How to Prioritize

The Daily Missteps That Are Sucking Away Your Energy

Many things, even small habits that you engage in without thinking, can drain your energy, which has a negative effect on your ADHD brain. Here’s how to identify (and vanquish!) these “energy vampires” — and get more done.

A bat flying away from a net and trying to get more energy
Bat and net

Each morning I am aware that there is a finite amount of time and energy in this day,” says Oprah Winfrey. Oprah knows the importance of time and energy management. I bet she also knows about energy vampires, the things lurking in our routines and habits that eat away our energy.

Energy is precious, especially to people like you and me, who work hard to manage our ADHD, aspiring to get ahead, be more, and have more.

What if you had more energy every day? What would you do with it? Start on that project you’ve been putting off? Finish the thing that you just haven’t had the energy to finish? Focus a little extra time on getting organized, so that you’re ready to attack tomorrow with all cylinders firing?

You begin each day with a full “bank account” of energy, and you spend it throughout the day. You have to manage how you use it. This is tricky, because we spend a lot of our energy unknowingly. Did you know that when you take a break to watch 15 minutes of YouTube hilarity, you lose 15 minutes of energy? A 10-minute water-cooler chat with coworkers debits your energy account. Your 30-minute commute listening to scream radio (which we used to call talk radio) takes an energy toll. Obsessing about something that didn’t go your way makes a withdrawal.

These are minor offenders, but over the course of a day, they add up: At 3 p.m., you hit the wall, so there’s no way you’re going to tackle that long-postponed project. By 7 p.m., your energy account is overdrawn. You skip the gym and head for the sofa instead.

[Free Resource: Better Time Management with Adult ADHD]

Here’s the good news: When you focus more attention on your energy, you keep more energy in your account, and even get some compound interest.

To start saving up, let’s call out some of the common energy vampires:

> Sugar and carbs. If you’re consuming sugar or simple carbs (having cereal or a donut or a bagel for breakfast) to jump-start your brain, you’re using fuel that gives you a brief hit of energy, but flames out in minutes, leaving you hungry for another hit. Ditto for sugary “energy” drinks. These are also energy vampires.

Protein is where the sustained energy is. You want 30 grams of protein in your tank when you head out the door each day. This will extend your energy “delivery curve” significantly, and help you stay focused until close to lunchtime. You can make small energy deposits throughout the day by eating some raw nuts.

> Multitasking. When you multitask, you waste energy going between activities, because you have to re-engage each time you switch.

Pick a single to-do. Set a timer for 20 or 30 or 60 minutes. Start on one thing, single-tasking. When you focus your energy on one task, you move it forward faster and use less energy.

[Getting Things Done Just Got Easier]

It’s hard for our tribe to stay on a task for a sustained stretch, but create the habit of setting a timer for every major task, and you’ll teach your brain to be a little less “ADHD-ish.”

> Visual clutter. Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., says, “Clutter makes our senses work overtime on stimuli that aren’t necessary or important.” Clutter makes it difficult to relax, physically and mentally. That pile of papers you’re saving or not dealing with is stealing energy from you.

Here’s a way to slay the clutter vampire: Try to create a field of vision in your workspace in which there are no piles of paper or clusters of sticky notes. You don’t have to organize them or trash them, just get them out of your line of sight to create the impression of a super-organized workspace. I “re-stage” my work area every time I sit down to tackle a major to-do. It is simple and powerful.

> A long to-do list. Ever heard of the Zeigarnik Effect? This psychological phenomenon explains why the multitude of undone to-dos on your long list taxes your mental energy by reminding you of everything that you haven’t done.

I learned this tip from my coaching mentor, Laurie Dupar, PMHNP, RN, and founder of Coaching for ADHD in Seattle. Create a “wish list” of things you’ve moved off your to-do list. These are the items you admit that you’re not likely or don’t need to do on a timetable. By slimming down your to-do list, you’ll have less energy escape your brain when you look at it.

You might be hesitant to move things off your to-do list for fear you’ll forget about them. Just add this note to the bottom of your list: “Check wish list for newly relevant to-dos.”

Start paying some attention to identifying and defeating the energy vampires in your life. When you do, you will have a lot more energy with which to meet your goals.

[Straighten Your Priorities Now]