The ADHD Homestead | Create the life you want with the mind you have
I'm a stay-at-home mom and writer. My husband and I share a home, a charming preschooler, and an ADHD diagnosis. I believe you can work with your ADHD to create an enjoyable life and a peaceful home. Even if you don't struggle with ADHD, you'll find plenty of tips here for keeping your home, schedule, and relationships under control.
I had a different post on the calendar for today. However, my personal life is all kinds of unstructured lately. I felt inspired to post something a bit more off-the-cuff.
Many of us are facing the end of the school year. A transitional period for our families. Our ingrained routines and structures will invariably get messed up. That sucks for me because I live and die by those routines.
So my inbox is a little out of control and my house isn’t as neat as I’d like. But I haven’t given up entirely. Especially on the house. My quality of life start with my physical surroundings. If I want any hope of digging out of the productivity slump that has been the past two weeks, I need to keep the house clean.
Even though I really don’t have the time, energy, or focus.
I care about a clean house — and I don’t apologize for it.
Just so you know my perspective here: keeping a clean house matters to me. My family has enough dust and mildew allergies to make it feel necessary for our physical health. But my immediate surroundings also have a very real impact on my mental health. Surfaces dulled by dust, my field of vision filled with clutter — I can’t afford to ignore the negative impact this has on my mood and focus.
I realize not everyone experiences this. Perhaps that explains why so many people mount signs over their living rooms with phrases like “bless this mess.” Or why other moms tell me “I’d rather enjoy my kids while they’re young than waste time worrying about how my house looks.” If that works for you, great. It doesn’t work for me. At all. And if it doesn’t work for you either, let me tell you something:
We need to let go of perfection.
If I need to do it right, I’ll never get started.
People with ADHD have a bear of a time getting started on almost anything. And when we try to clean a house we know will look dirty again in two days? Forget about it.
Because getting started on any task requires me to overcome so much inertia, perfectionism tries to take over. It’s easy to convince myself it’s not worth the effort if I don’t have the time or energy to do a complete job.
My upbringing and work ethic play into this, too. My parents told me more than once, if you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all. Or, one of my dad’s favorites: don’t do a half-assed job.
Consequently, if I don’t think I can pull off more than a half-assed job, my motivation drops to zero.
Doing it at all beats doing it “right.”
But let me ask you this: is doing a half-assed job really worse than doing nothing at all?
When it comes to cleaning my house, the answer is absolutely not. Half-assed is better than no-assed 100 percent of the time. If I can remove any drain on my mental and physical health, it’s worth it.
Take dusting, for example: dust accumulates under my radiators because I don’t get under there with a rag often enough. But it accumulates more slowly if I vacuum every week. Any action I take, no matter how small, removes allergens from our home’s ecosystem.
I still have to deep-clean a couple times a year. I probably do it less often than I should. But that has no bearing on the weekly efforts I need to make, no matter how half-assed. Plus, those half-assed cleanings make the deep cleaning exponentially easier when I finally get around to it.
My cleaning schedule has been totally disrupted and I’m trying to deal.
A lot of cleaning gurus recommend doing this or that on a set routine or establishing daily habits to make cleaning easier. I love routines. They’re great. But they’re also dangerous because I tend to latch onto them for dear life. Everything falls apart the first time something disrupts my routine.
Perfect example: my son had half-days every Friday this school year. I made Friday our cleaning day. After lunch, I spent a few hours dusting and vacuuming all three floors, bucket cleaning one bathroom, and quickly wiping down the other. And when the school year ended, so did my motivation to spend this much time cleaning just because the calendar said Friday.
The kiddo also has a couple weeks off between school and summer camp. This has made my entire life feel unstructured in a way my brain simply cannot handle. I’m having trouble getting to the work I want to do, let alone cleaning the house.
So, fine. Maybe I don’t have an hour to empty out the bathroom and scrub the whole thing with a bucket and rag. Let’s at least swish some toilet cleaner around the bowl and wipe down the sink and counter. I keep toilet cleaner and a container of GreenWorks wipes in each bathroom to make this as easy as possible.
During this chaotic period, will I vacuum around a box of junk on the floor instead of dealing with it? Absolutely. Will dust continue to accumulate on the floor underneath our radiators because the vacuum doesn’t reach all the way under there? You bet it will. Because I prioritize making a crappy effort over making no effort at all.
Sometimes you have to set out to do a bad job.
Maybe you’ve heard a writer talk about the “sh!tty first draft.” We need to write it — even though we know it’ll suck — because we need something to work from. Holding yourself to print-run-ready prose on the first draft guarantees you’ll be too intimidated to write much of anything at all.
When I start writing a first draft, I actually set out to write a crappy one. I know I’m there to do a bad job because doing a bad job will deliver me the rough cut. And I need the rough cut before I can polish it into something beautiful.
Sometimes our lives are a crappy first draft. And that’s okay. I would argue it’s even a necessary part of the process.
So if you’re stuck in a moment (or a decade) of chaos, forget about aiming for perfect. Aim for something. Anything. No matter how half-assed. Because anything you do will be better than nothing. Even the smallest effort can be a huge success if you can repeat it again next week.
A reader wrote in a while back to ask about screen time. “It’s very difficult,” they lamented, “to single-task when I’m at a computer.”
Since I do most of my work in front of a screen — and some of it even on that god-forsaken attention-stealer social media — I know this territory well. It’s a land of unlimited work with no promise of actual progress. The computer is a fine tool indeed, if we possess the self-control to use it wisely.
Which can feel like a huge ask for someone with ADHD. I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you what works for me.*
* Note: “Works for me” is a tricky definition. When I says “works for me,” what I really mean most of the time is this works for me when my ADHD symptoms are under control. If I’ve taken my medication, had my morning coffee, gotten a good night’s sleep, and gotten some exercise within the past few days, these strategies help me a whole heck of a lot. Maybe they’d also help absent the aforementioned treatment factors. I wouldn’t know. If I don’t control my ADHD, I can’t implement the strategies.
Turn off my internet connection (if possible).
I get some of my best writing done at my family’s beach bungalow. It lets me escape from the city and my everyday routine, but it also lacks internet access. I tell myself I can simply decide not to use the internet while I write, but that requires willpower. I work for much longer stretches of time if I remove the nagging option of getting online.
Of course, I can’t always skip town or go off the grid. Most of the time I have to limit my internet access without actually cutting the cord.
Close those extra browser tabs (and apps).
I’m naturally inclined to work with 30 browser tabs open. Whenever I’m on the phone, waiting for a website to load, or otherwise not fully engaged, I bounce between them. Sometimes I have so many open tabs they shrink too small for me to tell one from the other. Then I end up bouncing between them just looking for the correct one.
One caveat to my point about multi-tasking: sometimes I find it nigh impossible to single-task something menial. I’m talking about stuff like reviewing our family’s bills, bank account balances, and credit card transactions every week. For these, I turn on a podcast. Listening to the radio or a podcast helps me single-task and resist other distractions. In this case, I think it’s warranted and helpful and a big reason why these tasks actually get done. But I use podcasts sparingly and I never listen while I do more cognitively demanding work.
