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Make Short Work of Big Projects

Large, multi-step projects are overwhelming to people with ADHD. Here’s how to tackle them successfully.

Project Planning for ADHD Adults. It all starts with a to do list
Project Planning for ADHD Adults

It’s not unusual for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to have trouble completing large-scale projects. You’re eager to get going, but the project is too big to do all at once — so you set it aside in frustration. Or maybe the sheer number of steps required to finish the project leaves you feeling overwhelmed. Sound familiar?

Recently, I received an e-mail from a woman asking for my help. She wrote that she wanted to create a “mini-office” in a corner of her bedroom but was having trouble finishing the project. Actually, she was having trouble getting started.

The project seemed simple enough. All she had to do was move a desk into the room and hook up her computer to the Internet. But roadblocks kept popping up. First, to make room for the desk, she realized she would have to move a treadmill that had been in her bedroom (mostly unused) for years. The treadmill seemed too big to fit elsewhere in the house, and was too heavy for her to move by herself.

Second, there was only one cable jack in her bedroom, and her TV was connected to it. So she would need to have a new jack installed. Finally, she would have to buy bins or baskets to hold her papers, but she didn’t know which kind or size to buy. It didn’t help matters that she always felt intimidated when she was in those cavernous office supply stores. ‘They’re just too big, with too many choices,” she wrote.

Well, let me assure you — as I assured her— that it is possible to complete these kinds of projects. It all comes down to setting priorities and making a plan. Here’s how to organize any project:

[Take This Quiz: How Seriously Do You Procrastinate?]

Choose a single project to work on.

What’s the most important project facing you right now? What would give you the most satisfaction to complete? What absolutely needs to get done? Tackle that one, and let other tasks and projects ‘slide” for a while.

Create an action plan.

Going over and over the steps in your head only makes the project seem bigger than it is. Instead, break the project into small, doable tasks and write down exactly what’s needed to get each one done in a to do list. As soon as you figure out the date on which each task will be done, mark the dates in your day planner (see ‘Sample Action Plan,” below).

If you were the one trying to move a treadmill and set up an office in your bedroom, your action plan might look something like this:

  • Move treadmill
  • Call to arrange for installation of jack
  • Clean out desk
  • Order bins
  • Move desk into bedroom

When you consider it this way, the project doesn’t seem quite so daunting anymore, does it?

[Get This Free Download: Stop Procrastinating: Finish Your To-Do List TODAY]

Get to work.

Analyze what needs to be done to complete each task, make necessary decisions, and so on. As you move each part forward to completion, be aware that your overall action plan may change. That’s fine. You need to be flexible in order to take advantage of new ideas and information that crop up.

Moving the treadmill. Since you can’t move the treadmill until you find a place it will fit, you need to look through your house for a suitable location.

As it turns out, there’s space in the laundry room closet, but only enough for one of those new, fold-up treadmills (your old model is too bulky). Keeping a treadmill in the laundry room sounds like a great idea: You think, ‘I could exercise and keep an eye on the laundry at the same time – no more forgetting to put those just-washed loads in the dryer.”

You decide to get rid of the old treadmill and buy one that will fit in the laundry room closet when not in use. So you call around, do a little research, and order a new treadmill. And guess what? The deliverymen can come in five days! They’ll bring the new treadmill and take away the old one. As a bonus, you’ll receive a hefty trade-in allowance on the old treadmill.

Calling for installation of the new jack. Since the technician will be there anyway, you decide to have a cable jack installed in the den, as well.

Cleaning out the desk. Find a relatively free day in your planner and set aside part of that day or the evening to complete this project. Toss old papers, pens, and pencils. Decide what supplies (including storage bins) you will need to stock your new office.

Ordering the bins. Check out your favorite Web sites, and order bins for delivery in three to five days. Don’t obsess. Set a limit on how long you will look for them — and use a timer to stick to it. You can always add more bins after you’ve worked with this new arrangement for a while.

Good news: The bins you want are on sale. And you didn’t get overwhelmed, the way you do when you walk into a gigantic store. As you go about ordering the bins, you realize that you need a power strip — so you order that and other supplies online at the same time.

Moving the desk into your bedroom. Pick a day and time when someone strong (a spouse, a neighbor) is available to help you. Ta-da! In less than a week, the entire project is complete.


Your desk is set up, your computer is hooked up to the Internet, and you have a new treadmill in the laundry room. Now you can get to work in your new office — and get going again on that exercise program!

[Read This Next: Getting Things Done Without Getting Bogged Down]

Sample Action Plan

As your plan takes shape, jot down each step in your day planner. The action plan for this project might look something like this:

  • Day One: Order and schedule delivery of new treadmill.
  • Day Two: Schedule installation of the new jack. This date may need to be for the day after the old treadmill is removed, so the technician can reach the wall behind it.
  • Day Three (7:00-9:30 p.m.): Take a look at the desk and decide how many bins you’ll need. Dust and clean out the desk. Make a list of additional supplies you need.
  • Day Four: Set aside time to clean out the laundry room closet where you’ll keep the new treadmill, which will be delivered tomorrow.
  • Day Five: The new treadmill is delivered and the old one is taken away. Move the desk into the bedroom. Bins and power strip arrive, and you set them up.
  • Day Six: The jack is installed. Move the desk into the “mini-office” area. Set up computer and get to work!