getting tasks done with adhd

something that has always bothered me about my executive dysfunction—and which preventing me from accepting that there was an issue rather than just laziness on my part—is that I do not often struggle to complete tasks, no matter how difficult… but I always struggle to start them. (this is especially the case during bipolar downswings, where motivation is at its lowest and nothing seems rewarding enough to bribe myself with.)

my struggle with task initiation is not unique among fellow ADHD peeps, I have learned; in fact, there are many articles describing it and giving tips. however, I have found that years of maladaptive behaviors on my part mean that some of those tips do not work for me—so I figured I would share what does work! while I used my personal examples for each of these, I have also seen some of my students be successful with these… but, as with everything, YMMV!

*designate time for chores/repeating tasks – this one is a double-edged sword but, when it works, it works super well! some people recommend that you schedule things on your calendar, but I have found that I tend to not hold myself accountable to anything on my calendar that doesn’t involve someone else. instead, I have found that it helps to have days on which I do things—aka routines. so I have themed my whole week after work: I do laundry on Sundays, I meal prep on Mondays, I catch up on TV shows and pop culture on Tuesdays, I get to chill and do movie night with the fam on Wednesdays, I read for class and write discussion board posts on Thursday, I plan for next week and take a relaxing bath/spa shower on Friday, and then I rest and do fun things on Saturday. this routine also helps keep me accountable, as other people know what needs to get done when.

HOWEVER, it becomes extremely easy to not do a thing if the conditions are not ideal on its day. for example, my roommate M used to do one quick load of laundry on Sunday mornings while I would be out tutoring. it did not impede my ability to do my own laundry at all. yet when I would get home, my brain would go “it’s M’s laundry day, not yours, guess you have to wait!” and I would find it basically impossible to get my laundry started. this would go for weeks until I was literally out of clothing, and then I’d tell M to skip a weekend of laundry so I could catch up—and we’ve literally been doing that in repeating cycles for the four years we’ve lived together. once I figured out why it was an issue for me and communicated, however, she does her laundry on Saturday whether I’m doing laundry on Sunday or not, and I have run out of excuses to do the laundry. 🙂

*list out and gather the essentials – a lot of recommendations say that you should be prepared, which I agree with, but I find that “get what you need” easily turns into “well, I need seventeen pens for grading and they need to be in rainbow order before I can begin to do aaaaanything else.” so, when trying to get started with grading, I would make a quick list of what I need—grading roster, pencil case with many-colored pens, any physical student work turned in, Google Classroom open on my computer—and then, as soon as I get those things, I jump in because I have what I actually need. this also works when it comes to selecting essential information. for my classes, I’d take a look at the assignment requirements and focus on reading only what is necessary to complete that assignment before switching gears to writing—otherwise, I’d make my way through the whole syllabus and 20 supplementary articles and still not feel ready or inspired enough.

*commit to doing one initial step – going back to the laundry example, I find that all I need to do to actually get laundry started is to start sorting the laundry. so I’ll tell myself, “I’m just going to pull out the laundry hamper from the closet,” and then once I’ve done that I’ll say, “I might as well sort it and then put the hamper away”—and once the piles of dirty laundry are on the floor in the hallway, I will absolutely do them just to get them out of the way. I have now started doing this for putting the laundry away, which is the toughest thing for me to commit to doing! I’ll tell myself, “I should just sort the laundry into categories” (which I do either right as they come out of the drawer OR at the end of all the washing—I’ll just have piles on the bed!). once the clothes are sorted, it’s easy to say, “I’ll just hang up the dresses right quick,” and then it’s “well, I should finishing hanging up anything else that goes in the closet,” and then it’s “all the socks and underwear will take just a second to throw in the drawer,” and then all I have left are house clothes and t-shirts, and I can just toss those in their respective drawers.

*aim for completing the task this sounds a little silly and even counter to what I said in the last bullet point, but bear with me! the most important thing I have been told recently is that “done is better than perfect.” this mantra has quite literally changed my life; instead of abandoning tasks when they don’t go according to plan or being paralyzed about starting them because I fear the result won’t be perfect, I’m giving myself permission to half-ass things when I need to. so going back to the laundry example (can you tell yesterday was laundry day?), depending on my level of energy, I might go full Marie Kondo and fold my clothes carefully and slide them into the drawers in an organized fashion—but, most of the time, what I need is to put the damn clothes away even if they’re messy. I’ve culled my clothes enough that most of my drawers are not full, so searching through them isn’t difficult, and I do try to at least fold most of the stuff in a way that makes it easy to pick it out later. the only issue with this system is that I have 20+ black t-shirts—but I have learned to celebrate the adventure and just wear whichever black shirt I unearth when I reach into the drawer.

*set yourself up for success in upcoming tasks – this is waaaaaay easier if you have routines, but I have been working on doing little things like making sure I have my protein in the fridge by Saturday night so it’s fully defrosted before meal prep on Monday, or selecting my outfit the night before so that I am not paralyzed by decision-making in the morning. when I used to wear pants to work every day, I even themed my outfits per day of the week so that it was easier to pick outfits (school gear on Monday, patterns on Tuesday, sweaters on Wednesday, solids on Thursday, t-shirts on Friday… and no, I’m not even joking). this might also mean having designated spaces both for storing and doing things so you don’t waste time looking for materials—and so you learn to associate spaces with their tasks. so obviously cooking happens in the kitchen, no issues there, but I associate the alcove next to my bedroom with laundry and my corner of the table with writing. I also take time every day (either morning or evening, depending on when I did it the previous day) to reexamine my to-do list and rearrange/consolidate/add items as necessary so that I can be more productive once I am actually doing things. I actually purchased a mobile app (CalenGoo) to help me manage my tasks since I use Google Calendar… and I often do this on my phone while brushing my teeth or doing my first/last Tumblr scroll for the day.

*give yourself the right amount of time to complete the task – now, this will vary quite widely person-to-person, and I do think this one is the toughest one—but it really helps keep my focus on whatever the task is if I have a finite amount of time to complete it. (for complex tasks, it helps to have finite amounts of time per each step.) for example, I put away all my laundry in a record 45 minutes yesterday because I knew I needed an hour to write my paper and I had an hour and 45 minutes before the paper was due. because I know that I can average 3-4 pages of academic writing an hour, I will usually give myself an hour and a half for a 3-5 page paper so the looming deadline can keep me focused—but, of course, I will have done the prep ahead of time so the document is set up, the abstract is writing, the reading has been done, and the quotes have been selected, so I can just crank out the writing right quick. if I have too much time to do something, I’ll just waste time—and if I don’t have enough time, I’ll shut down and won’t even try. it’s been a trial-and-error process to figure out my timings, and I do always give myself an extra 15-30 minutes per hour for a task for my inevitable gazillion bathroom breaks and conversations with the fam, but having strict time boundaries really helps me with the completing of tasks.

and that’s that for now! I’m off to cross this off my to-do list and move on to the next item! stay tuned for weekly updates, a post-Passover reflection, birthday thoughts, and my 30 for 30 list… all coming up this week!

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