1. ADHD Strategies Not Working? You’re Not Alone!
In a Nutshell: Why aren’t we successful when we attempt to turn things around? We’ve tried countless strategies, but they never seem to stick. Why can’t we make them work? We assume that a strategy failed due to “user error” and so we keep trying the same strategies again… and again… and again…
How is it that, despite trying numerous strategies, so many people with ADHD struggle to turn things around? We continue to have difficulty getting things done even when we try the latest tips and tricks. Where are we going wrong?
Here’s an idea: if you’ve been trying to manage your ADHD using strategies that aren’t working, then there’s something wrong with the strategies you’ve been trying! It seems to me that if you have been attempting to control your ADHD through means that are not effective, then the methods you have been employing are at fault, not you.
Many ADHDers have made countless attempts to turn things around. But, more often than not, these efforts are fruitless and results are short-lived. In high school, I talked so much about “turning over a new leaf” that it became a running joke. Soon I was forced to start talking about “turning over new leaves” or “turning over the last leaf.”
Sure, I made light of my struggles, but deep down I longed to get my act together. The more I struggled, the more those around me would volunteer their advice:
- I was told to combat procrastination by “starting earlier” or to try “setting a deadline for yourself”—umm HELLO… that’s the same as saying: “just stop procrastinating.”
- Some suggested setting my clock a few minutes ahead to start getting places on time (never worked)
- I discovered the Pomodoro Technique, but lacked the willpower required to use it
- I tried the Cornell note-taking system, but misplaced my notes
- I got organized with new binders, day planners, and pens, but forgot to use them
No matter what I tried, things never seemed to change. For one reason or another, the latest strategy never helped. More often than not, I was left to conclude that it was just another case of “user error.” Somehow I managed to screw something up, and there was plenty of truth to that conclusion. So I would try again, try harder, or try a similar strategy. I suppose I was hoping that “this time” I would somehow do a better job of using the strategy.
Unfortunately, this is the beginning of an endless process: try a strategy, screw it up (“user error”), try it again, screw it up again (still “user error”), etc. When we don’t want to give up, we keep trying. What else are we supposed to do?
2. The Classic Pattern: An Example
In a Nutshell: A therapist advises a client on how to manage their ADHD. But the client’s ADHD prevents them from adhering to that advice. It’s a classic Catch-22 situation. They make no progress, and the ADHDer stops going to therapy altogether.
Here’s an example: A therapist books several sessions with a new client. This client has ADHD and anxiety. The therapist sees that the client’s anxiety comes from a mountain of unfinished tasks—a byproduct of their ADHD. Furthermore, the client’s ADHD has left them feeling uncertain about how to begin addressing their ever-growing to-do list.
This therapist knows a thing or two about ADHD, and so they advise their client to break large tasks into smaller steps. The therapist is confident that this will reduce anxiety and make it easier to get started. This all sounds great, right? Well, hang on a second…
At their next session, the therapist asks, “So, did smaller steps make it easier to get started?” The client squirms as they break the bad news, “I never really got around to breaking things up… sorry.” The client is disappointed that they failed to implement the strategy (read: “user error”), but the therapist encourages them to give it another shot, knowing that this strategy might help the client. The client agrees and leaves determined to try this strategy “for real” this week.
But once again the client never gets around to breaking up those pesky tasks (more user error). The message is repeated during their next session, but still no results. After a few more weeks the client gives up completely, the relationship fizzles out, and the therapist never hears from them again.
Sadly, this pattern is all too common. And I’m not targeting therapists—this is often our experience regardless of whether we receive a strategy from a therapist, friend, blog post, or youtube video.
So, why don’t good strategies seem to help?
3. The Real Reason Your ADHD Strategies Haven’t Worked
In a Nutshell: We were only half right when we assumed that “user error” was the problem. In reality, many of these strategies are fundamentally incompatible with our ADHD. As a result, it would never work to try again, try harder, or substitute for a similar strategy.
When we conclude that a given strategy has failed due to classic ADHD “user error,” we are halfway towards making a large, devilish error! Here’s why: once we assume that we failed to implement an otherwise bulletproof strategy, then we will rarely consider any shortcomings in the strategy itself. In other words, each failure just resharpens our focus onto our own performance.
Consequently we fall back into the trap of trying to use willpower and effort to change our behaviour. We become determined to get back on the bandwagon to try again, and try harder. But by now we should know that this is a fool’s errand. We would have done better to focus our efforts on changing something about the strategy, but that can be easier said than done.
