For someone with ADHD there is literally nothing worse than having to do something. The pressure is excruciating and when combined with some sort of routine repetitive task, it’s anathema. We delay getting started which leads to an accumulation of half-done or undone tasks.
Why lists fail
I’ve always been envious of colleagues who go about their work day with a list of items to be ticked off.
The pleasure they get in crossing off the things they’ve done is palpable. Whether I speak only for myself or for other people with ADHD, I swear that I’ve never experienced a moment of satisfaction from crossing anything from a list.
There are also additional problems with lists when you have ADHD anyway. Firstly, you’ll forget to write one. Secondly, you’ll forget where you put it if you did write one and thirdly, you’ll leave the house without your list and so on and so on. So, if I ever get to the point of being able to cross something off a list there are always about three mini traumas that lie behind me reaching that point. In terms of a cost-benefit opportunity—lists are so out for me!
Yes, I can hyperfocus
Fortunately, those of us who live with ADHD do have the ability to hyperfocus. If a task is new, or interesting, or something to be learned we *might* set about it with immediacy and urgency. Sadly, no one can guarantee when and how we’ll enter a hyperfocus state but the good work we can do when it does show up will, in my experience, far outweigh the outstanding tasks and delays that have bogged us down.
I mean I’ve never actually left a job because my non-existent ‘To Do’ List was too long but the number of times I felt like it has been innumerable. Even if, as many people with ADHD do, I want to set up my own business, my productivity and subsequent success or failure will be linked to my ability to make money. Whichever way you cut it and even if productivity is a dirty word as a person with ADHD, you still need to find a way to get things done.
How my brain works
For me, the main strategy is understanding how my brain works. ADHD means we are short of dopamine for complicated neurochemical reasons but I won’t go into here. Suffice to say it’s to do with neurotransmitters. So basically, my brain, and yours if you have ADHD, needs dopamine here more often than the regular Joe who’s happy carrying out their tasks so that at the end of the day they can tick things off the list.
Essentially, you need to become a dopamine-seeking device. Any task, even an old task, can become novel to your brain if it’s been on furlough for a bit. I’ve therefore adopted what I call the carousel method to getting things done. Some might think it’s a bit of a plate spinning method too, but I’d hotly deny that because with the carousel method if things get left for a while, nothing falls to the floor and smashes to smithereens.
The carousel method
Don’t put anything you really want to do onto the carousel. And don’t put anything that’s got a close deadline (like tomorrow) on there either. Everything else can go on the carousel. The way it works is you just spin it and do the task that you find in front of you. Work on that for a bit until the dopamine is no more and then spin it again.
In between spinning the carousel of tasks, work on the things you want to. Get snacks, do a little exercise, and have a cuppa. Switch tasks frequently and often. I try to switch as soon as I feel my brain starting to feel sludgy. I spin the carousel, pick up something I was working on before (you will be really surprised about what your brain forgets you were working on) and off you go again.
I reckon I can do something boring for 10 minutes max. That’s why the Pomodoro method doesn’t work too well for me—because I can never reliably reach the 25-minute minimum. The carousel method doesn’t need pesky timers either. You just work on the item until you feel super meh about doing it, and then you stop and do something else. If you want to work, spin the carousel. If you’ve earned a break, take it. And in that way, productivity happens with minimum pain. The problem is, this technique mostly works for knowledge workers. Other jobs might not have the flexibility sadly.
The way forward
Being trapped in the wrong job with ADHD is a nightmare. I know. I’ve been there. From my experience, the carousel method of working is definitely the way forward for people with ADHD. It’s a clever way to get things done with fewer feelings of stress and being overwhelmed.
Jessica Russell is a freelance writer. ADHD, PhD research student and educator.