When you’ve got ADHD, getting overwhelmed is a daily battle. So many times we think that the reason we struggle with getting things done is because we lack motivation, when it’s actually this struggle with being overwhelmed easily. The ADHD brain seems to always be at the edge of overstimulation (and understimulation at the same time just to make things more complicated for us).
In fact, many of us actually have a good amount of motivation (the want to do things). It’s other things that get in our way. Overwhelm and overstimulation often play a big role. But, at the same time, those of us with ADHD often don’t understand why we’re overwhelmed. “just paying that bill. It’s just cleaning. It’s just… so WHY am I this overwhelmed?”
Turns out, there are many things that subtly add to our overwhelm. Once we identify what they are, we can address them in ways that work for us. So here are some of the biggest things that add to our overwhelm in a big way.
You Don’t Know Where to Start
Not knowing where to start on a project or task tends to cause those of us with ADHD to become overwhelmed fast. Before we can actually get started on the thing, we have to identify where to even begin. And deciding where to begin is often fraught with difficulties for us.
Not knowing where to start usually means we haven’t created a plan of attack. And that discrepancy between needing to get something done and only having a vague idea of how we specifically need to do it causes us overwhelm.
Here’s a strategy to help you find a starting place you can work with:
Once we have a plan, where to start is less overwhelming. To create that plan, I start by asking myself “what is the smallest, most basic thing that needs to be done before everything else?” For me, the answer is usually going on a hunt to round up all the things I know I’ll need in order to accomplish my task.
If I’m struggling to identify that first step, I find it helpful to start with a brain dump. Take a piece of paper and write out every aspect of the task that needs to be done. Don’t worry about order, just slap down whatever comes to mind when it comes to mind.
Then, when it feels like you’ve gotten everything down that you can think of, you can start looking for the logical order of those steps. As you do, look for the step that seems to have to come before all other steps. i.e. Can you cut out the coupon if you don’t know where the scissors are? No, finding the scissors comes first.
You’ve Got Analysis Paralysis
Oftentimes those of us with ADHD get stuck in trying to make decisions both in the moment and when it comes to trying to make a plan. Analysis paralysis is usually related to overthinking–what if it’s better to do it this way? Or that way? Or what if I do this but then I actually need to do that first? Your mind goes in a thousand different directions and it’s impossible to figure out which decision is the “best” one in any given moment.
Your ADHD brain is used to going in a thousand different directions are rarely looks at things linearly. It only makes sense that when you are trying to make a decision or create a plan, your overwhelmed ADHD brain starts going in a thousand different directions trying to look at all sides of the decision. And getting stuck in the process.
This one has been a big challenge for me personally. Analysis paralysis is definitely an overthinking thing and some of us *cough* me *cough* are GREAT at overthinking. Therefore, also great at analysis paralysis.
- Look for the task that feels the easiest to me/that I can get myself to do at the moment
- Look for the task that I feel most interested in at the moment
- Find the “logical order” to steps and follow that
- Talk to someone I trust and have them help me identify the next decision
- Ask myself if the order I do things in actually matters with this particular thing (sometimes it really doesn’t and I’m just wasting my time overthinking it).
- Manually prioritize tasks that really do matter (see below for more)
You are Seeing the ENTIRE Project at once Instead of Manageable Steps
The ADHD brain has a tendency of seeing the whole project rather than the individual parts. We see “clean the entire house” and that feels insurmountable. We aren’t seeing, “put one load of laundry in the washer” or “collect dirty clothes in the laundry basket.” The bigger the project seems, the more overwhelming it will likely feel. And the more likely we are to avoid it.
Break it into smaller steps to get it done:
When we break that huge task down into bite sized pieces, it tends to reduce the overwhelm. If you’ve broken a task down into small steps but it still feels overwhelming, that’s a good indication that you need to break it down further. “Do a load of laundry” might feel small some days but huge and overwhelming on other days. That’s okay; it’s human.
If it feels overwhelming, break it down. “Find the laundry basket” or “stand up and walk to the bedroom” might be step one. Break it down until it feels like you can get yourself to do it.
If you find yourself resisting the idea of breaking things down, you might want to jump ahead to the impatient and dismissing things section and/or the self criticism section.
