No matter how much we get done in a day, most of us are always looking for ways to be more productive. We want to be able to do more, better. If you want to increase your productivity, there are steps you can take.
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Even if executive functioning is not your strong suit (it’s why you’re here, isn’t it?), you can still follow these tips to increase your productivity. Just remember, it’s a process. It might take a little longer for some of these tips to take effect. This is especially true because many of the tips relate directly to your executive function skills.
Before you can increase your productivity, you need to have a system or some tools to help you get there.
Create a game plan
Having a game plan ties directly to one of the most difficult pieces of executive function skills: time management. This is one of the first tenets of being productive. Often, people rush around being “busy” all day, but they accomplish very little. This is because they bounce around doing stuff without having a game plan. They don’t manage their time and don’t get nearly as much done as they thought they would.
In order to create a game plan, you need to know what needs to get done, decide a deadline for completion, and start working. The last step can also be difficult for those with executive dysfunction. Task initiation is getting yourself to start. For most, motivation plays a part in this, and motivation varies for everyone. Find the things that get you moving and employ them.
Set goals and tasks
Goals are important because they guide your journey. You have to know what you’re working toward in order to be more productive. Instead of focusing on the smaller tasks first—which is how most people approach their day—think about the end goal. What do you want to accomplish today, this week, this year?
Once you know what your overall goal is, then break it down to the tasks, or smaller goals, that will get you there. You might find that many of the tasks you were doing didn’t lead directly to the accomplishment of the goal at hand. Those tasks still might be important, but you should focus first on the ones that lead to the goal you want to achieve.
With a list of tasks on hand, you can give each individual item a deadline to keep yourself on track. As you check off each job, you can celebrate being that much closer to your goal, and that will help keep you motivated to continue.
Now that you know what your goal is, and what steps you need to take to get there, it’s time to prioritize. Prioritization simply means ranking the tasks in order of importance based on the amount of time it will take and the impact it will have on achieving your goal. When you look at each task, decide whether it is urgent or important or both. Urgent means it needs to get done now (or soon). Important means it needs to get done no matter what.
When you prioritize, things that are both urgent and important get done first. Then urgent things. Then important things because they aren’t on a clock.
If prioritizing is difficult for you, I suggest the one big thing method. Look at the list of tasks and choose the one thing that will have the greatest benefit for the goal you are working on. Start there. If you’re not sure, ask for help. Sometimes, we can see the whole picture, so it’s okay to ask.
As you get better at organizing your time, you can move to doing one big thing, 2-3 medium things, and 3-4 small things. With a specific list to accomplish, you’ll have a system to help your productivity.
Organization is essential to productivity. If you can’t find the things you need to accomplish the task, you waste a lot of time, which ruins your productivity. You don’t have to be rigid in how things are organized or have things in picture-perfect order. What you need is a system that works for you so that you know where to find what you need.
For many people with ADHD, if something is out of sight, it’s definitely out of mind. You won’t remember where something is or if you even have it. That’s why some people have an entire drawer full of something like glue sticks because they forgot they already bought some. If this sounds like you (and I promise, it’s not an attack), clear bins or baskets are your friends. You can give things a home on a shelf and still be able to see them.
If you function well with piles of paper around you (and yes, I am calling myself out right now), that’s fine too, as long as you know what’s there, where to find things, and you get rid of the stuff you no longer need. I’m not about making your life Instagrammable, I want it to be functional for you.
Get rid of distractions
Distractions are one of the biggest obstacles to productivity. This is especially true if you have ADHD. You can’t help it; you’re wired to notice everything. Everything around you can pull your focus and attention.
In order to be the most productive you can be, you need to be able to focus, and that means cutting out all distractions. Again, this is a personal matter. What is a distraction for one person might be a benefit for another. For example, many people with ADHD have a hard time working in complete silence. Their brain becomes occupied with a million thoughts. For these people, listening to music often helps their focus. For someone else, music might interrupt their focus and ruin their productivity.
The only way to know what works best for you is through trial and error. Just because you’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean you have to continue on that way. You might’ve been raised to do your homework in a distraction-free, silent environment. And you might’ve been miserable, but you learned to power through. What if you let yourself listen to music or white noise? What if it helped? Conversely, if you spent your life doing homework in front of the TV (latchkey kids, unite!), have you ever tried silence?