Open email intentionally.
I recently switched from using Gmail’s web app to using Apple Mail. Many people don’t realize you can configure email programs like Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail to work with a Gmail account. I prefer this because it removes distractions from other open browser tabs or Gmail’s own chat panel in the sidebar. I can open my email as its own entity.
When I have a lot of work to do I also try to close my email entirely for part of the day. Email is a big part of modern work. Most of us can’t escape that. But I don’t want to lose sight of the more meaningful work in the process. I shoot for a 24-hour turnaround on new emails, but I balance this work with my meatier projects.
Close everything at the end of the day.
Open apps and tabs can feel like a task management system even though they aren’t. It’s easy to leave something open because “I want to remember to work on it first thing tomorrow” or “I’m not done with it yet.”
But this habit erodes trust in my real task management systems: my to-do list, calendar, and/or inbox. I should be looking to these sources for prompting on what to do next, not what bombards me when I unlock my computer screen. Starting the day with a blank slate reminds me to do just that.
Compose social media posts outside their apps.
Social media apps are designed to grab your attention and refuse to let go. However you feel about it, that’s just the way it is. I may have opened Instagram to send a quick message to a friend, but I’ve likely forgotten that by the time my feed loads. After 10 minutes of scrolling, I have no idea what I was even doing before I picked up my phone.
When I want to post something to social media, I often compose it in the Mac/iOS Notes app first. Then I copy and paste it into the social media app. This sidesteps some of the above distraction potential and helps me spend less time in social media apps. Any simple note-taking app that syncs between your computer and phone would work fine for this. I also like and use Google Keep.
Outline emails first.
I hate when I open up a new email, pour all my thoughts into it, and realize an hour later that a.) I’m still writing the same email and b.) it’s far too long to send. This usually happens when I feel excited or otherwise emotionally invested in the topic at hand.
Much like my eleventh-grade English teacher taught me to do for essays, I outline tricky conversations ahead of time. This helps me figure out why I’m emailing the person and what I want to say before I waste time wordsmithing.
Put the phone away while working.
I’ve talked before about my bluetooth phone system that allows me to put my smartphone in a different room while I’m working. This doesn’t always work because sometimes I need it on my desk for app testing. On those days, I keep it out of the way and face down as much as possible. If I see a notification, I lack the self-control to leave it for later — especially because my phone’s FaceID feature expands the details of a notification as soon as I look at the screen. I set aside times to check my phone for messages and try not to respond to its every whim. I configure it to vibrate only for text messages and calls to avoid excessive temptations. Most things can wait.
Know your brain and its natural rhythms.
Some people do their best work early in the morning. Others are night owls. Over the years I’ve learned that I can’t burn the midnight oil — at least not in front of a screen. If I try to accomplish anything on the computer after dark, I end up wasting my time. I slip down research-induced rabbit holes or mindlessly scroll through social media sites. As much as I may try to fight this, I can’t change the way my brain works. So most of the time I don’t even try to work late.
And that’s a good lesson for anyone with ADHD: we can’t change our brains. Fighting our brains will only get us so far. Growing up around large bodies of water, I learned from an early age never to fight the current. To find a way to get where I needed to be by swimming with it. It took me longer to learn the same about my brain.
Instead of expecting heroic levels of willpower when we work with technology, we need to find ways to reduce that willpower drain in the first place. Sure, I wrote at the top of this article that I’ve never successfully implemented these strategies with out-of-control ADHD symptoms. But there’s no medication in the world that will allow us to bombard ourselves with temptation and distraction and still work effectively. Creating better work conditions is still up to us, and it starts with getting to know our brains.
I’ve never sugarcoated the fact that living with ADHD really sucks sometimes. Living with it in ourselves, yes, but also cohabitating with ADHD. Every once in a while, the ADHDers in our life drive us positively crazy.
And what do we do when we feel completely fed up? My husband recently told me, in a bout of frustration with our son, “I’m not giving him an inch.”
This is a perfectly natural — and maybe even fair — reaction to someone who’s gotten on our last nerve. ADHD feels unfair sometimes. In moments of complete exasperation I’ve certainly insisted that from this point forward I will stand for no bad behavior, none, not a bit.
Many of us have been there. We’ve yelled at a spouse and told them this is the last time we tolerate them coming home late, spending money without checking with us first, leaving laundry on the floor, rear-ending someone on the way into work (late). The message: this has gone on too long. Your behavior had better be exemplary from now on.
But how productive is this, really?
Everyone’s doing their best.
Most of us do the best we can on any given day, but sometimes ADHD makes this difficult to believe. In those times of frustration and doubt, it can help to remember: many people with ADHD develop key life skills later than our peers. Some won’t develop them at all without proper treatment. These skills include:
Regulating emotional responses
Thinking before we speak
Taking another person’s perspective
Predicting how our words and actions might impact others
Organizing our routines and behaviors
What feels second nature to others may feel completely incomprehensible to us.
I once got frustrated with my five-year-old son when, for the gazillionth time, he was taking forever to get dressed after swim class.
“Look around,” I told him. “This locker room is empty. Everyone else has already changed and gone home and you’ve barely started.”
He burst into tears and sat down on the bench.
“But I don’t know how they do it,” he wailed. “I don’t know how they’re so fast, I don’t know how to get changed that fast, it’s like they’re all lightning bolts and I don’t know how to be a lightning bolt.”
It was then I realized: he actually did care that he had made me angry. He cared that everyone else changed and left the locker room before he even got his thoughts in order. And he wanted to do better but he had no idea how to begin.
This interaction with my kiddo reminded me that people usually don’t try to frustrate us. Most people want to please the people they love. What feels like blatant disregard may actually be the best effort someone can make at a task that feels impossible.
And when we ascribe all kinds of negligent and inconsiderate motives to the behavior, we only make them feel worse.
ADHD requires constant troubleshooting, not judgment.
I often compare fixing problems with our habits and routines to fixing a computer or a car. If my computer malfunctions, I don’t berate it for failing yet again, for being so inept at the basic job of being a computer. I go through a methodical process to isolate the problem and fix it. This is called troubleshooting.
Yet when our organizational systems falter, we often jump straight to judgment and self-loathing. The failure didn’t happen because part of the system needs repair. It happened because of our fundamental inadequacy. If you read my most recent post, you might recognize the fixed mindset here: mistakes and failures indicate a fundamental limit in ourselves, rather than an opportunity to learn.
When we talk to our family — or ourselves — this way we imply that no amount of hard work will fix this problem because the problem is innate. And then we proceed to insist that the accused try harder to affect positive change.
We need to change the way we talk about problems.
