In this post I want to share with you my top 10 ADHD productivity tips.
Staying productive and getting your tasks done is already hard for a lot of people. If you have ADHD, it’s even harder. I personally spent a lot of time wrestling through my struggles, trying to get it down.
I tried a lot of different things, but a lot of them didn’t help me at all. It also probably didn’t help that I didn’t know I had ADHD at all until just over a year ago.
In a way, learning that I had ADHD made it a lot harder in the beginning. Because now I had this thing hanging over me, a sort of confirmation that I was impaired. But eventually, after a long year of trying many, many things, I found out that instead of working against it, you can work with it!
And even if you don’t have ADHD, I’m sure you’ll find these tips helpful!
Note: if you’re specifically struggling with ADHD, it might help to read my full-length article on what it is and how it works here first!
1. Live your life so you never have to do much
This is probably the most impactful, most important, and most powerful of my ADHD productivity tips.
I swear that no other tip has ever had such an overwhelming impact on my life. It has truly changed my life tremendously.
I know that might sound like I’m trying to reel you in with sensational descriptions, but I am dead serious.
This life-changing advice came to me through James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits. I can recommend that book to anyone, and it’s honestly become the most important self-help book I’ve got on my shelf.
But here’s the thing: I hate taking time to clean, wash, or tidy up. I really hate it. As soon as ‘tidying up location X’ became an actual task on the list, I’d hate it.
Don’t get me wrong, I like having cleaned and tidied up, but I detest the process of doing it.
To fix this, you have to take a look at the kind of person you are and the kind of person you’d want to be.
In Atomic Habits, James describes how much impact the way you live your life can have on how you have to live your life. If that sounds strange, bear with me.
Don’t be someone who tidies up, be someone who doesn’t have to tidy up
That’s it. That’s all of it. That right there is the best advice I have.
If you’re like me, and you hate having to clean or tidy up, just make sure you don’t create anything you have to clean or tidy up. Instead of being a person who makes a mess, be someone who doesn’t make a mess.
Look to the future. What kind of person do you want to be? Someone who keeps creating a mess but cleans it up every time? Or someone who doesn’t even make a mess in the first place?
Because if you don’t make a mess, you’ll never have to tidy up ever again.
So how do you become someone who doesn’t make a mess?
The short answer is deceptively simple: do everything immediately. There’s only one ‘now’, and there’s a whole lot of ‘later’. Especially if you have trouble finding a cue to do something (one of my biggest pitfalls), there’s only one cue you need: now.
As soon as you tell yourself you’re doing it later, you’re forcing yourself to have to pick a moment later on to do the thing. And in my experience, that often comes far later than I’d want to.
Tell yourself it’s truly now or never. There is no ‘later’. There is no ‘after’. You won’t be getting back to it if you don’t do it now. So you’re doing it now. End of story.
The practical application
If you unpack something, throw away the packaging immediately, before you get started with the thing you unpacked.
For example, if you finish the bag of chips, put it in the trash can immediately before sitting down to eat. The same goes for any trash you create while cooking.
If you’ve used something, and you’re done with it, put it away immediately. Don’t let anything be anywhere else than its proper place if it’s not in use.
For example, if you’re working on an arts project, it’s fine if your scissors stay on your desk while you’re at it. But if you just had to cut out a coupon, you shouldn’t leave your scissors on the desk, but put them back in their proper place straight away.
Just put everything in its proper place as soon as possible, as soon as it’s not in use anymore.
Avoid getting water, dirt, oil, or other stuff on the outside or underside of things. Stop that drop of olive oil from sliding all the way down to the bottom. That way, you won’t create an oil ring on every surface you place that bottle on.
Avoid putting anything with residue on its outside on another surface. Water can often be fine, especially in the kitchen, but remember that whatever’s on the outside of something will transfer to anything you set it down on.
If it can’t be avoided, put it back in the same place every time so there’s only one dirty spot.
How it changed my life
My desk used to be a hotbed of clutter and trash piling up. It forced me to turn ‘tidying up the desk’ into a task, one that I always dreaded and always postponed and put off.
It was such a daunting task every time that I didn’t get round to doing it for days, weeks, months at a time.
But now? Now I haven’t had to tidy up my desk for over two months. For over two months, my desk has remained tidy, and I’ve never had to take time to tidy it up once.
Simply because I put everything back in its proper place as soon as I’m done using it.
Eventually it changed the way my mind looks at my surfaces. Now, every single item that’s on my desk that’s not supposed to be there triggers me. It actually bothers me.
