Nonstandard ways to cope with ADHD


Change the rules of the game

Instead of trying yet another calendar/planner/schedule/to-do system, which of course never works, I think the real transformative solutions lie in deeper mental shifts that change the rules of the game.

For example: You can decide now to never again do anything you don't want to do, for the rest of your life. That comes from the brilliant Replacing Guilt. An excerpt:

Imagine a student who has been assigned a very important bit of homework with a deadline looming ever closer. Let’s say they’re trying to kick themselves into high productivity mode. How can they do this? Well, they can pull out the whips and cattle prods and force their mind-mob to be productive (with gritted teeth and building malcontent), or they can use their most desperate voice and plead with themselves, promising rewards for good behavior (that the mob might just take anyway, if it suits them), or they can wait until the deadline is so close that even the short-sighted mob can see it, at which point they’ll go into panic mode (which is kinda like high productivity mode, if you squint).

But there’s also a fourth option, which is something like “gain the trust of the mob, and build rapport.” If the student gets the mob onto their side, then the paper will be done automatically, no willpower or pleading or panic necessary.

Related from

I used to yell at myself about other things too: “I just need to get my head out of my ass and actually work on this project!” I said to myself a few years ago, about some school thing I was putting off.

Then I realized that I was actually dissociating internally, experiencing myself as the yeller but not actually experiencing what it felt like to be yelled at by myself. It was really painful to let in that I was so angry at me.

Don't make a plan🔗

Don't write a To-Do list, write "things that excite you today", and next week (or month or whenever feels right) write another list of such things.

To-Do lists do not make sense for someone with ADHD. These suppose that the value of completing projects is sufficient to activate you. Be honest: that doesn't describe you. Maybe it even deactivates you (Ugh fields)!

I've often had the experience of putting something on a To-Do list and then wanting it less. I wanted it just fine up until it ended up in the list, and then it was a chore best ignored.

With executive dysfunction, your brain is motivated only by the journey, not the destination; the idea of engaging with the project has to feel fun right now. So ask yourself of a "To-Do" item: if it led to no destination, would it still be worth doing this activity, purely for the journey? If the answer is no, well, you can bet you won't end up doing this activity.

No matter how good the destination.

Then the absolute last thing to do is put it on a To-Do list for later, hoping that one of your future selves will be made of steel! I cannot imagine a less productive move. The longer it stays on that list, the more it dispirits you, until your self-esteem is in splinters.

Better it not be on the list at all.

It's like what Marie Kondo does with furniture and decor: each and every item should spark joy, else it goes. Apply the same to your action-list: everything on it should be sort of inspiring and exciting. With ADHD, if it doesn't feel fun, it can't be on the list, no matter how important. It just can't.

This is the time to be creative, not to double down on the myth of a future-self who's full of resolve.

Yes, there's a good chance you just forget about it if it's not on a list, but my theory: even taking that into account, omitting ToDos you don't like to think about increases the fraction of them that get done.

You have to accept you'll forget things, but the effect on your self-esteem is much better than to see yourself not doing things even though you remember about them. Roll with it! "I forget stuff and I refuse to feel bad about that".

To-Do lists were actually remembrance devices🔗

I've made so many To-Do lists in my life, but turns out I was partly driven to write them just as a way to remember all the ideas I had about things that would be good to do.

I took well to the GTD system's "Someday/Maybe" list, but not its list of "Projects" you commit to actually do.

Still, Someday/Maybe can pose a problem because every time you look at it, you could feel a bit guilty at never having tackled many of these ideas, plus old ideas that no longer interest you still need a decision on your part to clean up.

To remove that need for decisions, a chronological order may make sense, "top of my head this week" style, where you primarily see what has interested or concerned you most recently.

Commit to nothing: if an idea feels important, probably you'll add it again next week. Trust your future self to make this decision; do not try to control him now for they will resent it and blow off the project just to rebel against the external imposition and assert their freedom.

Defend your future self's freedom of choice. Be their buddy. You still have a record of what interested you in the distant past. You don't need to see it all the time.

(In Emacs Org-mode) Relabel "TODO" as a wishlist

Normally, todo-lists in Org-mode have the states TODO | DONE. Change this to IDEA | DONE. There's no such thing as a To-Do for people like you, roll with it.

Bonus: in many color themes, TODO is colored red. Change it to green. So you go from a list of angry red TODO to a list of green IDEA. Nice, right?

Another relabeling could be WANT | DONE. Or even WISH | FULFILLED.