Finding what works for you is simple if you’re in your own office, but if you share space, it could be more difficult. Yes, there are headphones, but what if your productivity hack is to move around while you think? That might be distracting to your officemates. Ideally, you’ll have a chance to figure out what works for you and then you can approach your colleague and look for a compromise.
There is nothing that says you have to do everything on your own. If you refuse to hold so tight to the reins of everything in your life, taking on more than any human can really do, you are setting yourself up for failure. It’s not healthy, and your productivity will likely suffer.
The question you need to ask yourself is why you refuse to delegate. Are you afraid to ask for help? Do you think it makes you look weak or incompetent? Your boss delegates every day. Is he or she incompetent? (Maybe, but that’s not the point here). Or maybe you don’t trust someone else to do the work. That seems reasonable because it could come back to bite you in the ass.
But learning how and when to delegate can increase your productivity exponentially. If you can hand off the things that need to be done but don’t directly impact the success of the goal you’re working toward? Priceless. Our days are filled with things that need to happen but don’t add to our productivity.
Those are the first things you want to delegate whenever possible. When you do delegate, set clear expectations for what is expected and when it should be completed. Be available to answer questions or offer clarification. Then, once the person has successfully completed a task, you have someone you can trust to do it again.
I’ve talked about the importance of mindset, and it’s vital when trying to increase your productivity. Any time you make changes to the way you do things, problems will arise and failures will happen. A positive mindset can keep you from giving up.
Motivation is hard, especially when you are tasked with things you don’t like. Bottom line, motivation helps you be more productive. One of the easiest ways to motivate yourself is to celebrate the small successes. Acknowledge when you’ve done a good job.
Not only will these little celebrations make you feel good and keep you motivated, but they will also help increase your stamina. You won’t get easily overwhelmed because you can see what you’ve already accomplished, and you’ll want to keep going. Being motivated will give you more energy because you feel good about yourself.
When you get used to feeling good about your accomplishments, you will be motivated to do more and do better each time.
Just like everything else, you need to look for the things that motivate you. What works for one person, might not work for you. Give yourself what you need to keep the motivation going.
Negativity will ruin your overall productivity. It’s counterproductive and will make all accomplishments feel unsatisfying. Negativity can come from yourself or others and it’s important to shut it down immediately so that you can keep on track.
How you think and talk to yourself will impact your ability to be successful. If you believe you will fail or that you’re not up to the task at hand, you will belittle yourself until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Negativity can also refer to complaining or whining about your job. Yes, we all have things we don’t like to do, but complaining about them isn’t going to help. Furthermore, it can impact your mindset and influence how you see other aspects of your job or life. Complaining can ruin your focus and wear you out.
If there is something negative at work, such as harassment, I’m not suggesting that you ignore it. That should be dealt with because a negative environment will drag you down. You might feel overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious, and that will affect your productivity.
Worry can be another form of negativity. If you spend time worrying about every little detail, it can slow you down and impact your productivity. Worrying rarely accomplishes anything. If you suffer from anxiety, you might not be able to help it. Your mind always goes there, whether you want it to or not. Some positive self-talk might help, or maybe you need to deal with whatever has you worried so you can go back to the task.
Keeping a positive mindset impacts all areas of your life. If you feel good, you will focus more and be able to be more productive. A positive mindset increases self-confidence and motivation.
Bounce back from mistakes
Setbacks will happen. Even when you are at your peak productivity, sometimes shit just happens. It might not be your fault. Maybe it is. The important thing is how you respond. Do you get frustrated and give up? Or do you set your sights on fixing the problem or coming back from the failure?
Many of my neurodivergent people struggle with perfectionism. Any small mistake or setback is seen as a failure. That viewpoint will tank your productivity. Mistakes happen in all aspects of life. You can’t prevent them. You can choose whether or not they become roadblocks.
If you can teach yourself that mistakes are opportunities to learn, you can start to view them as a means to grow and become better. You don’t need to dwell on a mistake, as that will lead to negativity. But you do want to correct the mistake as best you can.
Once it’s corrected, you can look at the new outcome and determine what you could’ve done better along the way. What might’ve prevented the mistake? Was it within your control? How will you avoid something similar next time?
Realizing that being able to answer those questions adds valuable tools to your toolbox of strategies will help you overcome the need to beat yourself up. You made a mistake, but now you have ideas of how to improve that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t made the mistake.
