ADHD and Adults: Systems, Strategies and Shortcuts that Foster Success
For individuals with ADHD, the foundation for success is accepting your ADHD. This includes accepting that your brain is wired differently—not defectively, said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD.
“The truth is, adults with ADHD are creative, driven, intuitive, resourceful and are capable of great success,” said Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, a social worker, therapeutic arts facilitator and life coach who specializes in ADHD and helps her clients use their strengths to overcome challenges and discover true fulfillment in their lives.
The key is to incorporate systems, strategies and shortcuts into your life. Many of Olivardia’s patients worry that using a shortcut is akin to cheating or admitting that they’re not as smart or strong or motivated as people without ADHD. “I remind them that the term ‘shortcut’ in regards to ADHD means that you are merely diminishing the unnecessary executive fuel that is burned by virtue of having ADHD…Shortcuts are simply strategic ways of doing things in the most efficient way possible.”
He used the example of a cell phone and landline. Even though they’re both phones, we don’t assume that they work the same way. They also come with different manuals. “Different brains require different strategies for success.” As such, below you’ll find a list of 12 tools and techniques to help you thrive and cultivate success—whatever that means for you.
Know yourself. Olivardia, who also has ADHD, exercises after work, sometimes at 10 p.m. He changes into his workout clothes at his office before leaving for the gym. Because if he doesn’t change, even with good intentions, he drives right by the gym and goes home. Already wearing his exercise clothes is a concrete, external cue, a loud, clear-cut message to his brain that it’s time to work out. “Yes, most people leave work and change into their gym clothes in the gym locker room. I know myself too well and how my ADHD and motivation work.”
ADHD coach Aaron Smith regularly forgets to eat. Which is why he starts the day with a power smoothie. It’s filled with brain-boosting ingredients, such as bananas, berries, spinach, vegetable-based protein powder, almond butter and almond milk.
How does your motivation function? What system, strategy or shortcut might help you take action or incorporate an activity you enjoy?
Have a landing zone and launching pad. A landing zone includes important things, such as: a bowl for keys, your wallet and a phone; a basket for incoming mail; and a spot for your bag, said Debra Michaud, M.A., an organizer and ADHD coach who specializes in working with adults struggling with chronic disorganization. A launching pad includes anything that needs to leave the house, she said, such as: bills, birthday cards, donations and store returns.
Eat dessert first. You’ve probably heard the advice “eat your frog,” meaning do the worst task on your list first to get it out of the way. But this doesn’t work for people with ADHD. Instead of starting with a task you’re dreading, pick a task that’s enjoyable or fun, said van Rikxoort. “This will help jump-start your brain and boost your mood, which will set you up for success when you take on those not-so-preferred tasks.”
Start a success journal. “People with ADHD often have difficulty remembering past successes due to problems with working memory,” van Rikxoort said. Having a success journal helps you remember your victories—and recall the tools and tips you used to achieve them. “It’s a great resource to have on hand that you can refer to any time you’re faced with a challenging situation and need help deciding how to tackle it,” she said.
Organize your home like a department store. That is, have specific zones for similar items, such as hardware, memorabilia and holiday items. “You can zone by room and then within the room,” Michaud said. For instance, have a baking zone in your kitchen, where you include all your baking supplies, she said. Have a hot beverage zone that includes your kettle, coffee maker, mugs, tea strainer and different types of coffee and teas.
It’s also helpful to zone by how often you use items. “When organizing I always divide a home in terms of highest and lowest ‘value’ of real estate—in other words, easy access and high traffic areas are ‘high value’ areas and should only store frequently used items,” Michaud said. For instance, you wouldn’t store the waffle maker you use twice a year with your daily used pots and pans, she said. You’d store it in the hard-to-reach cabinet.
File by category. Some people think they need to file paperwork alphabetically, but our brains don’t think this way. Michaud suggested using hanging files with plastic tabs, along with a different file color for each category. Your categories might include: medical, finance and work.
Use hooks. According to Michaud, “Hooks are your best friend.” Wherever you tend to throw items—clothes, backpacks, keys—on the floor, put several large hooks. Plus, you can put hooks on different levels inside your closet for more storage, and inside cabinet doors, she said.
Follow the “Rule of 3.” “Many people with ADHD struggle with time insensitivity and often underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a task,” van Rikxoort said. She suggested tripling the amount of time you think a task will take. In other words, if you think a task will take 10 minutes, give yourself 30 minutes, she said.
Keep shortcuts shiny. Strategies can get old and become less effective. Which is why van Rikxoort suggested to “shine it up.” Instead of doing an overhaul, make a small shift. She shared this example: If writing things down is getting boring, buy a new notebook or planner. “Some people will turn their notebooks and write in a different direction or use different colored pens.” Use your creativity to help you shake things up.
Do a quick pick-up. “Set a recurring alarm every night before bed where the whole family picks up for 5 minutes,” Michaud said. This helps you finish up fast tasks and prevent piles resembling the leaning tower of Pisa.
Make tasks fun. “The mere threat of boredom is enough to completely shut down a person with ADHD and that’s why it is so important to look for ways to make daily tasks enjoyable,” van Rikxoort said. Listen to music and dance as you clean the house. Make sorting through old paperwork into a timed game. Dress up to do certain tasks.
According to Smith, listen to an audiobook or podcast while washing dishes; watch your favorite TV show while folding laundry; or listen to classical music as you read.
Have a sense of humor. “It is important to have an assertive sense of humor with ADHD,” Olivardia said. “I am the first to agree and laugh with anyone who might think that some things I do are strange and different. I respond, ‘Hey, as long as I am not hurting myself or anyone else and it gets me to where I want to go, I’m happy.’”
ADHD looks different in every person. Which means that different tools and techniques help different people. “The key to success is identifying how ADHD is showing up in your life and developing personal strategies that work with your unique strengths and abilities, rather than against them,” van Rikxoort said.
Olivardia encouraged readers to have fun brainstorming strategies and shortcuts; to talk to others with ADHD; and to attend the CHADD conference, where you can share your favorite strategies.
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