Of course, when we reach the end of our rope we often feel the problem is fixed and innate. So much so that we struggle to speak about it in productive terms. Here are a few pointers I’ve learned over the years:
Practice observing behaviors and emotions without accusation or judgement. For example:
I noticed you forgot your lunch on the counter three days last week. Can we talk about that?
Wow, something about what I said really upset you.
While the rest of the family was packing up for our vacation, I noticed you were sitting on the couch playing video games.
Your teacher told me you had a rough time in music class today.
None of these statements let the subject off the hook, but neither do they ascribe motivation or make assumptions. The pause after you say them leaves a safe space for conversation. Shoot for statements that express what you want to express without saying anything the other person might interpret as untrue or unfair.
Speak clearly about how others’ behavior affects you.
Many people worry that more open-ended, empathetic communication requires them to bury their own feelings of hurt and injustice. Not so. After you state the problem objectively, you have a right to talk about how it makes you feel. For example:
When I have to drop your lunch off for you, that takes 45 minutes out of my work day. I’m afraid I’m going to have to start working late or bringing work home in the evenings if I keep getting interrupted like that.
When you yell at me, my heart starts racing and I get really upset. It takes me a long time to stop feeling hurt, even after you’ve calmed down and apologized.
Imagine the difference if you say, “I’m sick of everyone using me as their own personal courier service. None of you feel like you have to remember anything because I’ll just bring it to you.” Now people feel personally attacked. Accused. Not only that, they’ve been framed as inconsiderate jerks who don’t value others’ time, and that’s why they keep forgetting stuff. Now they feel you’ve done a great injustice to them with this wild untruth. And they’ll focus their energy on defending their character instead of talking about the actual problem.
Be realistic about your expectations, but also your sacrifices.
Everyone benefits from an objective, empathetic approach to solving problems. When something isn’t working it doesn’t mean it will never work, just that we need to make a few changes before we try again. When we resist the urge to label, shame, and blame, we stand a chance of making real progress.
You may remember I started this post talking about reaching the end of your rope. Sometimes we get there. And while a troubleshooting approach and a willingness to listen will help solve more problems, you can’t be the only one working hard and making sacrifices.
That is to say, the ADHDers in your life probably aren’t trying to make you miserable. We do the best we can. Mistakes and failures don’t make us bad people. But that doesn’t mean you should expect — or that you deserve — to be treated badly.
In other words: pick your battles. An overwhelmed and demoralized ADHDer is often a paralyzed ADHDer. But stay firm on your priorities. Set boundaries for your own sanity. You should never feel like you need to sacrifice your personal life or happiness to compensate for someone else’s chaos. Be kind, but also firm. Troubleshoot, but don’t be afraid to express how a behavior affects you and follow through on a consequence.
Everyone experiences failure from time to time. I suspect we ADHDers experience more than our fair share.
Maybe that’s what leads us down a troubling path I see too often. People begin to see failure as inevitable, especially when it comes to getting organized. They’ll tell me “Nothing works” or “Yeah, I tried that [tool/app/system]. I loved it for a while but I couldn’t keep it up.”
But what does can’t keep it up mean? Does it mean every organizing strategy we try will eventually fall apart? Well, sure it does. That’s why I craft my systems with failure in mind. Because I don’t have a bulletproof solution to disorganization and I need to be able to press the reset button with minimal effort.
No one has a bulletproof solution. ADHDers don’t have a monopoly on chaos. Even the most organized person has a breaking point.
The real key to long-term organization and sanity lies in our response to failure. To the inevitable crash-and-burn periods of overwhelm. As we survey the wreckage, we can view failure as:
A confirmation of our ineptitude, of the inevitability of failure, of the fact that nothing really works for us, of the fleeting nature of any success. Or…
A temporary state, something we can recover from. Inevitable, yes, but an opportunity to learn and to gather important information.
It’s easy to believe ADHD consigns us to Option #1. It doesn’t.
Do you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?
What I described above is the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Many of us develop these mindsets as children based on the feedback we receive from our parents and other adults.
To give a quick summary, some people view success as the result of effort. This growth mindset makes them more likely to take risks, to challenge themselves, and to view mistakes as opportunities to learn.
Others view success as the result of innate ability. Because of their fixed mindset, they hesitate to push or challenge themselves. They don’t want to risk failure, because failure means they aren’t good enough.
Psychologist Carol Dweck has studied the impact of praise and feedback on children’s mindsets. She found that children who received praise for traits like intelligence or natural talent were more likely to develop a fixed mindset. Children praised for effort and persistence developed growth mindsets. The growth-mindset group showed more resilience and outperformed the fixed-mindset group even after controlling for outside factors like IQ. All you have to do is look around to see how this mindset carries forward into adulthood.
Traits-based praise, ADHD anxiety, and imposter syndrome: a love story.
I got a lot of praise as a kid. People told me I was smart, a talented musician, a good writer. But we ADHDers know how easily this kind of praise can stab us in the back. You’re so smart can too easily precede imagine what you could do if you applied yourself.
While I got good grades and excelled on standardized tests, I never felt smart. My education catered to people whose brains worked like mine: linguistic, linear thinkers. I never had to work hard, and I felt awkward when people praised me for it.
ADHDers like me who get that gifted label early on can become very good at hiding our struggles. It was easy for me to develop a fixed mindset and stay well within my comfort zone. Wherever I showed natural ability, I quit before I had to work hard: advanced academic programs, flute lessons, field hockey, you name it. If I didn’t perform at the top of my cohort in one group, I found a different group where I did.
When I got my first self-directed job as an adult, I lived in constant fear of being found out — in large part because people always told me “you’re so organized” or “you’re such a good worker.” Any above-and-beyond level of organization I displayed was a coping strategy, not a talent. Praise felt misplaced. I always felt like I was hiding my true self and people would never respect me if they really knew me.
This constant anxiety defined much of my mid-20s before I started treating my ADHD. I’d spent my whole life being told I was so smart, had so much potential, and yet I always felt like I was on the brink of disaster.
We can embrace and learn from failure or we can let it close one door after another.
It’s really easy to feel defeated by failure and let it define who we think we are. Sometimes I still get stuck in a negative thought spiral about how having ADHD means I’ll always have to deal with X or Y shortcoming. I’ll never succeed at the level I want to. Any number of untruths. And when you experience the number of setbacks most ADHDers do, you can hardly blame us for letting it get to us every once in a while.
When I was a kid, my dad decided we needed a family calendar. He made one from a dry erase board and hung it on the pantry door. It soon became clear the system wasn’t working. I returned home from school one day to find the calendar laying in the side yard. In a fit of frustration, my father had torn it down and thrown it out the door. His calendar idea had been a complete bust.
Or had it? My mom, in many ways the polar opposite of my dad’s and my temperaments, went out and purchased a bigger dry erase board. She painstakingly applied strips of narrow black tape to turn it into a grid. This was before anyone sold prefabricated dry erase monthly calendars. She hung it up and assigned us each a different color marker on the calendar. At the beginning of each month, she erased and repopulated it. The system remained in place for the next 20 years.
