Time & Productivity

How to Get Things Done Without Getting Bogged Down

What’s keeping you from crossing things off your to-do list? Learn how to get things done with these solutions to everyday productivity problems that slow down people with ADHD.

hand drawing a shortcut to a maze on a chalkboard

Every day we are confronted with endless information, interruptions, distractions, work, and social media updates that feel impossible to ignore. All of this butts up against the one thing that remains finite — time. Getting things done with ADHD, therefore, is problematic.

Here are some of the biggest challenges that people with ADHD struggle with daily, and my solutions for not letting them prevent you from getting things done.

How to Get Things Done: 13 ADHD Problem Areas and Solutions

Productivity Problem #1: Too Much Information

Information comes at us all the time; capturing it is essential — and difficult. We used to say, “Write it down, write it down,” but in the era of too much information, there are better ways to write things down — besides writing on your hand.

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If you need to save verbal information, little bits of advice, websites people throw at you, or things you want to remember, call it into your voicemail and leave yourself messages. You can also use the recorder on your smartphone. Another option is to convert verbal information into text, using an app like Dragon Dictation.

Productivity Problem #2: Too Distracted To Finish

Distractibility and executive function challenges prevent individuals with ADHD from completing chores and tasks. I recommend that you finish something — a small task or even something larger that you were working on yesterday — early in the day. The truth is that there will be seven new tasks for every one task you finish. To keep yourself in balance, strive for a realistic ratio between closings and openings. When you get closure on something, it makes the rest of the day meaningful. You can say, no matter how the rest of the day goes, that you finished a task.

If interruptions — a phone call or a request from your spouse or child — distract you from a task, hold on to a physical artifact (or keep one in your line of sight) to remind you of what you were doing. It will focus your attention more quickly, when you return to the task. An unopened envelope may remind you that you were opening mail before you got interrupted. A Post-It note, even if it’s blank, will remind you to return to what you were doing before.

Productivity Problem #3: Too Boring to Bother With

If you’re putting off cleaning out a closet — is there anything more boring? — think about what you’ll gain. Better yet, write the gains down – reclaiming money you left in those handbags, making the space to see what you actually own, getting a tax deduction for donating clothes to charity are all ways to invest yourself in the outcome.

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Productivity Problem #4: Ignoring a To-Do List

An old organizational standby is to schedule tasks. You have your to-do list, but you have to link getting things done to committing a time to do them. It’s important to make a list of things to do, but it’s equally important to enter your to-do list into your calendar.

If you make a to-do list only, you have about a 40 to 50 percent chance of doing the tasks, but if you schedule a task, the chance increases to 70 percent or so.

Productivity Problem #5: All Chores Seem the Same — Boring

Do different kinds of things in different kinds of places. It’s an ADHD-friendly way to optimize your focus and attention. My client, Marsha, gave up doing her taxes at home. It was a setup for failure. From April 1 through April 3, she moves to a local hotel. She hauls all of her records into the room with her, logs on to her laptop, and spreads the receipts and papers on the bed and on the floor. She stays there until her taxes are done. She breaks for exercise and to relax in the pool. Changing the environment made a big difference to her.

I know some people with ADHD who go nuts in the quiet of a library. They would be more productive at a place like Starbucks, with some background noise. Brainstorming a new marketing plan requires a different environment from a hotel room or a conference hall. You might need a lot of windows, a place to pace, space to put stuff up on the wall. Entering your data into Quicken could be done in a small, tight, quiet spot with no windows. Different tasks need different levels of focus.

Productivity Problem #6: “It’s Me Versus The Clutter”

It’s important to organize a support team. Sari Solden, author of Women with Attention Deficit Disorder (#CommissionsEarned), says, “Expand your idea of organizational help to include other people.” Stop trying to be an ordinary person who keeps it together in the same way that people without ADHD do. Support might mean another set of hands, someone to keep your morale up, or someone to function as a passive body double.

