With ADHD, managing even the smallest tasks can feel difficult. Here are some strategies for focusing on getting things done when you feel overwhelmed.
If you’ve been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you might find yourself creating large to-do lists but having a hard time following through on any of those tasks.
Or, you might procrastinate until the last minute on an important work project, only to feel bad the next day because you did not spend the time you wanted perfecting your presentation.
This can create a cycle of stress, shame, and regret, one that may lead folks with ADHD to feel anxious and depressed, according to
Becoming easily overwhelmed and distracted can sometimes be hallmark symptoms of ADHD.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, people with ADHD might experience symptoms like:
- difficulty focusing
- problems with self-regulation or emotional regulation
Casey Dixon, an educator and coach for professionals with ADHD, explains that life with ADHD can sometimes feel like a symphony playing with no conductor, score, or organization and all of the players trying to take center stage at the same time.
All of your thoughts can be equally loud and distracting, making it difficult to focus on one or two for any period of time.
“People with ADHD get distracted easily,” says Shauna Pollard, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist who has worked with clients in private practice in Maryland, Georgia, and the District of Columbia for more than 20 years.
It can be hard for people to accomplish goals. “You might be prone to procrastination or manage boredom by doing what’s intriguing rather than what’s important,” Pollard adds.
It’s no surprise that people diagnosed with ADHD can often feel burned out and exhausted.
Here are six tasks that can quickly become overwhelming for people with ADHD, according to the experts.
1. Finding things
If you have ADHD, you may have trouble staying organized at home and at the office, says Pollard, who primarily works with high-achieving professionals who live with depression and ADHD.
Being disorganized makes it harder to find things when you need them, like your:
- important documents
This can cause extra stress and anxiety in your life on a daily basis, Pollard adds.
2. Showing up on time
Managing time effectively and keeping up with schedules and appointments can be challenging when you have ADHD, says Pollard.
There are also negative emotions associated with forgetting meetings or scrambling to get somewhere on time. You might get negative feedback from people in your life about your forgetful behavior and take it personally, adds Pollard.
3. Meeting deadlines
Working toward deadlines often requires self-organization or budgeting your time, effort, and energy. These are things that people with ADHD might have difficulty with, explains J. Russell Ramsay, PhD.
Ramsay is an associate professor of clinical psychology and the director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
Things can become even more challenging when you have to manage other life affairs, like a household and family, Ramsay adds.
4. Following health routines
It can also be challenging for people with ADHD to stick to health routines, like taking medication regularly or following through with exercise, says Ramsay. Managing chronic conditions like diabetes can be especially difficult.
“If a consequence is not imminent, adults with ADHD are more prone to put off the necessary action that benefits them in the long-term,” Ramsay says. “It’s the common conundrum of prioritizing the smaller-sooner payoff rather than the larger-later benefit.”
5. Reading a book
If you have ADHD, you might find yourself re-reading paragraph after paragraph because you got lost in thoughts or distractions, explains Sabrina Romanoff, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City.
When you’re not managing ADHD, you can generally become fully absorbed in an activity with no room for distraction.
Romanoff describes this type of focused attention, which often eludes people with ADHD, as a state of flow. “It’s when you’re fully engrossed in the activity and don’t have to actively filter out intrusive stimuli,” she explains.
6. Accomplishing goals
Everyone can have difficulty meeting goals from time to time. But if you have ADHD, you may have a lot working against you when it comes to focusing on a single goal and organizing your time and energy around it. This can apply to smaller tasks, like organizing your desk, or larger ones, like writing a book.
This is where more negative emotions can develop for some.
“Over time, the real-world consequences of being disorganized, late, and distracted, despite your best efforts, can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment,” says Pollard.
Dealing with feeling overwhelmed on top of a busy to-do list can be doubly stressful. However, there are ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed when you have ADHD.
Managing symptoms of ADHD is possible with the right treatment plan. Some people may find that they feel less overwhelmed when their ADHD is managed effectively.
If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, consider working with a doctor or therapist to find the best treatment plan.
Treatment plans for ADHD often include:
- self-care and lifestyle changes
“Medication is incredibly helpful in treating the symptoms of ADHD,” says Pollard. ADHD medications can only be prescribed by doctors. It’s important to follow a doctor’s recommended guidelines with any prescribed medication.
Like all mental health conditions, it may take time and effort to find what works best for your ADHD symptoms.
Focus on your strengths
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by ADHD, Pollard suggests taking an honest look at your strengths and the areas that you are struggling in.
Try finding ways to build systems and strategies to manage your areas of weakness, such as:
- working with a coach or therapist who specializes in ADHD
- reading books on living with ADHD
- listening to podcasts for people with ADHD
A 2019 study on effective time-management skills for college students with ADHD confirms Pollard’s advice. Students who were more self-evaluative, meaning they paused and took a close look at the challenges they were facing, reported some stress relief related to their ADHD challenges.
Reframe unhelpful thoughts
Reframing negative or unhelpful thoughts around difficulties focusing and meeting deadlines may also help.
Students who participated in the 2019 study mentioned earlier reported that talking about their ADHD challenges reduced stress and anxiety related to how friends, family, and teachers may perceive habitual behavior.
What is generally missing when you have ADHD is focused attention or the ability to channel your attention to a single task without interruption, explains Romanoff.
However, there are ways to build this skill through
You can start by removing distractions from your workspaces and practicing grounding exercises that can help you stay in the present moment, says Romanoff.
“When you find your thoughts racing, list five things you can see, five things you can touch, five things you can hear, and so on throughout your senses.”
Stimulate your senses
“Your senses can help to pull you out of the chaos that has been created in your mind,” Romanoff explains.
Try to make tasks more exciting or sensory, she suggests. “You could work in a more exciting place, try to work in shorter focused stints, and spray your favorite scent or light a candle to create more positive connections.”
It’s easy for simple tasks to make people with ADHD feel overwhelmed. But there are ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed so you can be more productive.
Some strategies experts recommend to help you find more focus and manage day-to-day tasks with less stress include:
- working with a doctor to manage ADHD symptoms with medication
- seeing a therapist or coach specializing in ADHD
- leaning into your strengths with podcasts or books on living with ADHD
- practicing mindfulness
- grounding yourself with your senses and breathwork
Consider reaching out for the help you need and experimenting with strategies that may work for you. If you don’t know where to begin, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.
With help, you can quiet the symphony of thoughts in your head and more easily aim your awareness at the things you care about and want to achieve.