Failure means the same thing for us as it does for everyone else: we need to troubleshoot. We can reframe our struggles as opportunities to investigate the cause and refine our coping systems. That’s the growth mindset, and it gives us the power to change our lives for the better.
The ADHD struggle is real, but it’s not an excuse to give up.
A reader wrote to me the other day to express excitement about my upcoming dothething.app. They felt so grateful that someone was developing a productivity app with executive functioning deficits in mind.
That perspective is important. It’s gratifying to see people understand and appreciate why I’m doing this work. To get back up again after a failure, we need a system that takes our brains into account.
But the failure itself matters just as much. Without it, we have no information. No clues. Nothing to tell us where we need to make a change or add more structure. Far from a permanent confirmation of our inadequacy, failure is an essential part of life’s natural fluctuations. It has a lot to teach us, if we can find the trust and courage to drop our defenses and listen. That’s what I’ve tried to accomplish in writing Order from Chaos, and what I hope to bring to a much more interactive platform with dothething.app.
A lot of online resources provide tips on parenting kids with ADHD. Too few discuss the painful inverse: It’s really hard to be an effective parent when you have ADHD.
I want to be consistent and level-headed with my kid. Unfortunately, those are two areas where ADHD works directly against me. I have a terrible memory. I forget what I asked my son to do 10 minutes ago, let alone the consequence I promised if he didn’t do it. Kids are also frustrating. Sometimes intentionally so. ADHDers’ impulsive reactions can get the best of us if we aren’t careful.
None of this is fair. Sometimes I wonder how I’m supposed to teach my kid self-control when I’m still working on those same skills myself.
But I don’t use my ADHD as an excuse. I won’t throw up my hands and tell myself I can’t give my kid what he needs. As Liz Lewis from A Dose of Healthy Distraction so aptly points out, we have an obligation to show up for people, ADHD or no. My ADHD isn’t going anywhere, but neither is my responsibility to my son.
As always, I work with (not against) my brain.
I talk a lot in my book Order from Chaos about getting to know ourselves and our brains. Accepting our reality — including the reality of our impairments — and finding a way to work within it. The world won’t change for us, but we also can’t change who we are.
As a parent, I need to circumvent as many ADHD foibles as I can. Eliminate common points of failure. If I give a long-term or distant consequence, I’ll most likely forget or lose interest.
I also need to get control of problem situations before I get too angry or frustrated. Once I tip into reactive mode, that split-second delay between my feelings and my words disappears. And then I lose control — of my kid’s behavior and my own. When I start in on the lectures and the disproportionate consequences, I damage my relationship with my son. The problem behavior also tends to get worse.
My disciplinary strategy boils down to this: I keep my responses fair, specific, and self-contained. I’m kind but also firm. And I try to keep my parenting in scope of my attention span.
Perhaps most important, I don’t give my kiddo a bunch of warnings before a consequence. Most warnings only teach children how much time they have before they really need to listen. Warnings also create space for my frustration to mount. No warning is worth triggering an angry lecture.
We need to back off from the lectures and labels.
I got a lot of lectures as a kid. If you have ADHD I bet you did, too. They usually included labels and descriptions of my behavior in general. I didn’t think before I spoke. I was inconsiderate. That sort of thing. In other words, when I made mistakes — which I did often — my parents focused on traits. This made sense because my problem behaviors weren’t one-off things. They were patterns that repeated over and over again.
The problem with talking in labels and traits is we can’t change who we are. Even as adults, if someone tells us we “need to show more initiative” or “should learn how to work better on a team,” we get overwhelmed. These criticisms get at the core of who we are. We start to think we simply aren’t good enough.
This leads to what’s called a fixed mindset. We assume we naturally excel at some things and not at others. In elementary school, my hand would shoot up immediately when a teacher introduced a group assignment. I’d ask, “Can we work alone?” I didn’t get along well with others and I thought I never would. So why bother trying?
Carol Dweck - A Study on Praise and Mindsets - YouTube
But we want our kids to try. We don’t want them to think of themselves as annoying or always running late or bad at sharing. Because then they won’t challenge themselves to do better.
In other words, we want them to have a growth mindset: one that views mistakes as an opportunity to learn. One that embraces challenges instead of shying away from them. One that believes they can master any skill with determination and practice. This includes the social and life skills that will make them productive members of our household — skills we ourselves may still struggle with.
The inductive discipline script was a game-changer for me.
These books give a lot of background on how to practice empathy and help people of all ages feel heard and understood. They aren’t intended to teach you how to get others to do what you want. Vicki Hoefle in particular focuses a lot on the parent-child relationship. She emphasizes that children most often misbehave when they feel discouraged. A strong connection with our kids decreases the need for us to use any kind of discipline.
But sometimes nobody has time to talk it out. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to talk it out. If my son has deliberately defied me, if he’s going to be late for school, if he just hit another child, or if I’m about to lose my temper with him, we’re not in a place to talk.
In Just Listen, Goulston explains that when we’re upset, we literally cannot access the rational part of our brains. Remember this. If you or your child have lost control of your emotions, you can’t have a reasonable conversation. You can’t talk it out. You are literally incapable of empathizing and hearing each other the way you need to. Effective discipline helps you regain control.
Keep it simple and stick to the script.
Discipline needs to stay simple and concise. At its best, it strips away the opportunity for me to argue, lecture, nag, or lose my temper. I recommend sticking to this script:
Name the behavior. Don’t judge, don’t freak out, just state the problem clearly and simply. I asked you to turn off Minecraft five minutes ago so we could leave. You’re still playing.
Pause. Take a deep breath. Put your hand over your mouth if you need to. But if the behavior doesn’t change, tell the kid exactly what you want him to do (as opposed to not do). I want you to turn the game off immediately and get your shoes on.
Pause again! I know it’s hard. Nothing is more difficult for a parent with ADHD than controlling our own behavior when our kids frustrate us. But kids need that chance — that choice — to change course. It’s how they learn self-control. My almost-six-year-old will often correct his behavior after Step 1 or 2, before I even need to threaten a consequence. But sometimes he doesn’t, and that’s when I need to provide the consequence. If you don’t stop playing, I’m going to turn it off for you.
I know, I know. Now you have to take another breath. Just one. Have they heard you and still not complied? Quickly and calmly implement the consequence. [Turn off the power to the game system.]
The key here is calm. Remember to be firm but kind. No ranting, no raving, no labeling. Telling a child she is selfish or is rude or doesn’t listen will only overwhelm her. Eventually, she’ll believe your labels and give you what you expect. When you make the problem as simple, small, and specific as possible — and tell her exactly what you want her to do — you give her a problem she feels empowered to solve.
You don’t have to be totally unflappable or perfect.
I want to be clear: I don’t always monitor my tone with my kiddo. If I’ve gotten to the point where I need to implement discipline, I’m often kind of mad at him. Like I said before, this isn’t the time to empathize with his view of things.
