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Sustainable Productivity with ADHD

Robert Merki

If you ever Google "ADHD Productivity" you will find a gluttony of low quality articles that recommend checklists or "day planning".

These are tools, not solutions.

Let's assume you've already done these:

"Build a morning routine!"

"Pace yourself!"

"Make a to-do list!"

"Use a calendar!"

"Just get started!"

A lot of ADHD "hacks" are about adding more onto your plate. NEW habits. NEW tools. MORE checklists. They also don't mention long-term sustainable productivity. Just "tips" on how to help you in the moment.

If to-do lists or day planners were effective on their own, you wouldn't be reading this post. Think about long term sustainable productivity first.

Do these first before downloading another to-do app:

Fix Your Health You Idiot

Think about the best productivity you've ever had. It felt good, didn't it?

Productivity only happens when you feel good. This is a priority. How do you feel good? The majority is emotional and physical health. Ignore them and you will suffer.

These are checklist items. You don't need a perfect diet, just eat your damn vegetables.

Physical health:

  • Do you eat healthy? If your diet is "whatever" then you're decreasing your productivity.
  • Do you drink enough water? I doubt it.
  • Do you exercise? Sure, close this tab and stay mad if you want to, but hundreds of studies agree with me. 45 minutes of walking, 3 times per week is enough to check this off.
  • Do you sleep at least 7+ hours every night? If you don't, start. You are unlikely to be one of the 5% that can get by with less sleep.

Emotional health:

  • If you have emotional trauma, see a therapist. If you have a broken ankle, you wouldn't think twice about seeing a doctor. See a damn therapist. It's good for you.
  • Fix your social conflicts. Disagreements with friends/family leave lasting emotional impacts. These are distracting and reduce your focus. Fix them. If you need help, see a therapist.
  • Do you hate your job? Good luck being productive. Change your job or find a new role. It's a hard pill to swallow, but if you want to be productive you have to feel good.

No Hail Marys

In sports, a Hail Mary is a last-minute desperation attempt to win the game.

You have a big deadline coming up. Instead of working on your project, you make the conscious decision to avoid it. You are now forced to do a Hail Mary on the final day.

Hail Marys are stupid. Stop trying them.

You know what's better than being desperate at the last minute? Getting started way before the deadline.

"Just get started bro!"

Yeah I know. But that's not what I'm saying.

If you have ADHD, you'll have random bad days where you seriously can't get started. Your brain just doesn't work, it happens. How do you fix that? No idea.

However, you're more likely to have an average day. Make those better instead, don't waste them.

When you have an average day, don't make conscious decisions to avoid your work. Do the work. Not all of it, but just enough that you get caught up. Then go recharge.

It's way easier to do 1 hour of work 7 times, than 7 hours of work all at once.

Avoid Hail Marys.

Productivity Debt is a Fantasy

You need to write a 3,000 word essay. You have 10 days. You do the math, 300 words per day. Easy right?

On the third day you have a bad day. You do nothing. So let me guess, tomorrow you'll write double to "catch up" right?

This is dumb. You are not in debt. You missed one day, big deal. Just continue on like normal the next day. Chances are, one of the upcoming days will be better than average, and you'll make up for your "zero day" then.

If you start adding more and more to your daily goals, you're going to get frustrated and burn out. Remember, avoid feeling bad. You don't owe a debt to the Fairy Godmother of Productivity.

Control Hyperfocus, Avoid Burn Out

We randomly get very focused for long periods of time. This is called Hyperfocus. It's useful, but don't abuse it.

Hyperfocus is a state of obsessive productivity. You spend an entire weekend on some new project you get obsessed with. The Rabbit Hole.

It's really productive and feels good. But it's random, so don't rely on it. Pretend like every day is going to be average. If you get Hyperfocused, great! Ride that wave for a few hours, but don't rely on it.

Second, if you do get Hyperfocused, control it at all costs. Do not spend 10+hours working. Do not stay up late. Do not ignore your health. The extra few hours of productivity you're missing out on will burn you out.

Burn out is what gives you those awful, zero productivity days. Burn out happens for many different reasons, but uncontrolled hyperfocus is a guarenteed way of burning out.

If you feel hyperfocused, set a hard time limit on the work you'll do. This is very difficult. You're in a state of obsession, so you'll feel guilty and bad. In the long run, you'll accomplish much more as you avoid burn out.

Have Zero Days

If you have a bad day and can't do any work, what do you do?

Some people think you can "snap out of it" or something. That's never worked for me.

What does work for me? Doing nothing!

If I realize I'm having a bad day or just a bad morning, I purposely do nothing. I play video games or go do something else. It works! Later in the day, or the next day, I bounce right back to normal.

Often I notice that the next day I actually have more productivity than normal. Not always, but most of the time.

Don't feel guilty about having a zero productivity day. If you could flip a switch and get to work, you would have done so already.

Just relax as much as possible and charge up for the next day.

(I realize not everyone can afford to have a zero day like that, but at the very least, don't feel so guilty if you have an unproductive day. They're just another part of ADHD that doesn't seem have an easy remedy.)

Do those and you'll feel better most of the time. This is the first step towards having a better mindset with ADHD. I guarantee just thinking about these things will make you feel better and make you more productive in the long-run.

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