Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

5 ADHD Coping Hacks

“You just need to work harder”, “You only focus when you want to, it’s a choice”, “Just slow down a little”, or my personal favourite “You’re lazy.” Do any of these phrases ring little alarm bells in your head? Do you instantly feel shame and frustration at the thought of someone thinking you are not already trying your best? If you struggle with ADHD, you have most likely heard one or more variations of the phrases above and, like most people struggling with ADHD, have thought to yourself, “Why can’t I try harder or focus like everyone else? Why am I the problem.”

Well, here is the truth – you are not the problem.

People who struggle with ADD/ADHD are neurodivergent, meaning their neurological functioning is not considered ‘typical’ brain functioning.

Therefore, the mental blocks that people with ADHD experience are not a choice, the struggles are valid. Similarly, does telling someone who is angry to ‘just calm down’ ever work? Probably not. So, telling people with ADHD to try harder, or letting them feel shame at their difficulty to perform in a ‘typical’ way, is not going to work either.

In fact, having ADHD comes with its own strengths too, not only weaknesses. Often these strengths include a higher IQ when given proper support, the ability to react quickly in high-pressure situations, exploring many hobbies, and hyper fixating when interested in a topic or task (Climie & Mastoras., 2015).

When given the proper resources and taking the time to learn how your individual brain works, incredible new skills begin to arise. We can then begin to focus on what we can do instead of what we cannot do.

To help start this process, I have put together several ‘hacks’ for clients struggling with their ADD/ADHD and executive function to help make daily tasks a little easier. Note, these tips are not one-size-fits-all, getting to know what works or does not work for you is half the battle!

#1: Visual Chunking!

This is one I find very helpful for clients because often when scheduling our days, the brain becomes overwhelmed and goes into ‘freeze’ mode. When it comes to ADHD specifically, the brain is constantly keeping tabs on tasks that ‘need’ to be accomplished and all the steps that go into each task. Then, once the mind floods itself, instead of starting the hard task, it shuts down. This is when we experience the “I have so much to do, but I’m going to watch Netflix instead” action. To combat this, it helps to visually plan out your day to show your mind you do, in fact, have time.

What does this look like? Glad you asked!
Use a daily planner with times, or just write it out on a piece of paper, to ‘chunk’ your tasks into realistic and manageable time slots, then colour coding times of your day and assign a task each time frame. For example:

Saturday

8-10 am Wake up, make breakfast, get dressed
10-12 pm Work on blog posts and papers
12-2 pm Make lunch, take a walk
2-3 pm Case planning and training notes
3-4 pm Snack and stretch break
4-5 pm Answer emails and follow up with clients
5-7 pm Make dinner and clean
7-8 pm Walk dogs
8-10 pm Read, tidy house, get ready for bed

I often encourage clients to colour code their planners, especially students, so it is more appealing, and they don’t have to think as hard about the transition times and what comes next. Schedule breaks, give yourself extra time, and before you know it when your brain starts to race to “NO. There is too much to do!” You can see what you have planned for the day and that everything has a designated time.

#2 Set timers

I always hear people say getting started is the hardest part. Our brain builds up the dread of a task so much that we tend to shut down or avoid it. We look at a project and think of all the hours it will take to complete it instead of remembering we are in control of how our time is spent.

When we know a deadline is approaching it’s important to schedule some time to procrastinate as well, and this is why setting timers is great. It’s not as daunting to start a task when we don’t imagine ourselves being trapped doing it for hours. I begin by encouraging clients to start with a reasonable amount of time to work on a single task (let’s start with 30 minutes) and set the timer. At the end of the 30 minutes, you stop doing the task. You don’t need to hold shame or guilt, and you don’t need to keep working because you did your mentally agreed-upon work. 30 minutes of work is better than no work.

When our brain starts to realize it can transition, take a break, or keep working if it wants to, our mentality around unpleasant tasks begins to shift.

The unpleasant task no longer seems like a hourless prison, it is more like a timeout. Each person’s window of tolerance with attention will be different, but the concept is the same.

Set a timer, once the timer is done, so are you.

This leads me to my next tip…

#3 Don’t fight your brain

Often people get frustrated when they set unrealistic expectations of their attention span, then judge themselves for not being able to stay focused for hours on end. I often see this with university students in the library or people with work projects. We blame it on a lack of motivation when, in reality, it’s our brain telling us it’s tired and needs a break. We push through because this is what is ‘typically’ expected, but we end up being less productive and more critical of ourselves, which starts the negative talk cycle that fuels our avoidance of hard tasks.