Inductive discipline gets my point across better than if I let my knee-jerk reaction take over. And yet it doesn’t ask that I shelter him from my irritation or let him walk all over me. It creates a safe space for him to receive my feelings and choose what to do next. And that choice feels very clear because I’ve given him a concrete instruction.
This skill — stop, think about our behavior, and exercise appropriate self-control — is so difficult for people with ADHD. For folks with unmanaged ADHD symptoms, it may even be impossible. That’s why I appreciate having a script to help me teach it to my son.
Self-control requires practice, and that may mean you need extra support.
I want to be very careful about offering parenting advice for families with ADHD. Kids and adults with ADHD should learn and practice effective communication skills. And these are skills (not traits). They don’t come naturally to many people with ADHD. Most of us need a lot of education, practice, and compassion.
However, ADHD itself cannot be treated with skills practice. It’s a neurobiological disorder. It impairs our emotional regulation and our self-control. Poorly-managed ADHD makes all these skills more difficult — if not impossible — to learn and practice effectively.
I could not be the parent I want to be without proper ADHD treatment. For me that means medication, diet, exercise, and healthy sleep habits. Others might choose a different combination and add therapy, coaching, or support groups.
The entire package is important, but I listed medication first for a reason. It was a total life-changer. It allowed me to get my foot in the door with these relationship skills.
And while I’m not in a position to give anyone medical advice, I will always be very open about my own experience with medication. It’s important to know what ADHD is, how it affects our brains, and why medication can be so effective for so many people.
However you choose to manage your ADHD, know that it will make or break any successful parenting strategy. If we don’t control our ADHD, we can’t control our relationship with our kids. They need a safe environment to practice and learn skills like self-control, empathy, communication, and compromise. They can’t do that with an unpredictable or volatile parent, and they can’t do it without someone modeling the skills for them.
Of course we all mess up sometimes — maybe even most of the time — but I do the very best I know how. I feel like I owe my kid that much. Between working on myself and my ADHD and educating myself on effective parenting and communication, I hope it’s enough. I believe it’s enough. Children know when we’re doing our best, even if we don’t get it right every time.
Today I’m sharing the nuts and bolts of a recent mini-project in my home office: I cleaned up my desk.
My office wants a lot more help than this, but I tried to keep my blinders on. ADHDers like me need low-cost, high-impact projects — even if we think we should do more. Why? Because we don’t always finish big projects we start. If we can both start and finish the task in one afternoon, that helps avoid the dreaded lingering mess from an incomplete job.
While smaller, less glamorous projects may work better for us overall, we can have trouble motivating ourselves to start them. They don’t feel as exciting. Then once we start, the project can get away from us. Let me tell you how I pulled this one off.
What I did and how much it cost me:
I wanted to make my office a more pleasant and productive place to work. I also needed to do it without creating a huge project (or a huge mess). This isn’t my strong suit. I like big, impressive projects. The fact that I kept this one small makes me feel pretty accomplished.
The big changes:
Removed PC speaker system and replaced with a bluetooth speaker
Time: ~1 hour (includes installation, cleaning, and dealing with interruptions from my kid)
I didn’t actually do that much, but look at the before and after photos. Although the backlighting comes up a little harsh onscreen, it looks fantastic in person and makes a huge difference on dreary days. The desk surface feels clean, open, and inviting. The overall effect is a space that feels much more professional and inspiring.
To make this project work without letting it get too big, I focused my effort in three key areas.
I resisted big-ticket purchases.
It’s easy to blame a problem on stuff because stuff doesn’t require us to make an effort. Compare these two statements:
My current desk configuration doesn’t support focus or productivity
My desk is too small for the equipment I have and the work I do
To solve Problem #1, I have to use my brain. Problem #2 requires only my credit card. And if I can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for my dream desk right now? I still get off the hook. The problem starts and ends with my desk. No new desk means I have the freedom to complain without working to make things better.
Plus, some ADHDers self-medicate with spending. The thrill of gearing up for success makes us feel like we’ve done more work than we really have. Or we think the correct tools will magically make the work easier. It’s an unhealthy habit, especially for the many ADHDers who struggle with financial insecurity.
Does this mean I should accept a too-small desk forever? No. I hope to build my dream workstation someday.
However, that day is not today. Acquiring and getting rid of stuff takes time and planning. It also contributes to clutter, waste, and my carbon footprint. As much as I want the big project, I can’t afford it right now.
Making do with my current furniture required mental effort. I didn’t buy my way out of the problem or gift myself the fancy desk I thought I deserved. But every time I see my desk now, it reminds me: I took my work seriously enough to craft a nice space to do it in. I don’t think a new desk would’ve given me that feeling.
I questioned everything.
Organizing expert Marie Kondo and many others recommend what I’m going to call the nuke-and-rebuild approach to getting a space in order. In other words: don’t look at your messy desk, move a few things around, carry your five dirty coffee mugs to the sink, and call it a day.
When I reorganized my desk, I removed everything from the surface. Then I questioned each individual item I put back on. Because I don’t actually store much on my desk, most major items returned after a good cleaning.
However, I surprised myself with my speakers. Ever since I built my first computer circa 1999, I’ve connected serious speakers to it. As a result, I’d taken my current set — two desktop speakers plus a subwoofer under the desk — for granted.
But did I need them? The way I use my computer speakers has changed a lot since I lived with my parents. My bluetooth speaker actually works better for what I currently listen to at my desk: mostly podcasts and instructional videos instead of music and games.
The bluetooth speaker eliminated clutter and cords from my desk and improved my listening experience. I also appreciated giving it a permanent, useful home when I’m not on the road. And I never would’ve thought to question my big speakers unless I took everything off the desk.
I solved one problem at a time and avoided the huge project.
Despite the improvements you see in these pictures, my office doesn’t feel done. It’s still the least-maintained room in the house. I have a lot I want to do with the decor and I won’t do it anytime soon. I have to make my peace with that.
If you have ADHD, remember that cliche about not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. For whatever reason, we tend to have two settings: leap into a huge project headfirst or don’t do it at all. Perhaps this has something to do with time blindness. If we have trouble grasping the concept of the future, why would we want to put our important projects there? If we’re going to start a project — something that can feel daunting enough on its own — we want to do it right.
This isn’t my nature. I want to shoot straight for the goal. Attack the whole thing at once. But that rarely works. I end up with a huge mess and no idea where to begin cleaning it up. Right now, the best thing I can do for my home and my work is to make this desk work for me. So that’s what I did — and no more.
This is a guest post from Jenny Wise of Special Home Educator. The topics she addresses here cover one area of frequent overlap between children with autism and ADHD. I hope you find it enlightening!
Even a simple daily activity like boarding the school bus can be intensely upsetting for a child with ADHD or autism. These reactions can feel unpredictable to a frazzled parent, especially when your child encounters an unfamiliar routine or situation for the first time. The more you understand and can recognize how anxiety affects your child and how they respond to transitions and sensory stimuli, the more prepared you will feel when trying to mitigate an upset reaction.