You don't have a todo list, you have a wishlist. You don't know which of those things you'll ever do, but that's okay! It's still nice to have somewhere you can write down what would be nice to do.

Radical promise: Don't ever make yourself do something you don't want to do🔗

  • Don't want to do something?
    • Don't do it.
    • Don't promise to do it.
    • Don't say you'll try to do it.
    • You don't need to do it.
  • Never do anything you don't want to do.
  • Don't push yourself.
    • Don't argue, prod, nudge, cajole.
    • Don't even gently try to convince yourself.
    • Your subconscious dislikes the idea. Your subconscious has a point. It is smart. Listen.
      • You don't want to do it, and that feeling is valid. Validate the feeling. Say it is so right.
      • Get on your own team. Agree you will not do the thing, and you will keep on not doing it for exactly as long as you don't want to do it. No questions asked. No justification needed. No need to prepare arguments. Your feeling wins by default. Like a motorist versus a pedestrian in court. The pedestrian wins by default. No need to prepare any rhetoric. You are king. Whatever you feel like doing, that is the right thing to do, and no need to wrap it in excuses.
      • Let your subconscious learn to trust you, trust that you will not betray it, by actually not betraying it.

Does the above seem like a terrible idea? Then Replacing Guilt has a lot to say, such as that Not-forcing-yourself creates a win-win situation

Your conscious mind is useless🔗

  • The conscious mind thinks in circles, especially if you have ADHD and the topic is negative. It's useless. The solution: just straight-up stop thinking! Instead, every time something "needs thinking about", rely 100% on Unlocking subconscious wisdom.
    • In my experience, I already know the answer to most of the things I struggle with! It's not so much a challenge of figuring it out, as a challenge of opening my eyes.
    • Similar idea in Tune Your Cognitive Strategies : "A small tweak to how your brain processes information in general is worth more than a big upgrade to your conscious repository of cognitive tricks."
  • By the way, Avoid causing harm with your inner chatter

Practice asking for help even though you don't need it🔗

Because you do need it.

The book Dirty Laundry said the main changes happened when she

  1. got her diagnosis
  2. learned to ask for help

I for one rarely get the idea that someone could help me. The thought is like from an alien. So I can't just wait until it becomes supremely obvious that I ought to ask for someone to help, as that's too late and too rare. Better to practice so the idea isn't so alien.

So now, sometimes when I text a friend, I'll try to think of what I could ask them for help with even though it seems to me like I'll take care of everything. As a bonus, it's part of How to share my life?

Don't schedule yourself🔗

You can display absolute deadlines on the calendar—not committing to them, it's just good to have intel on enemy positions—but everything else stays out.

David Allen's GTD (Getting Things Done) got this part right. Ideally your calendar is just empty all the time.

School-week schedules work in school because someone else made them for you and there are other people on the same schedule waiting for you at each scheduled event.

No automated digital reminders🔗

Automatic reminders will always be blown off. You will develop a blind spot to any one reminder.

I'm talking about things that try to build better habits, like "Consider taking a walk today", or "Time to hit the gym!" or Apple's bedtime reminder. They don't work, or they just work 1 time in 500 and make you feel bad the other 499 times, gradually poisoning your self-esteem.

Deadline notifications, yes🔗

The ideal deadline-notification is the opposite of the ideal reminder. Zero politesse! It should need zero interaction. No email that you must open before you can discover that it's actually about an invoice: the full body of the email must be reproduced inside the phone notification—ideally even when the phone is locked—so that there's no need to go into the mail app or even unlock the phone.

They sound sort of like the same thing, don't they? Reminders and deadline-notifications? But they're separate functions, and by treating them the same way, maybe you destroy both.

Prefer notification by SMS, not by email

SMS wins because they're usually written more compact, so you have a better chance of absorbing the relevant information in one glance before the "ugh field" has a chance to form.

Keep unsubscribing from emails and muting notification sources

I learned to enjoy doing this.

I easily missed important notifications when I received many. It's the same how unfiltered spam buries the important emails.

Better to go a bit too far in the other direction, and block a notification source even if it's kind of important! The ideal is to receive zero on a typical day.

But I suggest not muting your close friends! If you're in a noisy chat group, mute the chat group, not the people.

If you have a noisy email environment at work, consider just keeping it on the work computer—don't bring it onto the phone too.