Self-discipline is essential for increasing your productivity. Without self-disciple, you won’t be able to accomplish much. Self-discipline means you know what needs to be done and you do it. The problem for those who have executive dysfunction is that they are missing skills (or parts of skills) that are needed to get things done.
Often, they are called lazy and told they have no self-discipline. That’s not really the case. They don’t have a system or know the steps to get things done, so they do things, but sometimes it’s not the right things. Then, because things don’t turn out the way they’re supposed to, they feel like a failure and buy into being told they're lazy.
If you want something, you can accomplish it. It’s a matter of finding the right systems and the right triggers for you. This is why coaching a client can take years. It’s a process to find the right mix of tools, strategies, and motivation. As difficult as it is, try to be patient, and be kind to yourself.
I’ve talked about the importance of self-care both as the person going through the executive functioning journey or those supporting someone who is. It’s hard and it can be exhausting. Pushing yourself too hard or too fast will not make things happen quicker. You need to take care of yourself to get the most benefit from the work.
When you are working toward a goal, rewarding yourself is one way to keep you motivated. Just like when we try to get small kids to do something, we offer them a cookie. Eventually, they do the thing without the cookie. In theory. The risk you run of always giving yourself a “treat” as a reward is that you aren’t really building your intrinsic motivation; it’s always external.
When you only do things for the prize, you might not keep going. You start to expect more or better rewards. So, while I mentioned celebrating your successes earlier, I don’t mean that it should always be something tangible.
Sometimes, when we start out doing a new thing, one that we don’t like, we might need the external reward. However, we should be working toward the intrinsic reward of feeling good. Positive self-talk or affirmations are one way to do this.
If you need to start out giving yourself a reward, like ten minutes to watch funny videos or a fancy coffee, that’s fine. We all have to start somewhere, but along with that reward, give yourself some praise. The self-encouragement will start to feel better as your mindset shifts.
Burnout sucks. It’s more than being stressed or overwhelmed and if you reach burnout, you’re going to lose all your productivity. Burnout can happen for a number of reasons, so pay attention to how you feel. Recognizing the signs of burnout can help you head it off. Make sure you take regular breaks from things like work and school and building your executive function skills. No one can go at 100% 24/7. You need to allow yourself to recharge, or everything will eventually fall apart.
Don’t overextend yourself
Overextending yourself can happen in two ways: first, you take on more than you have time for; the other way is to take on a task that is beyond your capabilities.
The first way will lead to overwhelm because you’ll be running nonstop, trying to figure out how to get it all done. As a mom, I feel this. Often, as parents—especially women— we say yes to everything, even if it makes our lives more difficult. Learning to say no is an awesome thing.
The second way will also lead to overwhelm, but it can also lead to a sense of failure. We will agree to do something that we don’t know how to do. This isn’t always a bad thing. Stretching ourselves to do new things is how we grow. However, there are logical steps to take.
If I tell my boss I can create math worksheets for a project, and I know I’m comfortable with math up to algebra, but she asks me to create some calculus work, I’m in trouble. It doesn’t make sense for me to take that on. I don’t understand trig or pre-calc. But the temptation to agree to do it is there in order to impress my boss.
Overwhelm and stress will lead to burnout and then you won’t be able to function well at all. Be realistic in what you are capable of and be strategic in the challenges you take on.
As mentioned, stress makes it hard to function. Too much stress, and you’ll burn out. Stress messes with many aspects of your life, from sleeping to eating to how well your executive functioning works. De-stressing is a vital part of self-care. You will be able to focus on your goals better if you are not stressed out, so if stress is getting to you, take a step back.
Look at where the stress is coming from or what is causing it. Maybe you just need a break to recharge. Or maybe there’s something bigger at play and you need help or you need to walk away for your own mental well-being.
In choosing ways in which you want to increase your productivity, remember that strategies, mindset, and self-care all play a role. You need to see what works for you. That will involve some trial and error. What works for your friend might not be the method for you, and that’s okay.
Your executive function skills will impact your ability to increase your productivity. I’m not saying that you can’t be more effective and more efficient to get more accomplished. You just need to be aware that doing so will require you to tap into skills that might be weak. You need to build them up and practice.
Using these tips and strategies can help you be more productive and accomplish your goals. Keep your eye on the end game, but remember it’s a journey.