Instead, I suggest noticing when your mind starts to wander and you begin to get off task, then allowing yourself a break or a task switch. Emily Nagoski (author of Burnout) discusses her personal experience with this ‘tip’ when doing her own writing. When she is writing research and feels herself becoming disinterested, tired, or uninspired by the project she is working on, she switches tasks to her fiction writing. Her brain mentally takes a break from the task that was becoming unpleasant and allows it to switch to another, more exciting, outlet. This can be done by switching project topics, getting a snack, standing up and stretching, switching music playlists etc. The idea is that judgment is taken away and you allow yourself to listen to what your mind needs.

#4 Making Manageable To-Do Lists

When we become overwhelmed, our brains often go into panic mode, and we feel the need to accomplish everything right now. We are all guilty of this. Simply creating a to-do list doesn’t break things down enough for our brains to register everything as ‘manageable’ and kick into productivity mode.

Instead, to accomplish this, I work with clients to identify general tasks that need to be done, and under each task identify the smallest steps to take. For example – writing a research paper.

RESEARCH PAPER

  • Collect 5 resources & summarize them (3x)
  • Create outline
  • Write thesis statement
  • Write a paragraph (3x)
  • Conclusion
  • Introduction
  • Proofread
  • Citation page
  • Formatting
  • Submit

This structure allows you to start projects or tasks earlier and allows you to properly manage your time so that you do not get caught up in trying to finish an entire project in a 6-hour sitting (guilty). Utilizing your visual chunking skill, you can schedule small tasks in 30-minute to 1-hour increments over a longer period and scratch off a microtask along the way.

And we all love the feeling of crossing off a to-do list item!

Then, when we think about that dreaded research paper, it’s no longer filling us with a panic thinking of the hours it will take. Instead, we know that it can take small amounts of time here and there, even utilizing the smaller steps as breaks from other tasks (yay pomodoro method!), and the looming deadline doesn’t seem as daunting.

Finally…

#5 WHY am I not doing this task? Now count to 3

When all else fails I have found simply asking myself why has been very helpful.

When I find myself avoiding sending an email that will take me 5 minutes, I stop and get curious about my mental block. This block is different for everyone, and each task block will be different. Sometimes it’s the difficulty of the task, not knowing where to start, the time it may take, or simply not being in the mind frame for the task. The actual reason for the block isn’t the important part, but bringing attention to the avoidance is. Understanding the mental state that drives the overt behaviour, allows us to understand what is happening in our brain and focus on activation vs. motivation, or as I like to call it the ‘count to 3’ method.

When we acknowledge that we are avoiding a task, and the root of why, we can meet this block with compassion and understanding, while also taking the step to help ourselves by just starting.

Example:

  • I need to reply to that email.
  • Why am I avoiding the email that will take me 5 minutes? Because I become anxious when trying to formulate a response.
  • Great! But I do need to respond, and I know I will feel better when my inbox is cleared.
  • On 3, I will pull out my laptop, answer the email, then let the nagging thought go.
  • 1… 2… 3.

These coping hacks for people struggling with ADHD, or simply motivation, are to help our brains slow down and be more productive during times of stress versus the brain’s conditioned response of shutting down. The theme of all the tips listed is working with our brains instead of fighting again them. Allowing space to notice avoidance, barriers, and needs while still holding yourself accountable for accomplishing day-to-day activities.

Although ADHD can be hard to navigate, it’s important that we practice building up skills that will help us throughout life versus letting it become something that hinders our success.

As with all skills, they need to be practiced.

We need to be intentional with our actions and work to push past barriers. Getting curious about what works for us individually is the key. What works for one person may not work for another. Tailoring these tips to work for your needs is important in navigating ADHD throughout your life.

References:

Climie, E. A., & Mastoras, S. M. (2015). ADHD in schools: Adopting a strengths-based perspective. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie canadienne, 56(3), 295–300. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000030

Taylor Wark

Taylor Ashley, RP  #11063 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and individuals 11yrs and up through anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Learn more about Taylor here.

Share This Post

About Our Counsellors

Need to Ask Questions First?

Check out our FAQ

Call 1-800-828-9484 or e-mail us today