A Deceptively Simple System for Getting More Done with ADHD
We all have them — those tasks or projects that tax all of our executive functions and require excessive effort to complete. Here is a system for centering and prioritizing ADHD brains that works with your strengths and encourages mindful attention to what’s working.
It doesn’t make sense. I’ve built a successful life and business, yet at times I find it overwhelming to the point of tortuous getting simple things done. The wiring of my ADHD brain allows me to accomplish complex tasks under stressful situations, yet the simple act of sending out an email can inspire procrastination for days, even weeks. Some emails just never get sent.
Over the years, I’ve come to accept that logic is not a factor here. It is what it is. And If I want to create a better life for myself with less stress, I had better figure out a way to get things done. What started as a personal quest has evolved into a process that I now share with my clients who are struggling to improve productivity and stave off procrastination.
The process is called MW5. It’s simple and effective because it’s not about the process; it’s about you — what naturally works best for you. Better than anyone else, you know what helps you to work productively, and what does not.
For example, many experts say that focus only happens in a quiet room. This may be true for some, but many of my clients with ADHD say they are driven crazy in a silent environment; they produce great work at Starbucks. MW5 is about figuring out how you work best — and it starts with the 5 Ws.
What: Define Your First Step
Relieve that “overwhelming” feeling that usually leads to procrastination by defining the first tangible behavioral step you can take.
For example, if your goal is to reorganize your office, a behavioral step would be to clear your bookshelf of any unneeded reports. If your goal was to create a new website, your behavioral step could be to spend an hour researching competitive sites. Cleary, these single behavioral steps are not as overwhelming as the larger task.
Why: Tie the Task to a Larger Purpose
Connect your to-do list to a greater, more motivating purpose. The more motivated you are, the more likely you are to start and complete the task successfully.
An excellent example of this is Glenda, a psychiatrist at a hospital in the Midwest. She’s a caring doctor who receives glowing reviews from her patients, but she was struggling to get her reports done on time. I asked her why it was important to get the reports done. She said: “It’s my job and it’s important that other members of the medical team access the information.”
This was true, but not terribly motivating, so I asked her what happened when she didn’t get the reports done. She told me that she worked late trying to catch up three to four nights a week. I asked her if these late nights caused any issues with her family. She gave me a look that clearly confirmed what I thought: Not being home with her family was the primary source of her anxiety.
I asked her to close her eyes and describe a life where all her reports were completed before the end of each day. She described arriving home before dinner and enjoying her evening with her husband and kids, free of anxiety. It was clear: the greater purpose for Glenda was experiencing life without anxiety and having more quality time with her family. Realizing this, Glenda was now much more motivated to get the job done.
Who: Delegate or Share Responsibility
Perhaps the world’s most famous and successful entrepreneur with ADHD, Sir Richard Branson controls more than 400 companies today. Long before he founded the Virgin Group, he says he learned that delegation was his most important strategy for success. I agree.
Just because you can do it (or feel that you should be able to do it) doesn’t mean that you are the best person for the job. Ask yourself:
- Can this be delegated to someone with better expertise? Would my time be better spent working on something better aligned with my skills? Your goal is to spend your time on things that give you, your family, and your company the greatest value.
- Can I outsource? The ability to outsource many tasks has never been easier. Talented freelancers from around the world are available to help on platforms like Upwork.
- Who can help me with this? At times, a five-minute conversation with the right person can save hours of frustration.
Assuming that it doesn’t make sense to delegate this task, we move on to the remaining Ws below.
Where: Work in a Productive Setting
Environment impacts your ability to get things done. For example, Glenda struggled to finish her daily reports in her office, which was in a busy section of the hospital that invited many unexpected visits and distractions from other doctors and nurses. A closed-door policy wasn’t practical, so Glenda found a conference room down the hall from her office where she was able to hide away and get her reports done on a laptop.
Some people need silence to work. Others work best at a busy coffee shop. And some find the library a relaxing place to get things done with a set of headphones. In short, everyone is different, and you may need to get creative when exploring places to work.
Benjamin, another client, came to see me for help in studying for his BAR exams. Buckling down to study was very challenging for him as there was a lot of material and it was extremely dry. We experimented with different locations. We tried his house, the school library, his backyard, and a park. Nothing worked! During one session, he told me about a recent trip to Niagara Falls with his family. While sitting in the back seat of the car, he told me, he could study. So I suggested a novel idea: After the morning rush, board a subway that is not busy and try to study as the train moves. Despite his initial doubts, he gave it a try. Guess what, it worked. A few weeks later, Benjamin passed the BAR exam!
When: Book the Ideal Time
Poor time management is a common productivity hurdle. This could mean the task was attempted at the wrong time, or that it wasn’t explicitly scheduled.
In my office, the conversation with clients usually goes something like this:
Me: “When are you going to do this task?”
Client: “I’ll do it later this week.”
Me: “What day this week?”
Client: “On Thursday.”
Me: “What time on Thursday?”
Some of my clients get frustrated , but most will pick up their calendar or their phone and say, “OK, I am free at 3 o’clock.” At that point, I have them create an appointment in their calendar because the success rate is three or four times higher for tasks that are scheduled.
It is also important to discover what times you are most effective at certain types of tasks. This goes beyond “I’m a morning person” For example, when are you most effective doing creative work vs. administrative tasks? Record these and schedule your time accordingly, where possible.
Key Factors for Success and Failure
People often ask me what contributes to success or failure with this system. And that brings us to the “M” in MW5: Mindfulness.
The more mindful you are, the more successful you will be in overcoming all of your ADHD challenges.
By mindfulness, I mean slowing down (even just a bit) and noticing what’s going on and what you’re doing in the moment. The point is not to stop getting distracted. The point is to notice when you get distracted, and to be mindful of the time passing — one minute, one hour, or possibly the rest of the day. This requires you to notice when you’re not doing what you set out to do before it’s too late, and then make a conscious decision to refocus your attention on your primary purpose.
Mindfulness is essential training for all my clients and I typically begin with a 10-day commitment program that looks like this:
Day 1 – 2: Three-minute check in
Day 3 – 6: Breath (10 minutes)
Day 7 – 8: Mindfulness of the body
Day 9 – 10: Breath (15 minutes)
For free access to the meditations, see my tools and resources and choose a standard place and time where you will not be disturbed while listening to the daily recordings.
Another key contributor to failure is cognitive distortion, or incorrect thinking styles that do not serve you. An example of this is “All or Nothing” thinking, which sabotages many clients trying to build a new habit or follow a new system. They are doing great and then, for whatever reason, they miss a day. And that’s it, they quit or want to move on to something new. Big mistake!
There will be days when things don’t work. I can almost guarantee this (especially at the start, before the system is integrated as a habit). The key to success is accepting failure as temporary and resolving to restart the next day.
Success is measured by the progress you make. Transformation rarely happens overnight; it occurs slowly as you consistently move forward each day toward what is truly important to you.
I wish all of you a year of health, happiness, and progress.
How To Stop Procrastinating: Next Steps
- Read: Stop. Procrastinating. Now.
- Download: Finish Your To-Do List TODAY
- Understand: Why Do I Procrastinate? ADHD Excuses — and Solutions
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.
Updated on February 5, 2021