Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

I Have ADHD. Here Are 9 Productivity Tips That Really Help Me

Tips and tricks I use daily.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Jaroszpilewski/Getty Images

Even before I was diagnosed with ADHD, the question “have you tried writing a list?” would set me on edge. I’m all for innovative productivity hacks, and for well-meaning neurotypical people, getting something done can often be as easy as writing a list, but as Edward Hallowell, M.D., psychiatrist and ADHD expert tells SELF, things aren’t that simple for people with ADHD—which, by the way, includes him: “Most of the organizational strategies we implement fail because they’re boring,” he says. And people with ADHD, he explains, cannot tolerate boredom. That intolerance leads to “supercharged version of procrastination, to the point of jeopardizing work and relationships.”

I use many of these ADHD-specific tricks and strategies to help me overcome the struggles—and also make the most of the benefits—of this neurodevelopmental disorder, but they’re not necessarily just for people with ADHD. You might find these tips more helpful than ever right now as most of us are dealing with some pretty big changes to our routines since the coronavirus pandemic. Since some of us have new day-to-day and work environments, it’s a great time to integrate some tips and tricks that can help you focus.

1. Make the first thing you do each day something relaxing and pleasurable.

Dr. Hallowell describes the dread for many people with ADHD of getting started on work or a project as a “colossal boulder of negative thinking.” The good news, he says, is that “you can turn that boulder into a pebble” with some smart strategies, especially ones that directly address that cycle of negative thinking.

If you don’t already, start your day with something pleasurable to attenuate the dread. It could be a nice breakfast—I like a healthy porridge with berries and seeds—some morning exercise, or a video chat with a friend or colleague to help you get fired up about your project or task. I keep a “Nice Things” folder on my phone, where I paste any kind responses to articles and compliments about my work from colleagues. It’s really useful to read through on mornings when I want to start by reminding myself that I can accomplish anything.

2. Break down your tasks into tiny subtasks.

Once you’re ready to get started, start small. Like, very small. You can make just about any project more manageable by chunking it out into smaller components and setting yourself deadlines for each of those parts.

And I’m talking about setting a really low bar to just get yourself started, so one tiny task can be “open the document” or “do 10 minutes of research.”

You can also lean on apps like Things or Todoist to help you structure your tasks and projects. I use Google Keep’s checklist because it feels satisfying to check things off.

3. And make sure your first tiny task is one that you have a 100% chance of succeeding at.

Susan C. Pinsky is a professional organizer and author of Organizing Solutions for People With ADHD. She recommends organizing your day’s tasks intentionally so that when you need a win, there’s one right there waiting for you. “Try to structure your workday so you do the easiest thing first,” she says. “You’re already giving yourself a success. You’ve accomplished something, and now that big thing that sits in front of you isn’t so overwhelming.” Ceremoniously crossing something off my to-do list gives me a bit of a buzz and helps me move on to the next thing.

4. For every item on your to-do list, quickly jot down why it’s a priority.

The things that motivate neurotypical people don’t always work for people with ADHD. As Dr. Hallowell explains, motivation can be hard to come by, especially for tasks that are intrinsically boring, tedious, or uninteresting. Just because you know you have to get something done doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be motivated to actually do it. One thing that helps me is making sure I know exactly why I need to complete a task. I write a quick note to myself for these kinds of tasks, but you can also schedule a quick catch-up with a coworker or supervisor to give yourself a refresher on why something needs to be completed. My other go-to strategy: I will often condense an email or project brief into bullet points and paste them at the top of whatever document I’m working on so I don’t forget any essential tasks or priorities.

5. Overestimate how long tasks will take.

Having a fundamentally different sense of time—specifically not being able to estimate and record the passing of time—is part of many people’s experience of ADHD. When their perception of time differs from the neurotypical-based deadlines and timelines most people are required to stick to, people with ADHD can find themselves struggling. Dr. Hallowell explains that for many people with ADHD, there’s “now” and “not now.” When, for example, a paper is due next Thursday, a person with ADHD might tag that as “not now” and put it on the back burner until it’s too late to get it done in time. All of a sudden “now” is almost here and you’re panicking.

For Pinsky, the solution to this is to overestimate how long things will take. “If you think each of these jobs is going to take an hour, I would schedule two for each of them.” Building a gentle disaster mindset can help you have some margins in case things run over.

I’ve found that having an analog clock helps me perceive time passing; set alarms on your phone, reminders for appointments and meetings before they start. Remember those big tasks you chunked out? You can set those in your phone or calendar too; it’s how I avoid any deadline disasters.