A body double is somebody who is physically present as you do a task but doesn’t do the task with you. The body double is the person to whom you say, “Here’s what I’m doing now. This is what I’m concentrating on.” Your body double anchors you to the task at hand. This has to be somebody who is non-judgmental, somebody who is not going to say, “Throw it all away.”

Productivity Problem #7: Troubles Beginning a Task

It often doesn’t matter where you start a decluttering task. Begin at any spot in a room. After you start, though, continue in some kind of logical order. If you start on the left side of the room, keep going to the left, in a circle. If you start on the top shelf of a cabinet, work your way down. Have a process that is orderly, but don’t worry about where or when you start, because there is no ideal time to tackle clutter.

Productivity Problem #8: “I Schedule a Task, But Ignore It”

There are many reasons why organizing systems break down. Sometimes, people with ADHD get bored with their system. They need more variety. Have a system that you will stick with for three months. If you revise it every month, it will drive you crazy. You may not have to overhaul it completely. You might just have to tweak it. It’s not unusual for individuals with ADHD to revamp their systems more frequently than other people do.

Productivity Problem #9: When Worry Prevents Things From Getting Done

As you start your day, do the first three things that worry you the most, to get them off your plate. The internal distraction of worry plays more on people with ADHD than on other people and prevents them from getting things done.

If you do any part of what is worrying you, you’ll break the anxiety. Say, you have a report to do, and it’s hard to get started, and it’s causing you anxiety. Start the footnotes, do a little research, speak to one expert. If you break the inertia caused by your anxiety, you can keep moving forward.

Productivity Problem #10: Not Being Able to Prioritize a To-Do List

Just take a shot at doing it. If you use 1s, 2s, and 3s, and that’s too narrow, add 4s. If you use A, B, and C, and that’s too narrow, add a D. Adding colors is good for setting the priorities of your to-do list. Don’t use more than four colors because that will make you nuts. Use yellow, green, and red because we know what those mean.

I like having a three-column to-do list. One for “now,” another for “soon,” and a third labeled “fat chance.” “Now” could be this week or within the next two days. Making “now” mean “today” to finish a task is too rigid. “Soon” could mean the end of the week. “Fat chance” could mean “whenever.”

Productivity Problem #11: Never Meeting Deadlines

Schedule extra time to finish a task by default. Rather than trying to precisely estimate how long a task will take, just say, “Screw it. I’m going to need 30 percent more time for everything I plan, no matter what.” Just pick a number. Twenty percent more, 50 percent more, and allot that. The worst that could happen is that you finish it early.

Productivity Problem #12: Mail Mismanagement

To cut off junk mail at its source, log on to catalogchoice.org and have them alert marketers to stop sending you stuff.

Have only one place for the day’s mail to land, maybe the dining room table. Yes, it piles up quickly, but at least you know where it will be when you decide to tackle it.

Don’t open junk mail. It can contain four to seven pieces of paper. Junk mail goes, unopened, right into the recycling bin.

Productivity Problem #13: Project Impossible? Blow it up, break it down.

If you have a project to do — planning a wedding, say — instead of breaking down the tasks, try blowing things up first. Place different sticky notes randomly on a wall or bulletin board. It doesn’t matter what categories they’re in, the sequence, or the priority. Get it out of your head and onto paper. If you don’t have a wall, do it on your computer.

Now look for things that have a deadline. If you’re planning a wedding, you have to book the venue first. You want to first deal with things that could screw up the event if you miss a due date.

Look for different ways to break things down. There will be stuff you have to delegate, things that have to happen in sequence, or things that are related by function.

Now that you’ve broken things down, you need to see the big picture again. Organizers advise their clients to break things down, but people with ADHD lose the big picture while doing this. You need to visualize the whole project again.

This article corresponds to the ADHD Experts Webinar, “ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life!” with Judith Kolberg. The podcast version is available here. To purchase the video counterpart, click here.

How to Get Things Done: Next Steps

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