First Published: April 9, 2022 | Last Updated: April 9, 2022

The gist: ADHD productivity can be a constant struggle. But in the decade-plus since my diagnosis, I've found a few counterintuitive strategies that work.

I’ve spent my entire career adapting traditional productivity tips for neurodivergent brains.

Even if I didn’t always realize it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to keep up with my workload.

Whether it was juggling high school with part-time jobs and extracurriculars, balancing college with my first industry jobs, or managing a new career with chronic illness flare-ups, it’s always felt like I was a Stanford duck.

""Stanford duck syndrome." This phrase, which imagines students as placid-seeming ducks paddling strenuously beneath the water, is essentially a joke about isolated struggle in an atmosphere obsessed with performance." - How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell

And even though I was diagnosed with ADHD pretty early on that path and was on stimulant medication in college, I never fully considered how ADHD impacted my productivity.

When I first started writing about productivity in 2016, and then self-care and balance in 2017, it was always with the overarching message:

“The traditional advice doesn’t work for everyone. But we can adjust it to fit our lives, instead of the other way around.”

At the time, I’d yet to figure out why that advice didn’t work for me, or the people who joined the Work Brighter community.

Now, though, I’ve figured out that traditional work and productivity culture is neurotypical and ableist.

And while a full deep dive into that would be a (very long) essay of its own, today I want to talk about why ADHDers and other neurodivergent people struggle so much with productivity, and how we can struggle a little less.

Why ADHD brains struggle with productivity

Unfortunately, the skills required to effectively manage our workload (both at literal work and “work” in our personal lives) are some of the same skills ADHD makes it hard to cultivate.

For example, some symptoms of ADHD can include:

  • Poor control over our attention and focus
  • Smaller working memory capacity
  • Trouble starting or finishing projects or task
  • Poor time perception

And those are just the ones that most directly affect productivity.

But there are also indirect impacts.

For example, dealing with all of the above while trying to keep up with neurotypical peers can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Or rejection sensitive dysphoria when you need to talk to your boss or family about accommodations.

It’s all...a lot.

That’s why ADHDers need a different approach from all the “work smarter” tips out there.

We need to get a little more creative.

A little more colorful.

Working Smarter vs Brighter

We need to work brighter instead.

Here are some ways you can start.

10 ADHD productivity tips to work brighter

Remember to be realistic

All humans, neurodiversity aside, have such a tendency to overestimate how much we can do that it’s an official cognitive fallacy with a name and everything: the planning fallacy.

a phenomenon where humans - like all of us, a lot of the time - underestimate or are overly optimistic about how long things take when planning. first observed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1977

There are lots of reasons for it, including:

  • We’re bad at keeping time in our heads
  • We often don’t actually know how long a specific task takes
  • We tend to be overly optimistic about time and how often we’ll face best-case scenarios

And most of those reasons are exacerbated even further when you have ADHD. We deal with time blindness, get distracted in the middle of a task, etc.

So what can we do about it? There's lots of options.

First, try and remember this tendency towards the planning fallacy.

(I know, easier said than done.)

After I write my to-do list every day, before I put it down and get to work, I force myself to look it over and ask, “can I REALLY do this?” And if not, I’ll cross something out to do another day.

Second, try to conduct occasional time audits or time studies so you can learn how long different tasks actually take you.

This gives you more accurate information to plan around in the first place.

Understand how you really spend your time

You can't manage your time better if you don't even know how you manage it now. That's why improving your productivity needs to start with a time audit. Try our free worksheet to help guide you through a time audit of your own!

Make things fun

It took me a long time to accept that seeking pleasure, novelty, and whimsy isn't “childish,” it's a way of managing neurodivergence and ADHD.

We’re often told that learning to “suck it up” and do boring things is just part of adulthood, but it’s part of neurotypical adulthood.

Our brains often hate being bored too much for that to be possible (although you can learn to like boredom more).

Being bored gives us the space to ask “What if” That’s an essential question regarding not only any creative endeavor but also our emotional health and personal growth.

But unfortunately, we still usually need to get those boring things done.

So instead of wasting energy trying to “suck it up,” spend that energy figuring out a way to inject fun into those things.

For you, maybe that means practicing first pancake productivity, where you build momentum with easy and fun tasks before moving onto harder ones.

Maybe it’s by using gamification, whether through official gamification tools or just by issuing yourself a “challenge” or “quest” with a reward at the end.

Or maybe it’s as simple as putting on energizing music while you do it (this is the only way I’m able to clean sometimes!).

Design intentional spaces

Next, our environments have a huge impact on our productivity and how often we get pulled to distractions.

Once you’re aware of this, you can use it to your advantage.

To design your work spaces (whether they’re at a literal office or at home, physical or digital) to encourage the activities you want to do more of, and help you forget about the things you want to do less of.

In habit building and behavior science, this is called “choice architecture.”

For example, I always keep my Kindle on my nightstand when I’m sleeping, so that it’s as easy to reach for as my phone when I wake up. Because I’d love to read more and scroll social less.

