Time & Productivity

Do You Shine Under Pressure? How to Manufacture a Sense of Urgency

Do you produce your best work under pressure? A sense of urgency often kickstarts the ADHD brain. But rather than delay until the last minute — risking missed deadlines and angry colleagues — why not import that urgency to boost productivity right now? Here’s how.

Many people with ADHD work brilliantly under pressure. We pull rabbits out of our hats — producing magic at the last minute to the amazement (and annoyance) of our teachers, bosses, peers, or family members. We delay beginning or completing tasks, even entire projects, until the night before a deadline. But we usually get it done.

Why do we prefer working under pressure? Because that sense of urgency kickstarts the ADHD brain.

Of course, working under pressure comes with risks: stress, frustration, loss of sleep, chaos of routines and priorities, and less time to get things right. Things can also go very, very wrong — you may experience unforeseen circumstances that make timely completion impossible.

The trick to getting things done without waiting until the eleventh hour is to channel the benefits and pressure of a looming deadline into the present. In other words, strive to create a sense of urgency in all you do. Here are some strategies for tricking your brain into starting earlier by replicating the appeal of last-minute work.

Why We Like Working Under Pressure and How to Boost Productivity

1. Address the Now Vs. Not-Now Problem

For people with ADHD, life is either Now or Not Now. Immediate deadlines are now, making it easier to initiate action. Immediacy triggers our activation switch, which is often stuck.

When projects are due in the future, we engage in temporal discounting: You know you need to get going on it, but there’s no sense of urgency and your mind focuses on other matters until the day before. Temporal discounting is no longer a factor when what was in the future is now.

[Get This Download: 19 Ways to Meet Deadlines and Get Things Done]

Here’s how to create a sense of urgency to get unstuck:

  • Bring the future into the now by writing a Project Plan that answers this: What exactly do you need to do, how will you get it done, what external resources are required, and what is the expected deliverable?
  • Break the project into specific tasks and schedule them on your calendar as task-appointments for a specific, limited time.
  • Work backward from your deadline (creating milestones for progress).
  • Create a visual timeline.
  • Arrange for external accountability and support for completing scheduled interim tasks. Give yourself progress rewards instead of waiting for the project to be finished.

2. Silence Conflicting Priorities

When something is due tomorrow, there aren’t any conflicting priorities, so it is easier to focus on that one task or project. You don’t have the option to delay, so there is less confusion, and distractions aren’t as powerful. The solution? Minimize distractions and find your workflow.

  • Choose times when you will consciously ignore other priorities (temporarily), to make progress on the deadline project. I call this putting on the blinders. Yes, you have so many other things to do, but put them all on hold for a limited time (use a timer) so you can deep focus on one scheduled task that will help you make progress (use your Project Plan).
  • Some clients find it helpful to clear their desks of any papers or visual distractions not related to that specific task.
  • Turn off email, text, and other alerts. Minimize other screens. Set your phone to silently take messages. If you have a joint calendar, block out the time as not available.

3. Manufacture Adrenaline Boosts

The ADHD brain often excels in crisis situations. And there’s no question that waiting until the last minute increases adrenaline and keeps you motivated until the finish line. When you do things in advance, however, you lose this dubious advantage. So look for other ways to get going before your last-minute deadline marathon.

[Read: What’s My Motivation? (No, Seriously, I Need to Get Started.)]

  • Increase your focus and energy by getting enough sleep. Hydrate, eat well, and get fresh air.
  • Play mind games: “How much can I get done in 20 minutes?” Gamify tasks, too. “I need to finish the research today before I lose Internet access at midnight” or “I just found out that my guests are coming a week earlier than scheduled, so I will straighten up now.”
  • Create artificial deadlines and have accountability partners to monitor your progress. If you can’t find a partner, there are online services to help you find one.

4. Practice Making Quick Decisions

Many people with ADHD struggle with perfectionism and indecision, causing delays in getting started and moving a task along. But when a project is due tomorrow, we don’t have time for paralysis by analysis or crisis of choice. We have no choice but to be quicker at self-editing and decision-making. Some ideas to improve decision-making:

  • Think good is good enough. Perfection is the enemy of done (and stress does not create better work). Think progress, not perfection.
  • Frozen? Set a timer for 10 minutes and do something, anything related to your deadline project: Write one sentence of your proposal, pack just the toiletries for your upcoming trip, or research a single reference for your paper. Once you make a minimal start, you are more likely to keep going.
  • Learn decision-making skills. One of my favorites is called “satisficing.” Instead of trying to maximize your choices in search of the very best, which can lead you down many rabbit holes, just satisfy the basic criteria so you can move forward.

5. Create Immediate Consequences or Rewards

When it is the last minute, the potential consequences or rewards are no longer in the future. For most people with ADHD, future benefits or consequences are not very motivating. Since the possibly negative (or positive) results are fairly immediate, they have become more real and effective. Here’s how to make these factors immediate, even if they’re far off in reality:

  • Create interim rewards for accomplishing tasks in advance of the project due date. You can have small rewards for each step (such as guilt-free free time) or accumulate rewards until you complete the project for a bigger payout.
  • Use physical tokens so you can see and feel your progress.

6. Narrow the Picture

People with ADHD are often big-picture thinkers. We often mull over concepts well before the deadline, but it’s the due date itself that forces a tightening of scope, so the work is more targeted and doable. The deadline forces us to put it all together.

We also tend toward all-or-nothing thinking: If we cannot accomplish our goal the way we want to, we’ll put it off — until we can’t. What you can do:

  • Careful project planning limits this tendency to be more expansive (and potentially avoidant) than necessary. Think less is more! Doing something halfway to make progress is a better alternative than waiting to do it all — or not!
  • As you think of anything related to completion of the deadline project, collect these thoughts in one place (notebook, app, file, or folder, written or spoken). This way, you are less likely to forget your good ideas, and your notes can help you structure your final project.

7. Map Out the Finish Line

One reason for avoidance is not knowing how long something will take. When the due date is tomorrow, you have a set deadline and whatever you do has to fit within that parameter. There is a structure and finality to this that the ADHD brain finds comforting: It will be over. We become less anxious and resentful, and more capable of doing the work. What you can do:

  • Set your own limits, with earlier due dates. If this is done consciously, with the mindset of self-care (“want to” rather than “have to”) we can initiate action. Keep in mind that activation is an executive function best triggered by interest and motivation.

We are all perfectly imperfect. Approach any task with humor and self-acceptance. I’ve coached clients to get things done. I know the skills, but my ADHD brain doesn’t always do what I know. Case in point: This article was written the day before it was due.

Good is good enough. Perfection is the enemy of done.

Sense of Urgency with ADHD: Next Steps

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