The thing is, if your desk is already full of clutter, what would one more piece of clutter matter? It’s so easy to just drop something else there, because it’s already a mess.
But if your desk is tidy, every single thing that’s out of place stands out. And if you train yourself to fix that thing immediately, or at least as soon as possible, you won’t have to tidy ever again. Not a day in your life.
And in those places where dirt and residue unavoidably accumulate anyway? Wipe them down preferably right after the mess was made. Then it doesn’t feel like you have to take time to clean it up, because it’s only one thing.
Be someone who doesn’t let clutter or dirt accumulate, and you’ll never have to tidy or clean ever again.
Do it now, and you’ll thank yourself (and maybe me and James Clear) later.
2. Don’t eat the ugly frog first
Quite often you’ll read the productivity advice ‘eat the frog first’ or ‘eat the ugly frog first’, referring to this quote by Mark Twain:
Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.Mark Twain
In one way this is solid advice. If you make sure you do the most unpleasant and most uncomfortable thing first, everything else will be easier. And if you continue down that line, your tasks during the day will get progressively easier and easier.
But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t work as well for people with ADHD.
The reason is that this method relies on a huge amount of self-discipline and the ability to get yourself into action. And if you have ADHD, you’re more likely to have trouble getting yourself to start on a task due to our insufficient dopamine levels.
In my experience, trying to eat the ugliest frog first just led to me doing nothing all day. Because I couldn’t get myself to do that unpleasant thing, and I didn’t allow myself to do anything else either. I didn’t allow myself to bypass and avoid it.
So at the end of the day I would have accomplished nothing, felt terrible about myself, and I hadn’t even done that one unpleasant thing.
So what should you do instead?
Do whatever you can do first to get your momentum rolling. Look at your list, and do whatever you feel up to. Doesn’t matter how important or urgent it is, just do something.
Accomplishing a task, no matter how insignificant, raises your dopamine levels. As a result, it will be easier to cross that motivation threshold for your next task.
Keep that ugly frog in mind. Strive to do it right after finishing your current task. And be very careful with your mental wording.
Don’t say “I hope I’ll feel like doing it after this task”, because then you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re placing the source of your motivation and productivity outside of your own control by waiting until you feel like it. You have to make yourself feel like it.
Instead, say “I am going to do it after I’ve finished this task”. Chances of succeeding are much higher then, because you made it more definitive in your mind.
If necessary, however, it’s fine to string together a couple of insignificant tasks if that’s how long it takes for you to reach that dopamine threshold. As long as your main goal remains to do it right after your current task.
3. Sit down to actively confront your mental barriers
This has also been one of the most important ways I’ve managed to increase my productivity.
After having practiced this for a few weeks, I’m actually stumped how to realize how much I’ve been a slave of my own mental barriers.
This one came to me through a great app called Intellect. There’s a procrastination path you can take, and since that was my biggest obstacle in daily life, that’s what I chose.
I’ll leave out the details of the rest of the path (go download the app, you’ll thank me later), but here’s the most important takeaway for me.
If you notice that you keep putting off a certain task, take a moment. Sit down, grab some paper and something to write with. Ask yourself this question:
Why do I feel resistance against doing this thing?
What’s keeping you?
Think of any assumptions and fears you might have developed that trigger your discomfort and your resistance against it.
Is it perfectionism? Are you afraid you might fail?
Do you want to do everything at once and does that seem too daunting?
Do you not know how to start or where to begin?
Are you afraid that doing that thing might leave you with too little energy to do other things?
Are you perhaps in pain?
Write down all of these fears and assumptions, preferably one per page. Then, take some time to challenge them. Try to think of responses or solutions.
“If I start it, I need to finish it / it needs to get done, or not done at all”
This method has worked so well for me that this barrier, actually the first one that popped up, sounds strange to me now.
I countered that assumption by telling myself that the goal isn’t finishing, the goal is working on it. It’s about effort over time, not just about the results.
Some tasks take longer than one session, so you need to accept that there will be multiple result-less sessions before you start to see results, and that’s fine.
I also told myself to accept that it’s okay if it’s not done at the end of your session. You’ve gotten further than when you started, and you’re now closer to completing your task.
I also noticed a fear of having to quit in the middle of a task, so I told myself there are ways of ensuring I’d be able to pick up where I left off later. Notes, highlighting, to-do’s etc.
“What if I prioritized wrong and I shouldn’t be doing this thing first?”
