person sitting down in front of their open laptop while working from home, one hand on the keyboard, the other hand petting a cat that's sitting next to their laptop
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I have ADHD, which means—contrary to what you might think—I’m basically an expert on productivity tips and tricks. They might not all work for me, sure, but I’ve absolutely tried them all.

Even before my diagnosis in early 2020 (yes, literally days before the pandemic started), I’d always been obsessed with self-help and productivity hacks. Back then, I didn’t recognize it as a coping mechanism. It was more of a desperate search for that one magic trick to solve all of my productivity problems. If I could just find that One Thing to make me productive, then I wouldn’t struggle. I could get things done, I could stay focused, and I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. Unfortunately, that’s not how productivity works, especially for those of us with ADHD.

We’re taught to think of productivity like a light switch—on or off, are you getting things done or not? After all, if you think of it like a yes or no question, it becomes easier to sell people productivity solutions. Buy this thing, and you’ll unlock the mythical box to solve your work-related woes.

In reality? Productivity is a lot more complex. There is no universal solution for productivity problems—not even ADHD medication can completely eliminate struggles with focus, energy, and motivation—and that’s OK. Every brain, every workplace, every situation is different, and those differences will ebb and flow throughout different phases or even days of your life. Instead of fighting those changes, it’s about learning how to predict, understand, and ride the waves.

Does that mean you can’t optimize your productivity levels if you have ADHD or struggle with executive dysfunction? Absolutely not. However, it does require rethinking how you look at productivity tools, tips, and tricks, and building what I like to call your productivity toolbox.

What’s a productivity toolbox?

We all know that you can’t build an entire house with just a screwdriver. It’s a complex process that requires a lot of different tools. Productivity is similar. Whether you have ADHD or not, some strategies might unlock new levels of productivity in certain situations but feel completely useless in others.

This is heightened with ADHD. The tools you use might vary depending on different factors like where you’re working, the amount of stress you’re under, and how many distractions you’re dealing with, which is why it’s important to flesh out your productivity toolbox with several different options rather than relying on just one thing.

My own productivity toolbox has grown a lot over the last few years. Some tips work better than others—and some only work in very specific situations—but I’ve narrowed it down to a few key strategies that I find work well with ADHD brains.

1.
Do a brain dump.

My therapist once described ADHD as having 59 different televisions playing in your head all at once. So even though you might know that you have things to do, those tasks might get drowned out by all the other noise. That’s why a brain dump is so important for people with ADHD who want to be more productive, and it’s how I start every single week (sometimes every morning).

Here’s how to do it: Write down every single thing floating around in your brain in one big list—mine includes work and personal tasks, reminders, house chores, etc. Why? Because you can use this list to create visibility. If you take things out of your head and put them on paper, you can reduce the anxiety around missing or forgetting something.

Sometimes I even do a brain dump by walking through my entire house. I don’t always remember everything that belongs on the list, but visual cues—like that pile of paperwork that I keep forgetting to file away—remind me what to add.

From there? Break things down into actionable steps. This might mean creating smaller to-do lists for different segments of your day, scheduling items on your calendar, or implementing one of the other productivity tips on this list to help you get started.

Doing a brain dump helps you organize your thoughts, reduce anxiety, and feel more in control of your week. You don’t have to worry about random things popping up as you remember them and having to restructure your entire day to accommodate. They’re already on your list so you can plan if, when, or how you want to tackle them accordingly.

2.
Try body doubling.

One of my favorite productivity tools for people with ADHD is the practice of body doubling, which essentially means using another person’s presence to increase your productivity. Sometimes we notice it come up naturally—like when it’s easier to clean your house when your partner is cleaning too—but you can create opportunities to use it for work, too.

I’ve used body doubling both in person and virtually. In person, I’ll schedule an hour or two to work with someone at a coffee shop—without socializing—where we each share what we’re working on before diving in. Virtually, I schedule an hour-long Zoom session with a friend where we turn on our cameras, turn off our microphones, and get to work.

Schedule a time to practice body doubling with another person, and decide two things before you start:

  1. How long will your body doubling session be?
  2. What are you going to work on during that session?

This isn’t a time to chat or collaborate—it’s too easy to get distracted by conversation. The goal is to let someone else’s presence and productivity create accountability and help you get things done.

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3.
Set a timer.

There are countless timer-based ways to increase productivity. Some people love using the Pomodoro Technique, where you work in 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks, while others prefer using a more fluid method like setting a timer for 30 minutes and seeing how much you can get done in a single sprint.

Using a timer can help you reduce the emotional “weight” of work, which can be super helpful if you have executive dysfunction and struggle to do tasks that are boring or stressful. Remember, procrastination isn’t always a time-management issue, it can also be an emotion-management one. How you feel about a task impacts how willing you are to work on it, especially for people with ADHD. We can even find boredom physically painful—and who wants to dive headfirst into something causing them pain? Setting a timer can make it easier, since you’re controlling and limiting the length of your exposure to the emotion.

Got something overwhelming on your to-do list that you’re avoiding? Instead of thinking about the entire task and the black box of completing it, think about setting a timer for 10 minutes. You don’t have to finish it—you don’t even have to do most of it—you just have to start and make it through the 10 minutes. If you keep working? Awesome. If not, no worries! You can try again later and make incremental progress in short spurts. The goal isn’t to get everything done now, it’s to break down the emotional weight to make it easier to get started.

4.
Learn your own ADHD rules.

I know this sounds vague, but learning your own ADHD rules and habits is an essential part of every productivity toolbox. Why? Because you know yourself better than anyone else.

You know whether or not you need music to focus or absolute silence, for example, and how that changes depending on the situation (music might help during some tasks and distract you during others—or you might have different genres of music that fuel your productivity while others destroy it). You also know which tasks push you into hyperfocus and which tasks you tend to avoid. You know whether you can work from bed—something I’ve never been able to do successfully—or if you need to sit at a desk. None of these are universal traits shared by everyone with ADHD. They’re personal preferences and habits that are unique to you.

The more you learn about yourself, the better. Treat it like an experiment, and start gathering information on all kinds of things that help you focus—and those that make it harder for you to get things done. For instance, does eating more protein for breakfast help you focus? Does exercise supercharge your productivity? How does your environment play a role in your workday?

Whether you’re building a house or trying to be productive at work, it’s essential to learn how and when to use certain tools. You’re the expert on you. Instead of fighting the ebbs and flows of your productivity levels, try to learn and adapt with them.

Updated 9/8/2022