Be mindful of difficult transitions.
Students with autism and ADHD can find the school environment itself very challenging. Your child may feel overwhelmed by the noise and activity of so many classmates in an enclosed space. Transitions throughout the school day only increase stress.
During enjoyable activities, your child may sink into hyperfocus. Moving directly from an action he enjoys to one he doesn’t can feel upsetting and unexpected. It’s important to understand this and provide support during transitions. Try asking your child’s teacher about daily schedules so you can prepare visual reminders of classroom routines and expected changes throughout the day. This could include a photo of the event with the time it takes place.
Having a visual schedule your child can refer to can make these transitions easier. Eventually, she’ll learn to expect them and make the adjustment. You may even choose to take a picture of her making a successful transition from one activity to the next. This positive reinforcement illustrates her ability to handle transitions and gives her something tangible to refer to.
Teach appropriate relaxation strategies.
Children with ADHD and autism can struggle with anxiety, whether it’s school-based or of a more generalized social variety. They may need help finding relaxation techniques that work for them.
Meditation has been proven effective in helping autistic children cope with anxiety-producing situations they face in school. It’s a calming, self-regulating discipline, and children need to be shown how to make it effective. That may prove difficult for younger children, who often lack the patience and self-discipline to make it work. If meditation proves too difficult for your child, deep-breathing exercises are simpler and may prove more successful. It’s a soothing activity that a child can do anywhere, anytime he feels anxious about something.
Watch for sensory processing issues.
According to the STAR Institute, 75 percent of autistic children exhibit notable symptoms of sensory processing disorder. Many children with ADHD seem to experience this as well. Children may manifest this dysfunction in many ways, from overt sensory aversion behavior to an inability to interact with certain people or physical objects. Fortunately, there are a number of effective strategies to help children cope with sensory processing problems.
If noise is a trigger, noise-cancelling headphones may help during noisier periods at school and at home. In some cases, you may need to integrate a child into a challenging environment slowly, with the goal of helping her adapt through incremental and repeated exposure.
For kids who struggle with visual stimuli, ask the teacher to limit visual clutter in the classroom. Do the same in your home. Consider placing labels with pictures on containers, or use pictures to illustrate where your child should keep specific items in their desk or bedroom.
Help your child get a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is critical to help us cope with difficult social situations and small challenges that arise throughout the day. It’s no different for children with autism and ADHD, for whom these challenges may feel especially overwhelming. In fact, lack of sleep can actually produce ADHD-like symptoms in neurotypical children. If you want to help a child with autism or ADHD develop effective coping strategies, a good night’s sleep should be the first step.
Your child will benefit from a familiar nighttime routine that helps them get to sleep. For many children, sleep is yet another difficult transition. It becomes harder still if the child is engaged in a very enjoyable activity just before he is asked to get into bed. A nighttime routine that takes this into account can help ease the transition.
If sleep is a consistent problem, consider the possible role of sensory sensitivities. For example, an old, uncomfortable can inhibit sleep. If your child’s mattress is more than a decade old, it probably needs replacing. Some children are also very sensitive to the weight and texture of their sheets. An itchy pajama tag can feel unbearable. Even something like the color of their bedroom walls can create inner turmoil and wakefulness. Don’t dismiss these preferences as picky behavior. Any of these seemingly minor issues can affect a child’s sleep enough to cause problems that cascade throughout the school day.
While it may help to introduce a child into a difficult environment gradually, you also may need other interventions to help him cope. Getting to know your child’s anxiety triggers and sensory dislikes will enable you to anticipate and manage negative responses. Sometimes a simple intervention can make a big difference.
Following my post about tackling those pesky lingering items on your to-do list, a reader wrote to me with a question about laundry.
I don’t struggle to actually put it in the washer and dryer, but when it comes to putting it away I’m stuck. I currently have three baskets of clothes in my bedroom and closet. I just wear clothes out of [them] until I can combine two baskets and use the empty one to wash more clothes. Any tips on getting laundry put away in a timely fashion? Thanks! – S
Sound familiar? Almost all of us have been there. I’ve featured unpleasant chores (and how to make yourself do them) in a previous ADHDgram tip of the month, but today we’ll look at this pesky issue in more detail.
The short answer: yes, I do have some advice. But it also helps to understand why we ADHDers struggle so hard with basic chores.
You already have a working system.
Yes, you heard me correctly. S already has a system for laundry — and it’s working. The laundry gets washed and returned to a convenient location on a regular basis. S may not feel satisfied with the process, but it works at a basic level. This 80% solution is where a lot of ADHDers get stuck.
That’s because we so often use crises and deadlines as motivators. We leave a project until the last minute, then finish it in a panic. We get distracted scrolling through our phones, then realize we need to race to pick our kids up at school. And many of us put off doing the laundry until we notice we’re down to our last pair of clean underwear. Then, suddenly, we find the motivation to do it.
But once it’s clean, then what? The emergency has passed. We can’t seem to force ourselves to finish the job. As a kid, I got in trouble all the time for leaving my clean laundry in the dryer. I’d retrieve items from there as I needed them — until someone else wanted to use the dryer and my stuff got in the way.
This is a classic ADHD problem: if the task doesn’t interest us and it doesn’t feel like an emergency right now, we avoid doing it.
And yet, we need to fix it.
Just because a system is working doesn’t mean it feels right. Clearly, S wants a more organized laundry routine: one where they wash the clothes, fold them, and put them away within a reasonable amount of time. Because that feels like the right thing — the adult thing — to do.
Some organizing experts recommend that you not allow yourself to call the job finished until you’ve put the clothes away. In other words, don’t check “wash laundry” off your list until the clothes are back in your closet or dresser. Eventually, you’ll condition your brain to include folding and putting away in its definition of washing the laundry.
Except that you can’t fool your brain. You know you’ll have clean clothes to wear even if you don’t put them away. You can’t conjure motivation out of the ether simply by telling yourself “this job isn’t done until I put the clothes away in the drawers.”
Figure out why you want the process to be different.
The first step in retraining yourself and pushing this 80% to 100% is to figure out why change matters. I spend an entire section of Order from Chaos talking about this. It can make or break your attempts to improve your life.
We all know what we should do. And maybe some people can motivate themselves to do uninteresting or unpleasant tasks simply because they should. Those people most likely don’t have ADHD.
If you really want to put the laundry away, figure out why that feels like an important thing to do. Go deeper than “because responsible adults know how to put their laundry away.” Your reasons might include something like:
I feel embarrassed when I have someone over and they see all my laundry sitting out. I want to feel more comfortable inviting guests to my house.
When my bedroom looks tidy, I feel much more calm and centered. I want this room to be a relaxing space for me — somewhere I can retreat.
My wrinkled clothes are affecting my confidence at work. I want to look and feel more put together so I can put my best foot forward and live up to my potential.