I let myself get paralyzed by not being sure whether a task was truly the one I should spend my next chunk of time and energy on. So in the end, I did nothing at all.
I told myself that it was better to have picked wrong and done something, than to have done nothing at all. Because that way, you won’t have done either of them.
I also needed to tell myself that I shouldn’t paralyze myself by forbidding myself to do less important or urgent stuff first. I described this in tip #2.
“I don’t know where to start or how to begin.”
I’m sure this is a popular one. I countered this by telling myself that you can’t expect everyone to always know how to do the things they need/want to do right away.
Learning how to do it is part of the process, pretty much anyone had to learn how to do it at some point. Figuring out how to do it is part of the task, it is the task.
So by spending time figuring out where to get started, you’re also working on the task and you’re not wasting time! You’re also working towards completion, and every minute you spend on it brings you one minute closer to finishing your task.
You also don’t need to have everything decided before you start. You have the ability and capacity to change course later if need be, and to adjust to any resulting circumstances.
Even if things turn out badly, you’ll be fine. You’ll have learned what doesn’t work. You’ll be able to handle it if it turns out badly.
Trying and failing often truly is far more valuable than not trying at all.
4. Change the way you approach your tasks
It’s not just individual tasks, to-do lists themselves can be daunting too. You see this big, giant list of things that need to be done in front of you. It’s staring at you.
And humans think in relatives, not in absolutes. So the more of that list is still unchecked, the worse we feel about it.
A list of six unchecked items and two checked items can feel way more daunting than a list of six unchecked items and eight checked items.
There are several ways to try and combat this.
One is to make separate lists, so each individual list seems smaller. And while that is a viable solution, it also comes with its own pitfalls.
The downside is that, especially if you’re using paper, you have to think about how to categorize or split that list before you put your items on there. It’s very inflexible. That could even turn making the list into a daunting task.
Another way is to categorize your tasks after writing them down, as I’ll explain in my next tip #5 below.
The best work-around is your mindset
In the end, the reason that list feels daunting is because you’re looking at it wrong. You’re looking at it like a list of things that need to be done, have to be done. You’re looking at it like every item you don’t cross off is a failure, is something bad.
Of course, life has deadlines. Some things do in fact need to be done that day, and there’s no getting around those.
But all the others? All the tasks that you could theoretically also do tomorrow without bursting into flame?
Those are the ones you should view differently.
Here’s what you do: view your tasks as things you’d like to do, want to do. Not because they’re so fun to do (who really likes doing dishes voluntarily?), but because you want to have done them.
Perhaps the most important thought of all
Realize this: everything, everything you do is bonus. Everything you do is better than it was before you started. Even if you only accomplish one of the tasks on your list.
And it works on the task level too, like we saw in the first example of tip #3. Even if you only do a tiny fraction of what the task really entailed, you’re now 100% better off.
Wanted to vacuum your floors, but only managed to do one room? That’s better than not having vaccuumed at all.
Wanted to do the dishes, but only did half? Congratulations, you now have 100% more washed dishes than before your started.
Wanted to write a new blog post, but only got through some preliminary research? You are now closer to having written that new blog post than you were when you woke up this morning.
Your goal is not 100% completion, your goal is more than 0%
Whether it’s the amount of tasks, or how much of a task you complete, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you only feel accomplished when it’s done.
If you only feel successful once you’ve reached 100%, you have a whole lot of time not feeling succesful yet. But if you feel successful for everything you do that’s more than 0%, everything you do is a success.
Let’s pretend you have to send 100 emails. Hypothetically. And your task on your to-do list says “write 100 emails”.
If you only feel like you’ve accomplished that task when you’ve sent all 100 of them, you’ll have sent 99 emails without feeling like you’ve accomplished anything. You’ll have put effort into writing ninety-freakin’-nine emails, and you still feel unfulfilled.
Instead, set your mental goal to ‘more than zero’. It’s fine if you write down 100 because that’s your end goal, and ‘more than zero’ is too vague, but don’t let that be the shape the task has in your head.
Now, when you get to 99 emails, instead of feeling like you just fell short of completing your goal, you’ll have had 99 successes to celebrate! Even if you didn’t make it to that last one, you’ll have the satisfaction of scoring 99 wins.
5. Categorize your tasks in importance and urgency
This is the last of my top 5 ADHD productivity tips, and it’s one that will surely give you a lot of peace of mind.
Proper prioritizing is one of our greatest weaknesses. Because of our impaired working memory and our difficulty estimating the time needed and time left, we have a knack for doing things that don’t matter sooner than things that do.
