What ADHD Taught Me About Productivity

These tools help me to maintain my focus even when it’s an uphill battle

Photo: naruecha jenthaisong/Getty Images

I was diagnosed with ADHD a year ago, but I probably always knew on some level that this was part of my makeup. After I completed college two semesters late, I attempted to begin my writing career, but I’d find myself spending days trying to write 800-word articles. I missed deadline after deadline. My brain just couldn’t stay focused on the story.

Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, you probably relate.

With many of us now working from home, productivity is suffering. Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the U.K. Council for Psychotherapy, says, “the confined environment of the office can be disciplining.” Inevitably, it’s a lot harder to focus when you’re tucked in a corner of your bedroom, especially with the siren song of your bed calling. Without a dedicated workspace — or anywhere to go — it can be hard to stay accountable.

Living with ADHD has helped me to understand the power of tools and systems. Here’s what I use on a daily basis to keep me focused:

The power of dedicated spaces

ADHD requires a high level of organization. Everything needs a place. Where do your pens go? Where do your files go? If they don’t have a space, create a space. If you’re without much space, use drawer dividers and shelving. When everything has a home, it’s easier to find what you need.

It’s also important to organize your digital life. I used to spend far too much time catching up on the news and reading articles in my field. At first, I was leaving them open in my browser… but then I would get lost in a thousand tabs. Instead, I started using my web browser’s bookmark feature more intuitively: bookmarking a list of shortcuts to websites that I frequently use, resources, and whatnot. What I found most useful is that you essentially need a way to save things “for later.”

Tools to gather

Folks with ADHD have trouble staying on track, due to symptoms like lack of focus, hyper focus, and time blindness. These things manifest in casual online shopping, doing everything BUT the task you want to do, and ignoring emails for embarrassingly long periods of time.

This is where my real arsenal comes in. Since my brain can’t keep up with the demands of the workday, I’ve acquired tools to help aid me. Chrome extensions have become the ultimate lifesaver. Because ADHD likes to switch up its effects on me, I use a few different extensions to ensure that I stay on track. Some days, one works more than others. Other days, none work. But if one tool fails, I always have a backup.

  • Marinara Pomodoro Timer: Pomodoro timers allow you intervals of “focus” and “break” time. I like this one specifically because it commands your attention when it’s time to shift your energy. Marinara opens a new tab and plays a sound when your time is up. That way, I can’t ignore it and forget what track I’m on!
  • Regular Timer: On my more sporadic days, I tend to use a regular timer. This allows me flexibility when my brain is being particularly stubborn.
  • Toggl Track: On top of all of this, I track my time. Because of my constant time blindness, it’s important to keep track of how long I take to complete tasks. This allows me to reflect on how long things actually take and reflect on how to adjust my schedule and expectations.

Accountability is hard when you’re struggling to maintain the precarious balance of discipline and negative self-talk. We have to guide ourselves back to productivity and be gentle the whole way. Here are some accountability-specific tools:

  • Mindful Browsing: Mindful Browsing reminds you that hey, maybe you shouldn’t be looking for new shoes on ASOS right now. You pick websites to block, and when you log on to them, Mindful Browsing reminds you that you have better things to be doing. It allows you to still view the website, but will remind you every 10 minutes that you should be working.
  • An army of to-do lists: Dividing your tasks into actionable items allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment when you check them off. I use the app TickTick. I appreciate how it allows you to create lists within lists, which allows me to break down my tasks further. I also use pen and paper. Or printables.
  • Boomerang: Boomerang is an email client that allows you to schedule emails and reminds you what to follow up on.
  • Write it all down: Keep sticky notes, notebooks, or something nearby so you can jot down the random thoughts that pop into your head. You can park the idea and can come back to stay focused on what you’ve put down at a later time.

Real, actual breaks

Comorbidity is pretty common with ADHD. Women with ADHD are especially more likely to have major depressive disorders. I personally have a lovely cocktail of ADHD, depression, and anxiety — maintaining them all at once is hard! And sometimes they all come for me at the same time… in the middle of the workweek.

I’ve learned to start taking breaks. Real breaks. Like, I set a timer, put my phone somewhere, and do something away from a screen. Sometimes it means taking a nap, cooking a meal, or furiously vacuuming to get some of my excessive energy out.

Nippoda suggests meditation, but emphasizes giving yourself permission to work the way that’s natural for you. “Everybody works at their own pace,” she says, “and it is very important to follow that rather than feel pressured by society.” It’s easy to give into imposter syndrome when you struggle with productivity. Instead of spiraling, the doctor leaves us with one more piece of advice: Be kind to yourself.

Brooklyn based poet and essayist. Queer & Afro-Latina. Writing about love, sex, mental illness and intersectionality. // bygabriellesmith.com

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