Once you’ve tied fixing this specific problem — putting away clean laundry — to a deeper goal that sits close to your values or identity, remind yourself of it often. You may even want to put a picture representing this goal near where the laundry sits to remind you of what lies on the other side of your efforts.
Make the work as fun and easy as possible.
There’s no getting around the fact that we ADHDers abhor tedium (unless, of course, it’s a task that engages our hyperfocus). No matter how much you want to change your habits, it will still feel nearly impossible to initiate a boring task.
Think about how you think — and adapt your system accordingly.
Your thinking and learning style should inform how you organize your stuff. I wrote a guest post about this for A Dose of Healthy Distraction, which I highly recommend to anyone more interested in this topic.
In short, your ADHD already makes you feel like you’re fighting your brain every single day. Getting organized is hard. Don’t add another layer of difficulty by forcing yourself to use tools that conflict with your thinking style.
This is especially important if you’re what we call a visual thinker. My husband is a visual thinker. It took me a long time to figure out why he rarely put anything away in our home: his brain resists putting things out of sight. This explains why visual thinkers do so much better with baskets than with closed drawers and cabinets.
If you’re a highly visual person, you might consider alternatives to the standard out-of-sight clothing storage. I’ve seen people stack clothing neatly on IKEA Kallax shelves. I’ve seen rolling garment racks stored in a corner of the room. For some people, finding an attractive way to store things in plain sight makes it easier — or even possible — to put those things away.
Find a way to make it fun.
I usually wash our entire household’s clothing, towels, sheets, rags, and napkins once weekly. This amounts to 3-5 big blue IKEA bags. I’ve never looked at this and thought, wow, I can’t wait to get started. More often, I feel like I have an invisible force field pushing me away from the task.
To combat this, I try to connect boring or unpleasant jobs with a fun activity. Bonus points if it’s something I feel I don’t have enough time for.
In the case of the laundry, I watch TV. I have trouble sitting still or making time to watch television, even though I love to immerse myself in a well-written show. Folding laundry gives me both a fidget and an excuse to watch TV. I’ve made a rule for myself that except on special occasions, I won’t only watch TV: I have to be doing something else, too. I have a whole section of my to-do list dedicated to stuff I can do on the couch while I watch a show.
If you don’t want to give up unencumbered TV time, choose one show that you’ll only watch while folding laundry. Or try another favorite of mine: podcasts. I love podcasts, but never have time to listen to everything on my list. I’ve also created special music playlists for chores I don’t enjoy.
Whatever activity you choose to do while you fold — it could even be calling a friend or family member on the phone — make sure it’s something that will bring you joy and help you look forward to the task. Try to make it something you wouldn’t be doing anyway.
Find your Why, troubleshoot the How.
Bottom line: chores can be complicated for people with ADHD. What others seem to do on autopilot, we have trouble doing at all. These struggles can turn into bigtime character judgments.
Instead of focusing on how frustrated you feel with yourself, figure out why this chore feels like an important task to get done — and go beyond “because it needs to.” You know that already and it hasn’t helped yet. The trick is to figure out what part of your core identity and values will feel supported by your success with this chore.
Once you know why you want to do better — not why you should or why your spouse wants you to — you need to get to know yourself. Get acquainted with your brain. Work with your natural tendencies, not against them. Take a problem-solving approach instead of a try-harder approach. Think of these problems like a machine that has broken down: you need to find the broken part and repair it, not tell the machine to work harder. Same goes for your organizational systems.
When something isn’t working, there’s usually a reason. The only way to get the thing running smoothly is to figure out that reason, adjust, fail, assess, adjust, fail, and adjust again until it clicks. Does it feel good to have to troubleshoot our laundry like this? No. But when we walk into an orderly bedroom and know we only have our own hard work to thank, the reward is sweet.
We all have them: tasks that have languished on our to-do lists for months (or years). Their neighbors come and go, but these pesky buggers hang on. They usually aren’t life-and-death important, but somehow they feel like a symbol of everything that’s wrong with us.
The actual problem is often simple, but we rarely take the time to sit down and troubleshoot our process. We’re too busy berating ourselves for failing to do the simplest of things. If this describes you, give yourself a break. Adopt a problem-solving approach. Chances are, you aren’t terminally incompetent and a small tweak to your system will get things moving.
Take a look at your to-do list through the lens of these three major roadblocks.
You’re missing a necessary resource.
Sometimes we add an item to our list because we don’t want to forget it, but we aren’t actually prepared to do it yet. For example, imagine you want to hang a picture above your couch. You add “hang picture above couch” to your to-do list.
Progress, right? Except your husband moved the picture hanging supplies from their usual spot. Now you can’t find them. You also have that fancy exposed brick wall behind the couch. It might require special hardware to hang the picture securely.
If you’ve organized your to-list by context, you’re looking at “hang picture above couch” when you have time to complete a job or two around the house. And guess what? No one else is home. That’s why it seemed like a good time to get stuff done around the house. But now you need to ask your husband about the supplies and also how he hung the other pictures on the brick wall. So you pick something else from your around-the-house list and do that instead.
Later, you trip over the picture leaning against the garage wall for the twentieth time. You berate yourself for the fact that it’s still there six months after you got it framed, and you sink into a pit of rage and loathing.
If a resource or decision blocks you from doing the thing, you will not do the thing. Period. That’s because you aren’t looking at a single task, you’re looking at a project. Which leads me to…
Your task is actually a project.
I base my definitions of tasks and projects on the Getting Things Done system. A task (or next action, in GTD parlance) is a single action you can do immediately. If the task requires more than one discrete action, it’s a project. This distinction is especially critical for people with ADHD. Our weak working memory typically only allows us to hold one thing in mind at once.
Many people hesitate to call something like hanging a picture a project. We want it to sound simple. People with ADHD feel a little sketchy about projects. But hanging the picture requires us to complete several subtasks:
Locate the supplies to hang the picture.
Measure the wall and mark where we need to install the picture hook.
Ask someone else what kind of tools or hardware we need to hang a large picture on a brick wall.
In the case of my house, which is a townhouse, determine a good time to drill a hole in our shared brick wall when I won’t wake up or otherwise tick off my neighbors.
Each step in this process demands different people, tools, and decisions. The best time to hammer or drill into a shared townhouse wall may not be a time when we can ask our spouse to help us find a misplaced tape measure. And many ADHDers struggle with working memory deficits. Our brains can’t read “hang picture” on our to-do list and conceptualize the whole process outlined above.
If a task has sat on your list undone for too long, ask yourself: is it really just one task? Or have you put it off because it’s actually a few smaller tasks rolled into one? If that’s the case, you need to break it out into a project.
No one cares.
ADHDers are notorious for resisting any tedious work, but we struggle especially hard with tasks that feel like they don’t matter. Most of us have productivity buttons that will motivate us:
Stakes: as in, a Super Bad Thing will happen if we don’t do this task, so we’d better do it because Super Bad Thing makes us have scary anxiety dreams.
