Getting Things Done

Lost In the Weeds? Why ADHD Minds Get Stuck On Details

In the face of big, daunting projects, ADHD brains are famous for micro-focusing on inconsequential details that keep us busy — but bring us no closer to the end goal. Getting lost in the weeds without a guide drains our energy and our time — two precious resources in short supply. Here, learn how to balance the small details with the big picture so that you can get more done.

Keeping busy with small tasks that distract from big ones can be hard to avoid for adults with ADHD. Here's how to minimize the blowback if it can't be helped.

You’ve heard of hyperfocusing: the tendency to concentrate on a single task to the exclusion of pretty much everything else — a feat that people with ADHD know all too well. But what about micro-focusing: the habit of zeroing in on small, fruitless distractions at the expense of bigger tasks? This ADHD tendency to lose precious hours working on unimportant but time-consuming details is also called “getting lost in the weeds.”

How Getting Lost In the Weeds Impedes Progress

Finishing something — beginning to end — is elusive for many people with ADHD, who struggle to sustain long-term attention on complex projects. But completing a small,highly focused task is far less intimidating — and can deliver a big dose of satisfaction. Sometimes, hyperfocusing on the weeds delivers the dopamine rush that ADHD brains crave.

What’s more, small details rarely require complex decision-making skills to complete. Because ADHD so often brings with it executive dysfunction, the act of analyzing and prioritizing and executing complex tasks can be physically and psychologically draining. Pulling weeds requires none of those executive function skills.

This is why those small tasks are so attractive to people with ADHD. And sometimes, when sprinkled strategically through a project, they can help a person sustain interest and attention in an otherwise daunting task. But when micro-focusing is allowed to run rampant, the consequences are lost productivity and wasted energy, which drains resources away from the bigger, more important project at hand.

I see this it a lot when I organize my clients with ADHD.

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Adults with ADHD Lost In the Weeds

One of my clients, Sally, needed help organizing her huge den that had become cluttered with stacks of old newspapers and magazines, toys that belonged to children now grown, lamps and luggage, hardware and housewares… you get the idea. We started with the basics — what to keep and what to toss — but minutes later, Sally was micro-focused on a single shoebox full of pens, pencils, and markers. “I better see if they work,” she said. I couldn’t help but think about how much precious time that would take, and the small, negligible impact it ultimately would have on the organizing project.

Rebecca is another example. “My husband, Lance, made reservations at a great restaurant for our anniversary,” she told me. “I’ve got to get dressed, brief the babysitter, find my phone, and wrap his gift. Instead, I’m dwelling on which earrings to wear! He won’t even notice them and, besides, it’s our anniversary! I’ve lost sight of the big picture, and Lance will lose patience if we’re late for dinner yet again.”

How to Escape the Weeds

When my clients with ADHD get sucked into small details that will eat up all of their time, I offer these four strategies for managing their micro-focusing:

1. Go back and forth between micro-focus tasks and bigger projects.

Plan out the dates for your summer vacation and where you want to go, and then micro-focus on buying new sandals or researching flesh-eating, lake-borne bacteria. Go back to the complex stuff, like booking an Airbnb.

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2. Go with your strengths.

If you’re organizing the garage, get some of those big-picture folks to help you sell items on eBay or pack them for Goodwill. Meanwhile, you sort the screws or pump up the bike tires to see which ones are leaking.

3. Keep a visual of the big-picture project.

A photo of a beautiful patio deck posted on the wall can remind you where you’re headed as you micro-focus on which placemats are right for a table on a patio that is not even built yet. A YouTube video you can watch every day can inspire you to start that exercise regimen, even as you pick out the perfect walking shoe.

4. Wrap your final, big goal outside of a timetable that includes mini-goals.

Shoot for September 1 to, say, refinish the deck. Schedule the first week in July as the date you clear all the clutter off the deck. Schedule August 1 as the date you hit Home Depot for the supplies. Then schedule the last two weeks in August to do the refinishing. Having a timetable with mini-goals keeps you on course to getting things done.

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