6. Find ways to make boring tasks novel and fun.

Again, when a task isn’t intrinsically rewarding, it can be difficult for people with ADHD to feel motivated to do it. For Dr. Hallowell, a balance of fun is key to staying on task. “[Combine] situations that are highly structured and full of novelty and stimulation. Too much structure and it gets boring, too much novelty and it’s confusing.”

Make the most of this need for stimulation by writing your to-do list down using colorful (and therefore visually stimulating) pens and paper, or as Pinsky advises, keeping a selection of Post-its in your workspace and around the house. “Write [your task] on a colorful Post-it and slap it on the door. That way, tomorrow when you leave the house, that Post-it is staring you right in the face. The key is to have a variety of those colors, because if it’s always the same color, your eye isn’t going to see it,” she says.

You can also introduce novelty by varying your work environment. Try booking out a meeting room for two hours or visiting a café in the morning to get through tedious emails and admin work. I like to work in quiet libraries, but you can opt to change things up in other ways. I like to speed up boring tasks by listening to a podcast while I do them, or draw out a colorful checklist for repetitive tasks so I can clearly see my progress while also injecting some festivity into my day.

7. Get strategic about minimizing distractions.

Having ADHD can already mean that you have problems focusing so added distractions can be debilitating to people with ADHD. “[If someone with ADHD] gets distracted by something, they have to come back and start again, it may take them three or four or five rounds to actually complete the task,” Pinsky says. That’s multiple times of going through the stress of beginning the task, so the task itself becomes incredibly difficult to complete.

There are products and apps out there that can really help you reduce (or simply avoid) distractions in your environment. Noise-cancelling headphones have been a total lifesaver for me. I also use Strict Workflow on my laptop, which blocks social media for 25 minutes at a time. After 25 minutes an alarm rings, which means it’s time for a five-minute break so I can look at social media if I want to. Using this app has really helped minimize social media as a distraction. I also listen to Brain.FM, which is music that is supposedly engineered to help you focus, and you can try it out for free. I find that the ambient, lyric-free music keeps my brain occupied enough while working that I don’t need to seek out other distractions. The combination of the two is usually a great way for me to kick-start getting into the rhythm of my work.

8. Find someone who’s willing to be your accountability partner.

After removing all those distractions and maybe even removing yourself from environments where lots of people and/or chitchat is happening, you might start to feel isolated. It’s still important to stay connected, as Dr. Hallowell explains. “You really need to work with a team, you have to get encouragement, don’t isolate yourself. It can be anybody, a teacher, a spouse, a dog, any form of positive connection.” And the good news is that you can do all this using the internet so you don’t even have to worry about compromising your social distancing just to get some time with someone.

If something is a huge pain point, such as sitting down to pay your bills, ask a friend or partner if they want to meet up virtually and pay bills together. As a kid I got my sister to sit in my room when I was trying to have a tidying session; if I stopped she’d start singing loudly! We can’t do that together right now, but we can certainly do it over FaceTime!

Depending on your workplace, you might also be able to lean on coworkers, telling them you’ll send a draft or provide a project update by a specific deadline. If that doesn’t feel appropriate, you can ask a friend to be a deadline stand-in, letting them know you’ll send them a screengrab of your progress on a project by a certain deadline. I’ll sometimes talk through the steps in a project or bigger task with a friend to make sure I’m on the right track and have broken it down enough.

9. Schedule a “should-less” day regularly.

Let’s be real, living with ADHD can be exhausting at times. It’s great to strategize and maximize your productivity, but you also want to avoid burnout. Make sure you’re scheduling time—maybe a weekend day, if possible—where you don’t have anything scheduled and you can just be guided by your desires and energy levels.

I take a “should-less” day every now and then; it’s a great way to recharge my batteries. It doesn’t mean I don’t do anything, but it removes the stress of having anything hanging over me. On that day, I don’t schedule anything. Instead, I let my instincts guide me throughout the day. I might sleep in, read a book for an afternoon, or take a walk. I’ll also go back to my older routine of visiting my ceramics studio or meeting up with a friend for brunch. I’m so often hypervigilant about letting people down with my ADHD forgetfulness, should-less days help me have a break from accountability for a bit.

Isabelle O’Carroll is a writer who darts between lifestyle, food, drink and ADHD; she has written for Bon Appetit, Grazia, Refinery29 and guardian.com. A native Londoner, Isabelle makes ceramics on the side and also has a food memoir newsletter, The Heart of Eating.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for SELF

This post originally appeared on SELF and was published March 18, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the best in wellness from the editors of SELF.

sign me up!