I used to combat this by splitting my to-do lists in two. At the top, I would write down 2-5 items under the label ‘MIT’: most important things. The rest of the tasks I would write down under the label ‘LIT’: less/least important tasks.
The idea was that everything on the MIT list was required, and everything on the LIT list optional. That way I could prioritize those MIT things and leave the rest for later. And I could also limit the amount of things I needed to do that day, to keep myself from getting too overwhelmed.
And it worked fairly okay, but as it turned out, it worked against me too.
The trouble was, as I mentioned in tip #4 above, that I had to think about categorizing and prioritizing before I wrote everything down. Which is a really foolish think to ask of someone with poor working memory.
I had to have a mental picture of all my tasks so I could choose the most important ones and write those down at the top. And that just didn’t work.
Frequently I’d have to add important things that I thought of later to the MIT list, so it didn’t stop at five things, and it became too much pressure. Or I’d had to let important things go because the list was already full. Or I’d had to swap and cross out tasks, which just made the whole thing a mess.
How to create your to-do lists instead
Just start writing down all your tasks, everything you need to or want to do that day. All in one spot.
Then, give each task a classification, based on the two axes of the Eisenhower Matrix: importance and urgency.
You can do this any way that works for you, but here’s how I do it.
I give my tasks a letter A-E, based on their importance. I’m not ordering the list, it’s not in relation to the other tasks. It’s solely on the importance of that specific tasks.
Importance is based on the amount of impact it has on your life, or if there are consequences if you don’t do it.
A. Highest importance. Absolutely needs to be done, significant impact if it’s never done.
B. Really important, but not necessarily most important.
C. Reasonably important but not enough to take precedence
D. Kind of useful, but doesn’t matter that much
E. Least importance. Really just extra, but not necessary at all.
Be careful not to mistake importance and urgency! In real life we call things ‘important’ if they’re urgent. In fact it’s not the task that’s important, it’s important that it’s done today instead of another day.
But in this system, we’re splitting importance and urgency. The reason for that is that it’s otherwise too easy to do unimportant things that are urgent, and waste time overlooking the important things because they’re not urgent.
You also don’t want two kinds of importance in your list. If some things are important because of their content, and some are important because of their urgency, you’re muddying up your prioritization.
Of course, if a task has been lying around for too long, it may become more important. For example, sweeping the floor may have become more important because the layer of dust that has accumulated could be harmful to your health.
Just make sure don’t mark a task as important because of its urgency alone. Don’t worry, you’ll be keeping track of urgency as well, so there’s no need to include it in importance.
Urgency is actually pretty straightforward in comparison to importance. It just means ‘how soon does it need to be done?’.
Does your task have a deadline? Is it dependent on the day on which you do it? Is it a daily task, for example?
The degree of urgency gets ranked with a number 1-5.
1. Has to be done today, cannot be done after today.
2. Preferably today, but can be postponed to tomorrow if need be.
3. As soon as possible, but doesn’t necessarily have to be today or tomorrow.
4. Somewhere soon, but no real hurry.
5. Not dependent on time at all, can be done at any moment, no pressure.
The benefits of this approach
You don’t have to think about priority before you write down your tasks. You can easily add tasks later, give them a letter and a number, and it won’t wreck your system.
Another huge benefit I’ve noticed is that the to-do list isn’t as daunting anymore.
When I look at my to-do list to choose the task I’m going to do next, I don’t have to weigh every single item against each other. I don’t have to mentally prioritize the items every time I look at the list, because it’s already done for the day.
Instead, I start looking for my next task among the A-1’s first. If I can’t find a task I feel like doing, I check the B-1’s, because they also have to be done today. Then I check the A-2’s, which aren’t as urgent but very important.
That way, every time I look at the list, I only have to look at a portion of it instead of the entire thing. And I can work may way down from the most important and urgent down to the least.
And that gives me a lot of mental peace. I used to worry whether I was doing the right things and prioritizing them right. But now I can rest easy knowing that the most important and urgent things can’t slip by me anymore.
These were my top 5 ADHD productivity tips. I hope they’ll work just as well for you as they did for me. Everyone deserves to look back on their day in the evening and be content with what you’ve done, to be proud of yourself!
I have many more productivity tips, so I might publish a second post about those in the near future. Keep your eyes peeled!
Don’t forget to share this post with your friends, family, or colleagues if you think they could use these handy ADHD productivity tips. Regardless of whether you have ADHD or not, these tips are sure to boost anyone’s productivity!