An Analogy For Bad Strategies
I’ll drive this home with an analogy: When it’s time to go somewhere, I want to get out the door promptly, but my toddler wants to put her shoes on herself. Since my toddler loves to be independent, this happens regularly. Thankfully, kids shoes are quite easy to put on, and so she seldom struggles with her velcro or slide-on shoes.
But what if (hypothetically) she didn’t know that such kid-friendly shoes existed. What if she only owned lace-up shoes. Unlikely? Sure. But what if she had never seen her parents wearing a pair of sandals, and perhaps her daycare required children to wear lace-up shoes. At any rate: let’s just assume she only owns lace-up shoes, and to her, that is the only type of footwear in existence.
This would cause problems because she lacks the dexterity required to tie them—she is simply too young. Knowing my daughter, she would start to feel frustrated. And the same scenario would play out day after day.
Furthermore, consider her perspective in such a scenario. To her, there would appear to be no other solution. Consequently, she might eventually feel conquered by this daily challenge, and her initial frustration would give way to defeat and despair. In reality, however, there are plenty of quick-and-easy solutions—velcro shoes, stretchy laces, sandals, boots, etc—but none of these solutions would be known to her.
Having never encountered these options, my daughter would be limited in her ability to brainstorm alternate solutions. By contrast, these other footwear options come readily to mind for most of us. When these concepts are available mentally we experience effortless creativity, and we seamlessly start to brainstorm solutions.
Thankfully, for my daughter, this is a fictional problem. Unfortunately, for those with ADHD, this problem is a reality. By default, the strategies we need most are the ones which are the least available to us. That’s because most people do not have ADHD, which means that we are primarily surrounded by strategies, ideas, and solutions that are not well-suited for ADHDers.
Bad Strategies From Within
The most popular time-management strategies are the ones which help the most people—but most people don’t have ADHD! Consequently, we tend to be most familiar with strategies that most people find helpful, and least familiar with whatever strategies might be helpful for someone with ADHD. Strategies for a neurotypical individual who wants to stop procrastinating are not necessarily going to help an ADHDer who struggles against working memory and time blindness issues.
The simple truth is that our ADHD is fundamentally incompatible with many of the strategies that have worked for our peers. Think about it:
- You’ve tried day planners… but ADHDers are constantly losing things.
- You’ve made to-do lists… but immediately forget about the list and hyperfocus on the first item.
- You’ve tried “doing things as soon as they come up”… but your working memory prevents you from switching back to the original task.
- You’ve tried getting extra time on tests… but that doesn’t help you to sit down and study the night before.
- You’ve tried setting reminders… but then quickly learn to ignore them.
Our difficulty comes from our incompatibility with the solutions, strategies, and ideas that we’ve inherited from the non-ADHD world around us. More troubling is that, even when we attempt to solve our own problems, we are unwittingly constrained to the set of options we happen to have witnessed thus far. As a result, it feels like we’ve exhausted all our options, and we feel trapped.
Bad Strategies: Where They Come From
Sometimes a friend or parent urges us to try the latest life-changing strategy that has worked for them. And, although our resulting optimism can be quite high, it is largely unfounded. Think about it: not even pharmaceuticals come packaged with such strong claims. On the contrary, advertisements promoting the latest miracle drug are well-known for finishing with a lengthy legal disclaimer. Unfortunately, strategies don’t come with such qualifications about their effectiveness or labeled with warnings about possible side-effects.
On the contrary, when well-meaning parents, teachers, or friends offer advice, they often say things like: “just pay attention” or “just start earlier.” Such statements are rather simplistic. These ideas present themselves as rather reasonable suggestions, and they communicate that success is available for anybody willing to try. The trouble is that there is a significant first-person bias hidden behind such statements: “I do it this way, so that should work for you too.”
4. The Solution: Discover and Develop Strategies
In a Nutshell: We need to stop limiting ourselves to the “available” strategies. Instead, start thinking outside the box. Give yourself permission to discover (or develop) solutions that we may have never seen before. Discover ADHD-friendly strategies by looking in ADHD-friendly places (e.g. from fellow-ADHDers, ADHD coaches, ADHD blogs, etc.). We can also develop solutions by reflecting upon what it would take to make failure impossible next time—or at least less likely.
In many cases, there is an often-overlooked incompatibility between those of us with ADHD and the strategies we have inherited from the world around us. If we want to start coming up with effective strategies, we need to take the blinders off. That means starting to look in the right places: ADHD blogs, coaches, forums, etc.
