Overcoming Executive Dysfunction from the perspective of someone with ADHD
As someone with ADHD, I am keenly aware of how the condition affects my executive function. “Executive dysfunction” - difficulty planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, and managing multiple tasks, can leave one feeling paralysed, knowing that they ought to do something, but- for whatever reason- can’t.
But here’s the thing, it’s not unique to people with ADHD. It crops up with anxiety, exhaustion, seasonal depression, normal depression, and sometimes - like the world’s worst situational daisies - just… whenever. If you’ve ever tried to start a task, and then utterly failed to do it for no obvious reason (being busy with other things doesn’t count), then you’ve either experienced dysfunction or something similar enough that these tips could still help you out.
I can boil this down to two main problems - the first is that sometimes we come across a mental block. Maybe I’ve decided that I want to do data analysis today - but that’s a huge task. And it takes a lot of mental energy to get back up to speed, especially if I’ve been working on something else recently. Maybe this is the most urgent deadline, so it has to get done. Maybe I’m just aware that I’m losing traction - but none of that really resolves the fact that sometimes the task is big and you don’t want to do it.
The second problem is that sometimes, you can’t progress. Sometimes you can’t do the programming because you want to write the article first, but in order to write the article you have to figure out whether or not to incorporate details about a certain disorder, and you want to get feedback from your boss first but she’s in a different timezone - and you end up sitting on your computer, just sort of waiting. And doing nothing.
Executive dysfunction is usually one of the two, or often a mix of the two. Therefore, I can offer two solutions, though the real answer is to apply whatever combination works the best for you. First -
Chop It Up!
Getting past that initial roadblock and starting work is a whole lot harder if the work is going to be hard. That might be obvious, but a lot of the time our instinct is to jump at whatever is making us the most anxious and deal with that first. It doesn’t help that this is also common advice - to “start with the worst”.
Sometimes, that’s fine. If you’ve learned to trust in the fact that things are easier than they seem, great! You’re good to go. But for a lot of people, especially if there’s a history of tasks expanding, or having to sacrifice downtime and quality of life for a task, looking at the mountain of work in front of you can drive you away. “Starting with the worst” can lead to not starting at all, which just makes the task that much worse the next day.
So don’t start with the worst! Start with the littlest pieces, and make them even smaller by chopping them into little bits. What is writing an article? It’s just throwing ideas at a page, looking up some fact quotes that support it, arranging those fact quotes, and then some other stuff that we get to worry about later. That’s fine. That’s doable - I’m willing to do that, and if I’m not, I can go make a coffee, and suddenly I’m already on my way.
But hey, sometimes the first step is the worst - so next we have
Order Is Overrated
Why do I have to collect evidence before I start writing? There’s some logic to it of course - your writing will be more factual, you’ll have to do less editing later. But you know what? If I really don’t want to do research today, I don’t actually have to do that first. The most important thing is to get going, and if that means I start by writing a funktastic introduction, then so be it. Even if I rewrite the whole thing, it still gets me there faster than staring at my computer and hating research.
This is a problem that shows up in asynchronous work as a whole. Especially where different time zones are involved, and people are treating Slack asynchronously (as they should - take a look at How To Tame Slack), getting help, getting feedback, and getting the go-ahead all have a tendency to balloon the timeline of any given project.
So - just keep moving. Do what you can, do what you want to, or what you’re willing to do. Maybe avoid publishing things - but generally, doing work is productive and has a positive impact on the final result, whether or not it makes it into the final version.
Be Nice To Yourself
Distraction is part of the human condition. It is an inevitability of working, and that holds double true for working hard. You are going to get tired, and you are going to struggle with focus. And in that case, the kindest and most productive thing you can do for yourself is to take a break, to step away, to forgive yourself and move on to what is going to help you most right now.
Guilt is not your friend! In fact, sometimes guilt is actively your enemy - people are well known to respond better to positive feedback than shame and negativity, and that does not stop being true just because you’re the one holding the whip.
Feeling guilty over what you did or didn’t do can lead to “sticking it out”, wasting time and energy in an environment where you are just not as capable of doing the work. Instead, we get the farthest by making it as easy as possible to do our best work. You gravitate towards what is fun and fulfilling - make sure work stays that way for you.
The most important takeaway you could get from this article is that you have to work to make things easier for yourself. Make work easier to start. Make it a small task, make it a half-completed task, make it your favorite task, and make it a task that you’re confident in doing. If something isn’t working - stop doing it. Look for any other solution - change the order, rearrange the baskets, modify the task. Most of the time, we force ourselves into certain methods because it’s what everybody else does - but there’s no need to fight yourself. Make it easy.
It’s not enough to put yourself in front of a computer screen and expect things to happen, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if that doesn’t work. Building yourself into a more productive person takes effort and thought, whether or not you have ADHD.