Whenever I’m working with my family, friends, or colleagues, they always ask me how I’m able to get so much done.
My answer: “I have ADHD.”
That might sound confusing, but realistically, people with ADHD don’t always have problems with attention — at least, not when we’re working on something that excites us. In fact, ADHD often means that we can hyperfocus on awesome things for hours on end, although sometimes that comes at the expense of all the less-thrilling things we’re supposed to be doing. (Why wash the dishes when you can build a rocket ship out of a cardboard box and a disassembled vacuum cleaner?)
Most people with ADHD have to work 10 times harder to achieve seemingly basic organizational and time management skills — skills that other people develop naturally over time. As a result, we pay more conscious attention to life hacks, memory tricks, productivity shortcuts and other mental managerial systems … because we have to.
Some say that people with ADHD are much more likely to start their own businesses, perhaps because we’re built to tackle creative and entrepreneurial challenges.
While other people don’t need to learn the same tricks that we do, they can benefit from them. In fact, I’d argue that ADHDers have some of the best advice and practices for getting stuff done — even if we don’t always listen to that advice ourselves.
Here are 21 productivity tips from people with ADHD that even non-ADHDers can learn from:
1. Habits are things you get for free. So get into ’em.
Even though I’m not a natural creature of habit, I always start my day with meds, then a shower, then pants, then breakfast — otherwise I know that I’m going to forget one of those steps. Habits are essentially self-automation, which means less brainpower spent on the little things.
2. Always have a backup (or two, or three) and know where to find it.
I keep extra cables, chargers, adapters, medicine, and other things in my bag at all times. That way, whether I’m going to the grocery store or on vacation, I don’t have to worry about keeping my phone charged.
3. Reminders and alerts: love them and use them.
I even have a recurring 2 p.m. notification on my phone that says “EAT SOME LUNCH, YOU IDIOT” because, erm, I need the reminder more than I’d like to admit. (Also: IFTTT triggers to automate actions and sync between apps and accounts make life way easier.)
4. Keep a calendar, and schedule in the time it takes for you to do things.
If it takes you extra time to keep a calendar or get into the headspace for a meeting? Factor that in when you’re planning your day too.
5. Pay attention to the your day’s ups and downs, and use them to your advantage.
Do you get sleepy right after lunch? Then maybe don’t dive into that intense project at 1 p.m. Are you better when you answer emails in the morning and get active tasks done later? Then do that. Figure out what works for you, and follow that schedule.
6. Find your rhythm and stick with it.
Even if you’re not the slow and steady type, a regular pattern of sprint and rest can still help you reach the finish line. “Sometimes I’ll start counting beats in my head to create a rhythm,” says TV writer/director Hadley Klein. “It sounds crazy but for whatever reason, it helps me think through things in a different way.”
7. Make a list. Check it twice. Then make another list. And another.
Graphic novelist Tyler Page says, “I keep one main to-do list on my computer in a Sticky or TextEdit file. Bigger projects get their own lists where they get broken down into smaller and smaller components. The lists also help with prioritizing — something that needs to be done right away goes on the daily to-do list.”
8. “Prioritize action over accomplishment. Doing the thing.”
This one comes from Patty Carnevale, director of integrated marketing at Man Repeller. Measuring your progress in a tangible way can help you feel even more successful, which will then give you the drive to keep going.
9. Reward yourself for your accomplishments — no matter how small.
If you’re someone who needs frequent feedback to get the necessary dopamine boost, then you can fake it by sticking a carrot in front of yourself to keep you going. Alysa Auriemma, an English instructor, gives an example: “I can read that awesome online fanfic IF I get three papers graded!”
10. Turn the boring parts into a game.
“I use a fitness watch which monitors how many steps I take in a day and how many flights of stairs I climb. It’s fun to make the numbers go up,” says Nalo Hopkinson, an award-winning author. She also reports her daily word count on Twitter, so that people can cheerlead her along.
11. Don’t dread the boring stuff. Just get it done. It’s faster that way.
Focus on the satisfaction that you’re going to feel once you’ve finished the task, instead of on the time it’ll take to get it done — which, let’s be honest, is probably less time than you think. (Of course, even though I know this works for me, it’s still easier said than done.)
12. The more you let things pile up, the easier it gets to ignore them.
dFind a way to keep it fresh. I’m a compulsive inbox zeroer because the longer that little red notification bubble sits there on my phone, the more inclined I am to ignore it. So I mark all my emails as “read,” then use an IFTTT trigger to remind me later of things that actually require a follow-up or my attention.
13. If things slip your mind, visual cues can help.
You know that mantra, “Out of sight, out of mind?” For people with ADHD, that’s pretty literal — to a fault. So it helps to stick things right in our own faces so that we can’t miss them. “When I was in college, I taped a postcard to my apartment door with the times I needed to leave by to make it to morning classes on time,” says Rebecca Eisenberg, Upworthy’s senior editor.
14. Work with your brain, not against it.
Do you tend to lose your keys in the bathroom? Then make a new home for them in the bathroom, where you’re already inclined to leave them. That way, they’re always there. Don’t fight your instincts. Use their momentum to your advantage. And on that note…
15. Embrace your idiosyncrasies and find a way to make them work for you.
Everyone’s brain is different. A lot of ADHDers need to figure out on our own what works for us, rather than having someone tell us what’s the “right” way to do things. For example: If someone else leaves me a list of instructions or things to do that’s organized by their mind, it only makes me frustrated and confused. I have to create my own to-do lists in my own way — even if it does take more time.
16. Take a break. Move around. Do a little dance.
Movement helps your brain work better. As tempting as it is to put the emphasis on measurable actions, it’s just as important to not do things and give yourself a chance to breathe. Sometimes a little distance can give you a lot of new perspective.
I use a portable adjustable standing desk and a pair of bluetooth headphones so that I can basically dance in place and write at the same time. My wife thinks I’m weird, but it works.
17. Know when to call it a day.
It’s important to accept when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Don’t be afraid to give your brain a rest, and come back to it fresh the next day. This’ll save you time in the long run too — because the more you power through your exhaustion, the longer it’ll take to recover.
18. Identity your flaws and strengths, and communicate them to others.
“My colleagues know that in exchange for tolerating all the things I do that make me less reliable, they get a guy who can think outside the box, that can create on the fly, that can wear many hats at once,” says Upworthy’s fearless editor-at-large, Adam Mordecai.
“They also know that if they want something from me, I’m far likelier to get it done if they ping me immediately on chat rather than on email. Let your peeps know how to get the most out of you.”
19. Keep your eye on the prize, but forgive yourself — and others.
Everyone’s fighting their own uphill battles, and you’re not going to get anything done if you’re too busy beating yourself up. (You’re not going to help anyone else be more productive if you externalize it and pick on them either.)
20. Set your goals, but stay flexible.
Maybe you didn’t get as much done today as you had hoped, but that’s OK. Regroup, come up with a new strategy, and try to figure out what went wrong so you can do it better next time. Which brings me to the last, and perhaps most important, lesson:
21. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
This is actually a quote from Samuel Beckett, but it also makes for an excellent productivity mantra. The bad parts and failures are inevitable, and you’ll never overcome them all. But that’s OK. Accept it, learn from it, and keep going anyway.
ADHDers understand one thing better than most people: Success is not a stationary target.
There’s no “one weird trick” that will actually bring you any closer to success.
Instead, the best we can hope for is to embrace ourselves for all our strengths and weaknesses, and keep finding things to work toward. Perhaps that’s a new business endeavor, 15 simultaneous hobbies, or simply remembering to put your underwear on before your pants.
If that last part is a measurable indication, then for me, today was an extraordinary success.