The tally-marks game🔗

When you're working on something important and not-that-fun, a game you can play is to draw tally marks on a whiteboard for every time you get distracted, or use a knitting counter (Which knitting counter?).

For the game to stay fun, agree with yourself that it's fine to seek a distraction. Require of yourself only that you notice the distraction happening—lifting it to consciousness—then go ahead and follow the distraction. Enjoy!

It's ok to mix in fun stuff🔗

Mix the fun with the not-fun, because it's a horrific prospect to sit down for 4 hours of Not Fun Thing compared to 4 hours of mixed activities.

However, ideally you don't choose such an engrossing type of fun: a good type is an average-quality movie that you can watch a few minutes at a time (no more than 7/10 on IMDB…), a worse type is programming an interesting project because you can get absorbed into it in September and not come back out until October.

But beware that the movie should not be on a touchscreen device, or worse, casted to TV. They make it laggy and annoying to pause and unpause, so you might stop pausing altogether. It should be on the same computer you work, so you can just hit the space bar to pause instantly. Trivial inconveniences matter.

Set things up to tempt your future-self🔗

Make it easy to do the thing whenever the inclination hits. If you're hoping to do a thing in town the next day, make a pile of things you'll need in the morning. For example, gym clothes for the gym (plus shoes, keys!)

As a bonus, this pile can also contain such things you will use in the morning such as your toothbrush, so you have the comfort of knowing that the pile will be all you need to look at.

Make it easy to look up information


  • have important conversations in chat (instead of voice), so you can just look up what was said later
  • keep all certificates/diplomas in one folder so you don't have to think about where to find them
    • in that same folder, a spreadsheet (or just .txt file) listing all the school courses you began to attend, with start date, course code etc…
    • also all jobs you worked and their start and finish dates (so basically you're writing your CV, minus the million questions about formatting and style)

Leave projects half-done

A classic example among writers: the last sentence you write for the day, don't complete the sentence. Let tomorrow-you complete it.

But! While this is a neat trick for getting restarted fast, I think it needs to be a project that gives you a warm glow to begin with. If it's job applications or something… Uh. Don't leave browser tabs open with a Thing You Should Do. Maybe if an application is like 90% filled-in.

Don't automatically accept tasks; decline by default🔗

It's Christmas. I am on my way to wrap presents, and someone asks me on the way to prep the mulled wine. I normally assent to such a request, adding it to my plate of things to do, try to track several tasks at once. The problem is that my plate only has room for one task. In the process of doing one task, often there will be a few small complications to solve… and presto, I've forgotten about the other tasks entirely.

With the ADHD hypothesis in mind, this behavior of automatically accepting extra tasks… it stands out. Why do that? It's clearly not one of my strengths. So in this example, I'd better just say "No, because I'm going to wrap presents". It isn't even rude!

On the rare occasion someone may ask "Ok, but can you do X after you're done with Y?" I could say "I'll do it if I remember to". No implicit promise. Self-advocate.

Don't promise anything that relies on memory! (At least not until you've activated a timer or put it in the calendar. But even then, don't promise – better to state the truth, "I'll do it if this calendar successfully reminds me")

(Come to think, the word "promise" doesn't seem to mean anything. It's true I'll do it if I remember, and equally true that I won't if I don't remember. That's all there can be to it. What does it mean to promise something?)

In fact, just don't agree to do anything, period, unless it's right now. Get in the habit of saying "Ask me later".

I understand if this chafes, since you'd like to do things for people. You can actually express that too! "I'd like to do that for you, but ask me later."

Craft tactics to prevent each failure-mode you've seen before🔗

The internet serves up plenty of memes identifying specific ways that we dysfunction (, Take the memes you can relate to, and think about how you can subvert them for yourself.

… and so on!

Only a few of your tactics will work right away. Experiment, fail, and gather information from the failure. Modify the tactic for next time. Maybe one day, you can write "Yes, this specific problem, I've got a pretty good system for it".

Don't leave browser tabs open with a Thing You Should Do🔗

It doesn't work for me, anyway. If I don't want to do the thing now, better close it. So next time I think of it, I want to (because of course I only think of it if I feel ready).

If it's just shoved in my face "haha remember this thing from yesterday you didn't finish?", I super don't want to finish!

Trigger-Action Patterns

Interesting idea is to train Noticing that exact moment when you seek a distraction, and then train an automatic response to do something different, like stay with the feeling. See Self-training

Apply the mindset of slack to everything for a while?

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Created (2 years ago)
Updated (2 months ago)