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Navigating the ADHD Mind: Strategies for Improved Productivity and Attention As an Adult

Updated: Apr 13

One thing that has astonished and pained me in my work as a therapist is how poorly understood neurodivergence is--by therapists and the general public alike. A lot of my work, by coincidence and by choice, has been working with ADHDers, Autistic persons, and people with trauma symptoms. Suffice it to say, I like working with neurodiverse people.


l also realized as an adult (and by taking a deep dive into my childhood), that I have ADHD. And for today, I want to talk ADHD-hacks. There are countless ways we can use hacks to amplify our strengths and make up for things we struggle with. This is just a bit of what works for me.


Here's the thing, any ADHD-friendly hack has to account for these

  • Our dopamine-deficiency (really, it's a regulation issue, but generally we do run low of this guy!) Dopamine helps us focus, and we get it when we accomplish something, look forward to something, or are interested in something.

  • Our poor working memory. That is, we can't generally keep a bunch of things in our mind at once, like a long list of tasks to do. Things like visuals tend to help.

  • Our difficulty planning/organizing. We need to break things down and focus on one thing at a time.


First, allow me to share the voice of a fellow ADHDer.



You can adapt a lot of his hacks to fit your own needs.


Now, on to some more tips!


Rewards, Rewards, Rewards!

When I was in college I would be almost brought to tears with how hard it was for me to read my textbooks. Scratch that... I'll actually admit I did cry... a lot. Not because I have trouble reading, but because for as long as I can remember I was a slow reader in class because I would get distracted and need to re-read if the reading was boring.


Then, I saw a Tumblr post (I know... aging myself) recommending that I give myself a skittle for every page read. I chose Reese's Pieces, but the outcome was the same. Instead of dreading the entire book chapter, all I had to do was finish one page and I'd get a reward!


Rewards can be small like a Skittle or even just the satisfaction of crossing something off your to-do list. It can be listening to your favorite song, whatever, so long as it gives you happiness and does not take too long. Don't take a trip to the beach just because you read a page in your book.


Break tasks up into smaller ones, and reward yourself for each small task:

  • Instead of putting "finish essay" on your to-do list, add several tasks to the list (ie. introduction paragraph, body paragraph 1, body paragraph 2, conclusion) and celebrate mentally when crossing off each one!

  • Instead of "clean kitchen," write a list with the different tasks (ie. put away clean dishes, wash dirty dishes, clean sink, clean stove, organize fridge, etc), reward yourself with your favorite show afterwards, a fun song while you clean, etc!


Rewards can be bigger for bigger tasks. For example:

  • When I finish my essay, I'll watch my favorite show for one episode.

  • When I finsih my workout, I'll make my favorite smoothie.

  • When I finish my laundry, I'll take my dog for a walk.


Maybe you can pair a desirable task with a non-desirable one:

  • I'll move my favorite pillow and blanket to my desk, so I'll want to study longer.

  • I'll play my favorite show while folding laundry.

  • I'll play my favorite music while cleaning.


Make Things Fun and Interesting

Get your dopamine going!


Examples:

  • I have been making monthly Bingo cards for miscellaneous tasks I need to get done. Let me tell you, I hate cleaning toilets but I'll do it if it gets me Bingo.

  • Have cleaning video call dates. One of my friends who lives on far away will often get on FaceTime with me when we both need to clean. We'll catch up while cleaning, so two birds, one stone!


Make Your Environment Work For You (When You Can)

Out of sight, out of mind. So, if it's in your sight, it will be on your mind.


Examples:


I like journaling but often forget my journal exists. On days when I think it is important to journal, I often leave my journal on top of my bed, so I have to pick it up before going to bed. Does it "work" every time, in the sense that I journal every time I leave it out? No. Do I journal more than I would otherwise? Yes. Progress isn't linear for neurodivergent brains.


Do you tend to let food go bad in the fridge? Consider putting those things in more center-view and putting other items in drawers. (ex. If you tend to let apples go bad, but you always go for your hot sauce... put the hot sauce in a drawer and put the apples at eye level!)


When I need to bring something with me somewhere, I have often put my car keys on top of the item. (ex. If I need to bring my personal laptop to work, I put it under my keys). That way, I know I will remember it because I will need to get my keys. I'll sometimes even wrap my keys on the fridge door if I need to take something that needs to be refrigerated.


Sticky notes, phone reminders, alarms, etc. also work, too!


Cultivate Mental Habits

There are some mental habits that you may need to cultivate.


Do it or schedule it now. You will forget!! That's okay, but do something about it for your own sake! This may mean doing it right away or scheduling out time to do it. Sometimes, Siri is my best friend. I talk to her all the time: "Hey Siri, remind me when I get home to defrost chicken." "Hey Siri, text Happy Birthday! to ____." "Hey Siri, remind me in an hour to respond to work emails." "Hey Siri, add hot sauce to my shopping list."


Check your surroundings. Look behind you when you leave. (Guess how many times I've left my car keys somewhere on the seat where I was sitting. One million times.) Look around your desk when packing up. Do a scan of your room before leaving for work. It just takes a minute, but forgetting things like your keys, phone, or wallet can make opportunities to waste a lot of time!


Tell yourself later, not always no. Sometimes I just put too much on my plate, as do many ADHDers. Now I keep a running list of "things that would be cool." So I can keep focused on things I need to do while also letting myself pursue things that interest me when I have time. I want to learn to code, but now probably isn't the time. It's on my list, so I'm gonna do it... just not now.


Mindfulness

ADHDers, you're gonna get distracted. Non-ADHDers will, too! It's all about noticing you're distracted, not judging yourself, and redirecting back. Practicing mindfulness is as simple as just trying to pull your full attention into one thing and giving yourself the grace when you get distracted.


For more on mindfulness, see these two DBT skills: What and How





Breathing Exercises

Some studies show that breathing exercises can be helpful in managing ADHD. Click here for a list of breathing exercises.

Here's one:



 

ADHDer or not, I hope some of my tips get you thinking on how you can adapt your life to fit your needs!

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