as the rhythms of nature — knowing when to be more intense, when to rest, when to allow my distractions, etc.

    One thing that has helped me is keeping a journal and using some of my transition time to note what worked well and didn’t work well. This helps me see patterns in my energy and focus levels. Then I can plan better. For example, I know that 4 pm is my dip time, so I like to plan calls or a second workout for that time. Fridays are generally not very productive days. They are like my 4 pm time. So Fridays I do laundry and try to schedule more calls rather than deep focus work. On the other hand I don’t schedule calls and meetings for the morning because I ride the increased focus from my morning workout into more focus work.

    Being attuned to my rhythms has been a game changer.

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