Looking back, I don’t know why I ever thought I could simply borrow the strategies that worked for many of my peers. In university I had a (neurotypical) friend who would write essays while he watched reruns of The Office. Desperate, I decided to give it a try… it didn’t work—surprise, surprise. At this stage, I was still in denial about my ADHD. With hindsight it seems glaringly obvious that someone with attention control issues would never manage “work” while simultaneously watching TV. I was looking for help in all the wrong places.
Looking for ADHD strategies in the right places for help is easier said than done, especially when we don’t know what sort of help we need. For example: imagine you struggle to write and submit papers on time. Naturally you perform a google search for “How to write a paper?” Unfortunately, most other people performing that search do not have ADHD! As a result, we are unlikely to find tips that speak to our struggles in particular. Instead, we might do well to search for things like:
- “How to overcome my video game addiction?”
- “How to stop wasting time on youtube?”
- “How to stop checking social media?”
Even after we start to look for help in the right places, we will often still need to do some “development.” Each one of us has unique characteristics, preferences, and tendencies. If we really want to be successful at changing our behaviour, we need to start respecting our idiosyncrasies. I call this “Radical Self Indulgence,” and if we want to get dangerously good at ADHD management then this is an essential piece of the puzzle.
Here’s an example: my morning routine includes a number of features that help to ensure I perform my best. Among other things, my routine INCLUDES a trip to Starbucks where I perform the remainder of my routine. This is for a number of reasons: I like Starbucks coffee, there are fewer distractions, it is less tempting to multitask, and I am generally less likely to wander away from my desk. This may not work for you—but that’s exactly the point! Each of us will need to address our own set of strengths/weaknesses, interests and life contexts. Failing to do so will mean we wind up working harder, longer, and less enjoyably.
5. An Open Letter to Bad Strategies (and the people that suggest them)
In a Nutshell: Unknowingly, we often adopt strategies which are incompatible with our ADHD. We exhaust ourselves as we repeatedly try to listen to the suggestions of our parents, or follow the example of successful people around us. Instead, we need to recognize this incompatibility and give ourselves permission to (1) find and (2) create the strategies that will work for us. This means starting to discover better strategies by looking in the right places and developing strategies that fit the needs of each of us as individuals.
Dear ADHD Strategies,
It’s not me, it’s you.
You pretend to have all the answers. You make it seem so easy that anybody could do it. When I struggle to do what you ask, you simply repeat yourself:
- “Just do it like this…”
- “Have you tried…?”
- “Why don’t you just…?”
Honestly, I know you’re well-meaning, and you probably think you’re helping. But you’re not.
I already make a mess out of everything—we both know that. So when you come strolling along and proclaim that you have the obvious answers to my problems, it can feel rather patronizing. And that’s not even the worst of it!
Why? Because suddenly I possess “the solution” to all my problems. I am tempted to see myself in a favourable position—only a real fool could screw things up now. Yet that is exactly what happens. I somehow forget to implement your wisdom, or I miss a critical step, or something slips through the cracks. Ugh… If I didn’t feel bad enough about myself already then I certainly do now.
Sometimes you wonder why I get so easily frustrated. But I think you’re forgetting that there is a certain cruelty to my experience. Here I am, gifted with the mind of a dreamer, and yet that dreamer’s mind remains trapped, imprisoned forever inside the brain of a chronic underachiever. Yes, this life of mine is a twisted sort of torture. Part of me longs to achieve great things, but the other part just doesn’t feel like getting started yet.
I know you will question me. You will doubt me when I say that I have tried to make things work between us. But I have tried—I really have. And I’m tired of feeling like I’m the one who has to change. I’m tired of feeling like I’m the one who has to try harder. I’m tired of feeling like I’m the one who has to do things differently.
I think I’m ready to see what else is out there, and maybe it’s best for both of us if we head our separate ways. We will both be happier that way. I will stop disappointing you, and you will stop ignoring me and my needs.
I don’t want much. But I do want understanding and sympathy. Just imagine how frustrating it would be to play a video game with no checkpoints, every time you start afresh from the beginning. That’s sort of what it feels like: Today, I could discover the hidden secret to all my productivity woes! But by tomorrow, more than likely, I will have forgotten all about it. In a few months, I may make the exact same discovery—only to then realize that I’ve now learned (and forgotten) this lesson a dozen times before.
I no longer expect you to get it. How could you? You think I’m just like you, but I’m not. You think you have all the answers, but you don’t. You think it’s my fault that we don’t work well together. But you’re wrong. It’s not me, it’s you.
— Frustrated ADHDer who has received lots of advice that never seemed to help