I also keep notebooks and paper everywhere I sit regularly, so I can capture any ideas and process them later.

Finally, I also keep hand lotion everywhere! There’s a bottle in every room, a tube in every bag, etc. because my hands are ridiculously dry and I need it to be easier to build a hand skincare habit.

(Because yes, skincare can be productive.)

You want to make the good choices easy, along with fun.

Remember to build in buffer time

In addition to planning for underestimating how long tasks take, it can be a good idea to plan on underestimating how long switching tasks takes.

Sure, in theory, switching from answering emails to answering Twitter DMs is as simple as changing browser tabs.

But in reality, you’re probably going to scroll the home feed, trending topics, and your notifications before making your way over to the DMs tab.

Instead of fighting or denying that reality, plan for it.

When you’re planning your days and weeks and figuring out how much work you have capacity for, plan on including around 10% of the original tasks’s time as wind-up and wind-down time.

You’ll thank yourself later for setting aside time for bathroom breaks, snacks, pausing your brain, stretching your body, and letting yourself get distracted now and then.

Break things down instead of batching them

In the traditional productivity space, batching gets so. much. hype. I like to say it treats batching like a bandaid for every type of wound, even if it’s a bullet hole.

But batching as many things as possible requires long periods of sustained focus, which us neurodivergent folk don’t often have.

So we need to tread carefully with batching tasks.

bad batching only leads to burnout quote

For example, if you deal with anxiety (which a lot of us do), batching emails has been proven to increase stress more than just answering one or two at a time.

Since we can get stressed out or overwhelmed more easily than our neurotypical friends, breaking things down into smaller parts will usually help us more than lumping them together into bigger ones.

Do braindumps regularly

Regular dumps are really important. I’m talking about brain dumps, of course. 🙃

The inside of a neurodivergent brain is...chaotic.

I imagine it’s like a cluttered page of doodles after a really long and boring meeting. Or one of those heavily collaged walls in a cool bar.

But brain dumps help to untangle the chaos.

The analogies of “mind like water” and “clearing your mind” from the book Getting Things Done helped me understand how and why making lists seemed to help me think so much.

Whether it’s in-the-moment capturing of a nagging thought, or a list made using braindump triggers, getting things onto paper helps get them off your mind.

Find the right tools and systems for you

There are thousands of productivity apps. Hundreds of productivity books. Dozens of productivity methods.

That gives us a LOT of options to try on for a right-fit.

Explore your different choices. Take what works for you and forget what doesn’t.

The right combination of tools and tactics for you will depend on your life and which ADHD symptoms you struggle with most.

I like to say that while no tools are right for everyone, there are right tools for everyone.

But some of the options that help lots of ADHDers include:

  • The Getting Things Done methodology mentioned above, for it’s rethinking of workflows and managing attention
  • Bullet journaling, which was created by a fellow ADHDer to manage his own life
  • Notion, which is the productivity app that I think most emulates bullet journaling

So they might be good choices to try first, but make sure to focus on what works for you.

Banish productivity hangovers with energy management

Tracking and managing your energy can straight-up change your life, without having to change much at all (no ridiculous productivity hacks needed!)

By better understanding your natural energy, peak hours, and existing habits, you can take advantage of it all to unlock new levels of productivity. 

Get started today with my free energy management tracker! 

Leverage body doubling for accountability

Another great way to help you stay focused can be body doubling, also called coworking or accountability buddies.

Body doubling is when you have someone else with you, either physically or virtually, whose job is to help you stay on task for a focus session.

It can work because sometimes just having someone nearby, knowing what we’re supposed to be doing, is just enough pressure to keep engaged in a task.

It’s enough to get us going, but not so much pressure that we’ll buckle under it.

They can also help you with the task if you need support or just a sounding board to bounce thoughts off of.

And you can use body doubling or coworking for any type of task, not just working. 

I often bring my partner along with me as an “errand buddy” to stores I tend to get distracted at. I’ve also called a friend and asked them to stay on the phone with me until I’m finished tidying up the room.

We even host virtual coworking in our community for anyone who wants to try body doubling but doesn’t know who they would do it with.

Remember to rest

Finally, don’t forget to rest. I know, so much simpler than it sounds.

You cannot work well without resting well.

Things like hyperfocus, deep thinking, and even daydreaming all take substantial amounts of energy.

Brains use a lot of energy. And with ADHD, ours never turn off.

Try to practice energy management and remember to balance all of that expenditure with rejuvenation.

Work brighter, not smarter

Overall, the biggest ADHD productivity tip is to ignore the traditional best practices.

I always like to say that the rulebook of working smarter is from a workforce most of us wouldn’t have been allowed into.

It’s from the days when knowledge workers or office workers were almost all straight, white, able-bodied and -brained men.

The days of the office looking like that are long gone, and its time to get rid of work norms from the era as well.

Stop trying to work smarter, and work brighter instead.

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