Your Brain is Jumping 10 Steps Ahead and Starting There
It’s a common struggle for those of us with ADHD to constantly have a ton of dirty laundry. Like every article of clothing in the house. Dirty. All at once. So when we’re looking at the task of “getting caught up on laundry,” our brain may be able to see that we have to
- get our clothes washed
- get the kids’ clothing washed
- do a load of towels
- and so on…
It’s seeing the step, right?
Well, it’s seeing some of them. But “get all of my clothes washed” is still a huge step and it’s still not the first step. The first step might be to go find your laundry basket. Or even to stand up and start walking to your room. Then it might be to collect your clothes into baskets. Then, take one basket to the laundry room.
The reality is that trying to get ourselves to go “wash all of our clothes” still feels huge and it still feels vague to us. The bigger and more vague our next step feels, the more likely it is to overwhelm us.
Try this to help you dial it back to the first, most basic step:
Identify your first, most basic step. Ask yourself, “Can I get myself to do just that step right this second?” If it still feels too overwhelming, make the step smaller. Once you’ve accomplished that first step, move on to the next most basic step and repeat.
It’s much easier to get ourselves to do one small, basic step at a time than it is to try to motivate ourselves past the overwhelm of a giant step or a step that’s actually 10 steps ahead of where we are.
You Aren’t Sure How to Prioritize
Whereas other people can fairly easily prioritize on the fly, those of us with ADHD struggle with that. And in the process of that, we are fighting our interest based nervous system which tends to prioritize things based on how interesting they are rather than how important they are.
Struggling to prioritize what to do is a big cause of analysis paralysis and one of those executive functioning challenges that lead the ADHD brain to be overwhelmed fast. Since prioritizing isn’t something we do easily and naturally, we often have to manually do it.
That reminds me of driving. It’s like neurotypicals have automatic engines that help them prioritize on the fly. Those of us with ADHD have a 5 speed engine that works if we know how to drive it and are comfortable learning to do it manually. But we gotta do it manually or we end up stalling on the side of the road…
Here is how I manually prioritize:
I generally start by listing out all of the things that are vying for my attention on a piece of paper (yep, another brain dump). I get everything out of my brain and onto that paper.
Then I look for anything that can be delegated or crossed off my list.
Then I look for anything that has a deadline and write the day it needs to be done beside it.
And anything that has a consequence if it’s not done soon, I note that beside them on my list.
With what’s left on the list, I start planning when I’m actually going to work on each of those things, starting with the things that have the biggest consequence and the closest deadlines, making sure I plan those before they are due.
I actually put them on a calendar, noting what day I will work on each task. Then, when I am working on a project and another item on my to do list distracts me or worries me about the need to get it done, I can remind myself that I already have it on my calendar. I’ve found that having a realistic plan for getting things done has helped me with analysis paralysis and getting distracted by other to do list items.
Once you have the stuff with deadlines and consequences planned, you can start filling in the gaps with other things that are still really important to you.
If you need a structure to help you do this, make sure you check out the ADHD Productivity Planner.
You are Getting Impatient or Dismissing Your Progress
Many of us struggle with feeling like we aren’t getting anything done, enough done, or that progress is taking too long. That most common objection I hear to breaking things down into small steps is impatience and/or dismissing. “That will take too long.” “Those small steps don’t really count.”
We’re in a push pull between looking at the entire project which overwhelms us and looking at individual steps but feeling too impatient to use them. Both of those at the same time leave us no room for forward movement.
Add in the tendency to dismiss any progress that isn’t a completed task or close to it and we can end up completely overwhelmed and stuck. And then, we shut down. If we want to move forward, we have to address that push pull that’s causing more ADHD overwhelm.
Here’s a few strategies to stop dismissing your progress and impatience:
Check your expectations.
We’re notorious for underestimating how long a task should take and overestimating how many things we can get done. We easily expect 50 things of ourselves a day and judge that none of them should really take long so it’s obviously expected that we should be able to do them. We don’t stop to really analyze if our expectations are actually reasonable.
Are you going to get the entire house clean AND pick up the kids and take them to practice AND work all day AND cook dinner AND balance the checkbook AND…. No. That’s insane. Dial it back.
If you think something will take 10 minutes, plan for it to take at least 45. If you think you should be able to get 20 things done, plan for getting 2-3 of them done. But, if those 2-3 things are really big and time consuming, reduce that further.
