In my home town there is a tributary river that I often walk along when I walk my dog. During lockdown, some local hero had built a dam and created a small outdoor wild swimming pool. I discovered it by accident one day when walking with my son and dog. As you can imagine, it became something of a local hotspot, a much needed oasis of fun, nature and a break from being indoors when the weather was so glorious.
While it provided a lot of fun, it also attracted trouble – litter accumulated, and it became something of a party zone for the local teenagers, understandably frustrated at the restrictions on their freedom.
I hadn’t been there for a while, but walked up there today. It has collapsed now. Brought down by the huge volume of rain we have had recently, or maybe dismantled deliberately, I am not sure. But the water is flowing in the river as it should.
Our brains can get blocked sometimes, can’t they? Sometimes it can feel impossible to get started on a task, or to get to the end of it. This is true for everyone, I know, but it is especially true for those of us with ADHD brains. I used to tell people I was the ‘Queen of Procrastination’ until someone pointed out that if I keep telling myself that, I will never overcome it, so I stopped.
Stopped giving myself that title. I haven’t stopped procrastinating.
Maybe I’ll do it tomorrow!
I was talking to a therapist friend last night about productivity and procrastination, and how closely linked the two are.
He told me that productivity needs three things. We need clear intentions, a clear sense of what it is we are going to do, what we hope to achieve. Sometimes as a writer I can start ‘free writing’ and write with no clear intention and uncover unexpected gems that I had no idea would emerge. But mostly, if I don’t know what I am going to write, or at least what I want to get from my writing, I will write very uninspired, uninteresting rubbish.
We need a sense of purpose about the task in hand. Why do we need to do it? Purpose can make the most mundane and tedious of tasks very important and motivating. I am sure I am not the only one who has achieved more housework in the hour before a visitor arrives than I managed in the previous 5 attempted housework sessions!
And like the river with its short lived dam, we need to be able to see and remove any obstacles to the achievement of our task. This is where, in my case at least, the ADHD can prove to be challenging. I can have the best of intentions, and a clear purpose, but the list of possible obstacles that can trip me up is huge.
Distraction, impostor syndrome, lack of motivation, low energy, the inner critic scanning every word I wrote and mocking me for them, the inner rebel stamping her feet and insisting, in the words of Rage Against the Machine, ‘FUCK YOU I won’t do what you tell me!’, notifications, clutter, too much noise, lack of noise, wandering thoughts, all the shiny things…. I’m sure you can relate and no doubt add more of your own obstacles.
To do lists always feel good when I am writing them down, but thanks to the optimism of ADHD time blindness, they rapidly stop being a helpful list of things I will get done, and descend into a wishlist of ALL THE THINGS I want or need to get done, 3 weeks worth of activity on a list that is meant to represent one day’s tasks. I generally become so overwhelmed by the list I don’t look at it again until I am ripping it from my notebook in temper at myself, or deleting it from whatever app I have written it in.
Clearly, if we need to get the things done, and we have the intention and sense of purpose about the task, we need to be able to remove the obstacles that block the flow of productivity.
While I am far from the ultimate role model in this, there are some very helpful tools and techniques that I use to help me get things done.
Exercise causes the brain to release neurotransmitters such as dopamine that are needed for focus and attention. ADHD brains seem to have a deficiency in dopamine (which may explain the restless, thrill seeking, reckless behaviour that I and many others with ADHD seem to exhibit). Taking some brief exercise before you begin your work, or taking breaks to move your body and get your heart pumping can help to increase focus and keep your energy levels up.
When your mind is distracted, with your thoughts racing, it is almost impossible to focus on the task in hand, particularly if it is a desk work task. When you notice that this is happening, stopping and taking a few slow, deep breaths will make a massive difference. Just 3 deep breaths, slowly breathing down to the bottom of your lungs, and filling the whole of the lungs, emptying completely as you exhale, can slow the racing thoughts and bring your attention back into focus.
Apart from when we go into hyperfocus, we generally can’t work on one task for long periods of time. This is true of most brains, but especially. I think, of the ADHD brain. Taking regular short breaks, stepping away from the computer, getting some exercise, drinking some water, or doing something totally unrelated can help to keep the mind fresh. This is one of the reasons why I love Focusmate so much. Not only do the 50 minute segments break up the work day, but you cannot book sessions without a 10 minute break. When I am not using Focusmate, I often use the ‘Block and Focus’ browser extension. This creates those structured work/break times and allows me to set sites to block my access to, so when I am working I can’t dive into Facebook for a ‘minute’ and get lost there for an hour!
Break the task down
If you have a big project to do, it can feel like an onerous task. As a regular hiker, I know that long difficult walks can be completed only one step at a time, and the same is true of big projects. By breaking the project down, you give yourself the chance to get more dopamine hits when you complete each smaller task, as well as a sense that the project is doable and not the work equivalent of trying to scale Everest!
A lack of intrinsic motivation is a real problem for us ADHD brains. We might want to do the thing, but lack the sense of self accountability needed to make ourselves do it. This is why I find it so much easier to clean the house when someone is visiting than I do for myself. Having someone else to hold us accountable make it much more likely we will achieve the task. Find yourself an accountability buddy, join Focusmate, or simply tell your friends you are going to do it, and then report back to them when you have done it.
Warm the productivity muscles
This was a tip that my friend gave me last night, and which I am using right now as I write this. The conversation emerged because I was telling him about some writing I have to do but have struggled to get started on. It has become the dam in the river of my creativity. I can’t do the writing I want to do, because the words I want to write are trapped behind the rocks of the task I am struggling to complete.
He suggested that instead of telling myself I couldn’t write MY words until I had completed the work for someone else, I use my words to get the creative juices flowing. And so that is what I am doing here. These words have flowed far easier than anything I have tried to write for a while, and I know now that when I finish this, I will be able to go to the other task and get it done! This has unblocked the damn, quietened the inner critic, soothed the inner rebel and silenced the impostor syndrome.
So if you are stuck in procrastination, maybe look and see which of the 3 requirements for productivity are missing. Do you need to set clear intentions? Do you need to define the purpose for the task? Or are there great big blocks that you need to find a workaround for?
What are your go to workarounds to remove blocks? I’d love to know, please share in the comments what helps you the best!