Deadlines: even if we leave it until the day before it’s due, an external deadline can light a fire under us.
Appeal: we enjoy the task and will put off other, less-appealing tasks in order to do it right away.
When we don’t see anything at stake, the deadline feels far away, and the task itself lacks any kind of appeal or fun factor, we probably won’t do it. Plain and simple.
Tasks in this category can haunt ADHDers for months or even years. They’re the little things others tell us we “just have to do.” And you can find strategies to try. You can insert external accountability by asking for a deadline, sequester yourself in a coffee shop or library, or block out time on your calendar to get the task done. Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t.
Before you waste energy trying to wrangle your brain, ask yourself: what will happen if this task never gets done? You might want it to get done, but how much does it need to get done? If it’s not critical, be bold. Accept reality. Delete it and move on.
Stop letting your to-do list shame and intimidate you.
You may resist deleting incomplete tasks from your list or creating projects for mundanities like hanging a new picture on the wall. It hurts to admit we’ll never actually do a thing we set out to do. We feel embarrassed when we need to create entire infrastructures for tasks others seem to complete with very little effort. But we know the alternative all too well: a to-do list that mocks us with its very existence.
A brief note about project management
If you’re new to the idea of Getting Things Done or you haven’t read my book Order from Chaos, you may be wondering how to manage projects separate from your main to-do list. I’m working on an ADHD-friendly app to guide you through this but until then, I use Toodledo to manage my tasks. It can store individual notes and tasks within folders (aka projects) and sort them by context to help your list feel more relevant.
You can always use physical folders with old-fashioned notes inside. It’s all up to you. Whatever you choose, it should feel right for you and allow you to list tasks individually or within project folders. You’ll also want to sort based on what you can (or want to) do right now. I use context categories like office, computer, phone, house, etc. to organize my list.
ADHD can make our to-do lists feel like a place where tasks go to die. I’ve spoken to a lot of folks who don’t even want to use a to-do list. Every time they add something to it, they’re reminded that they probably won’t complete the task. But the truth is, every single task that’s lingered on your list for too long has a reason for getting stuck there.
If you’re using a to-do list regularly and checking some items off but not others, it’s time to take a look at why. Often the answer is simple: the task either doesn’t matter, or it includes too many pieces for our brains to handle all at once. Take a minute to look for these common issues. You might be surprised by what you can do.
ADHD is a misnomer. We don’t have an attention deficit, we have a dysregulation.
Many of us struggle for years trying to make sense of what that means. In some ways, it boils down to simple physics. We ADHDers have a lot of inertia.
My high school physics teacher delighted in long acronyms. Every once in a while, the sound of our class chanting one in particular drifts through my mind. OARSAR…OIMSIM…SSSD…UAUBAEAOF…
All these years later, these sound patterns have kept Newton’s First Law of Motion imprinted upon my auditory thinker’s brain. Newton’s First Law is also called the Law of Inertia.
Replace “objects” in this law with “ADHDers” and you have Newton’s First Law of ADHD.
Objects ADHDers at rest stay at rest…
I have a great work ethic — once I get started. Most ADHDers struggle with transitions. If you give us a job to do, we often feel resistant. We don’t know where or how to start.
Whether we’re in bed in the morning, sitting in front of the TV, reading a book, even just staring out the window, our brains want to keep us there. We aren’t lazy, but getting up and getting started feels crazy difficult sometimes. Heck, I even avoid getting started on stuff I want to do!
Objects ADHDers in motion stay in motion, same speed same direction…
Once you get us going on a project, look out! Some people call this an ADHD superpower <insert eyeroll here>: we can put in marathon efforts on tasks that really grab us. We focus our attention like a laser and we won’t leave it alone.
We do it writing code, wrapping up a project at the office, hunched over a craft table, or sorting all our Legos into color-coded bins. Many ADHDers possess an uncanny ability to put on our blinders and work long past when others would’ve quit for dinner or lost interest.
Even if we aren’t hyperfocused, per se, we resist changing gears. For example, I hate using the telephone. I’ll let phone calls pile up on my to-do list for months. But eventually one phone call becomes enough of an emergency that I have to bite the bullet and do it right away. Then something funny happens: I get my brain into phone mode. After I hang up, I pull out that list of phone calls and cross off five more. I may hate the telephone, but sometimes it’s easier to keep making calls than it is to make my brain switch gears to a new set of tasks.
…Unless acted upon by an equal and opposite force.
Even more than making phone calls, I avoid cleaning up our basement. The basement tends to attract clutter from elsewhere in the house. It’s easier to hide stuff down there than it is to deal with it for real.
But I also hate clutter. The mess recently got on my last nerve and I had a complete meltdown about the basement. To be fair, the whole house had been a powder keg for a while. I’d felt myself stewing about clutter in every room. But one day, something lit a spark in the basement and boom! Where once I didn’t know where to start, I now raged through the project at a breakneck pace.
People with ADHD avoid unpleasant tasks, but if something becomes enough of an emergency or triggers enough of an emotional reaction, we can really show up. Unfortunately, sometimes we require an epic meltdown to break the motivational logjam.
Likewise with hyperfocus. For an ADHDer deep in the zone, a simple “hey, we need to leave for dinner in 15 minutes” or “you’re going to be late for work” won’t cut it. Same speed, same direction, remember? The “equal and opposite force” will likely be that stomach-dropping moment when we look at the clock and realize we should’ve been arriving somewhere by now. Then we’ll put down the hyperfocus task and run around the house gathering our things and yelling “oh sh*t oh sh*t oh sh*t.”
If ADHD is a problem of inertia, that means we need a greater equal and opposing force to change our course. We won’t respond to the quiet knowledge that we should do this or we’ll be sorry if we don’t do that. If we’re resisting a transition, sometimes nothing short of a disaster will move us.
Inertia has its pros and cons, of course.
I don’t see this added inertia as a gift any more than I see it as a death sentence.
Yes, inertia sucks sometimes. Focusing on one activity to the exclusion of everything else is so rarely practical. Sometimes we ADHDers keep going on a task when we really need to take care of other responsibilities. And once in a while, it’d be nice to knock out a tedious job before it became an emergency. To be able to make smooth transitions between tasks at appropriate times: the impossible dream, right?
And yet, my single-minded focus on a project like cleaning out the basement — and my ability to ignore physical exhaustion almost entirely — sometimes cancels out my procrastination on those same tasks. It feels good to turn myself loose on a project that has felt stalled for years and see miraculous progress in such a short time.
I have to admit, sometimes I wish I had more trouble starting certain projects once that hyperfocus motivation kicks in. Seriously, folks. Where would we be if we always stopped to consider whether we’d actually finish a project before we started it?
And there’s the rub: once our epic inertia encounters that equal and opposite force, we’re right back where we started — whether we’ve reached an acceptable stopping point or not. Physics has no memory or feelings. Objects at rest and in motion have no sense of their own importance. And our ADHD seldom bends to human whims, either.