Pay attention to the thoughts that pop up when you are feeling impatient.
Seeing the work you are doing as pointless or meaningless because it’s happening slowly just makes you less motivated and more overwhelmed and frustrated.
Rather than seeing your small steps as a drop in the ocean, I like to look at them as getting things done with the least amount of unnecessary effort or overwhelm required. That’s called efficiency. Rather than slow and pointless, they feel clever and responsible.
Look for more helpful ways to view your situation that encourage you to continue working rather than throwing in the towel.
Take a more balanced look at what you’ve gotten done:
Don’t just keep a “to do list” but also an “already done list.” When things take longer than we expect, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we didn’t get anything done. Keeping a list of what you did that day can help remind you that you did get stuff done even if it isn’t fully complete yet. Let yourself feel good about anything on your “already done list” even if your first thought is to look at how it’s not good enough.
I started doing the pomodoro technique at one point– 25 minutes working followed by a 5 minute break and repeat. While I don’t do that all the time, it did help me to see how long things actually take.
I would decide on something to work on and think “I’ll finish this before the break and move onto the next thing” and then I’d get to the break and only be 20% of the way through. But I had actually been working steadily the whole 25 minutes. That actually really helped me realize how badly I underestimate how long a task will take and helped shape my expectations moving forward.
You’ve Fallen into Self Criticism
Being critical and overly focused on perfectionism or beating yourself up will lead to and magnify ADHD overwhelm. It takes up a ton of mental energy that we need for other things, which means that as long as we are being self critical, we will also be self-sabotaging.
Many people with ADHD use self criticism in an attempt to motivate themselves to do what needs to be done. And since it sometimes, occasionally, helps a little bit, we keep doing it. But beating yourself up has major consequences long term and tends to be counterproductive.
It’s like wanting to stop overeating and using shame to do it. You overeat, then you shame yourself “what is wrong with me?! I’m so ______!” But the shame leaves us feeling horrible about ourselves so we look for a way to cope. And turn to food. And overeat. Then shame ourselves for it… It’s a self sabotaging cycle.
To address self criticism, here are a couple strategies to practice:
Mindful Self Compassion.
The idea behind Mindful Self Compassion is to learn to talk to yourself and see yourself the way you’d see and treat a friend. We tend to be kinder and more objective when we see our friends struggling than we are with ourselves.
It takes practice to get to the place where we naturally talk to ourselves this way, so if you are trying and finding that it’s hard to do and doesn’t feel natural–that’s normal. Keep going– when you do, over time it starts to become more natural. I use mindful self compassion in my personal life and have found it to be incredibly helpful.
The Experiment and Problem Solving Framework.
I look at things more like they are an experiment rather than an indication of how good/bad I am. Many people look at their actions like a performance test. If you do well, you “pass” and you aren’t a complete failure. If you don’t, well…
I look at my actions more like a beta test. I’m trying this experiment and if it goes well the strategy works. If it doesn’t, I either look for a new strategy or I tweak the one I just tried to see if I can make it better.
Performance Test or Beta Test Mentality? Here’s what they look like:
Performance Test Mentality:
What is wrong with me/what am I doing wrong?
If this doesn’t work it says something about me (I’m stupid, incompetent, worthless, bad, etc…)
I can’t get this done because I’m lazy and pathetic.
It didn’t work because I’m a failure and clearly can’t do anything right.
Beta Test Mentality:
What about this strategy isn’t working for me?
It this strategy doesn’t work, it says that the strategy needs to be tweaked.
What about this task makes me not want to do it?
The strategy isn’t right. What can I tweak to make it more helpful?
It may seem like a subtle shift but I’ve found that it makes a huge difference. When we see challenges or hiccups as a personal thing that says something about us, we get overwhelmed and shut down.
When we see it as having nothing to do with who we are as a person, we can easily move forward to find something that works.
This shift in thinking has been a game changer for me and my friends who have practiced using it. If you want to learn more about it, you can find the article I wrote about it here.
The ADHD brain may get overwhelmed quickly but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. When we can, without judgement, identify what is throwing us over the edge of overwhelm, we can find strategies that help us reduce it.
What tends to magnify your ADHD overwhelm? What have you found that helps? Let’s learn from each other!