Writing Your Own Owner's Manual Ten Things I've Learned ABout GETTING THINGS DONE


ADHD makes it hard to start things. And focus on them. And finish them. School requires a lot of doing things. Some things that come naturally to people without ADHD are nightmares for people with ADHD. Most productivity advice is tailored to people without ADHD. The usual rules don’t work for us, so we must make our own owner’s manuals. Lots of times it seems like everyone without ADHD was born with a compass, and we’re just out of luck. But let me let you in on a secret. We can learn to navigate with the stars.

Stop trying to get rid of your ADHD. It's not going to work. The usual rules don't work for us. Don't try to force them.

I've been told to motivate yourself by thinking about how important what I need to do is. I've been told to motivate myself by thinking about how I don't want to fail classes.

Neither of these strategies work for me.

Even if I'm motivated, I might not be able to focus. My sense of time is weird. I never actually FEEL time passing, so the "future" is a super abstract concept for me.

When I try to think about the future, I feel a little bit like this umbrella.

Original photo by Ian L.

I try to make the present more conducive for productivity instead of focusing on the future consequences of getting things done.

The strategies I had been given weren't working for me, so I didn't try to force them. I made my own strategies.

If the strategies you've been using to try to get things done aren't helping, forget about them.

You're going to have to make your own rule book.

This project contains pieces of my rule book. They work for me, but they might not work for you. Try my strategies out. Use the ones that work for you. Don't try to force the ones that don't.


I have ADHD. I was diagnosed about a year ago, and I have been on medication ever since. Taking my medicine for the first time was like when I got glasses after years of not being able to see.

Medication helps.

It still isn’t enough.

Am I a productivity expert?

Original photo by Ian L.

I’m just like you.

I’m working on this assignment right now, but it was due eight days ago. I’m not perfect, but I am improving. A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have finished this project at all.

I still don’t understand some people’s ability to decide they are going to do something, sit down, start it, focus on it, and finish it. I don’t have that ability, and I probably never will, but I’m learning how to use work around my struggles and use my abilities to my advantage.

I’ve improved, and I’m still improving. You can too. Here are ten things I've learned about getting things done as a person with ADHD. Some bits might help you. Other bits might not.

Pick and choose what works for you.


This is going to sound more than a little cheesy. Brace yourself.

In order to get something done, you have to believe that you can get it done.

That little voice in your head telling you that you can’t?

It’s lying.

You’re going to have to fight it.

Write down positive affirmations. Say them out loud. Convince yourself that what you’re saying is true.

Here are some positive affirmations I wrote about this project.

  • I’m going to feel great when I get this done.
  • It will be a weight off my shoulders
  • I’ll probably feel like happy dancing.
  • I can do this.
Original photo by Ian L.

I haven't actually finished this project yet, but I've started. That's more than I had done before I wrote those positive affirmations.


Everything is going to take you five hundred times longer than you think it will.

Accept this truth.

Embrace it.

Give it a hug.

Original photo by Ian L. [Disclaimer: one (1) clock was harmed in the creation of this photo}

Don't try to fight it.

If you think an assignment will take you two hours, you're going to be mad at yourself when it takes you way longer. To prevent this, allot yourself 2-5 times the amount of time you think you'll need to complete everything.

Record how long tasks take you. You eventually might develop an accurate sense of time. I have yet to, but I still recommend it, just in case.

I wrote a to-do list in my planner almost every day of the first semester of my junior year.

I completed all of the items on my planner approximately once.

I thought I could do way more than I actually could. I overloaded myself.

I estimated that one of Ms. Morrow's projects would take me two hours, then beat myself up when it took me twenty. Then I did the exact same thing again. And again. And again. Thankfully, I've since caught on to the aforementioned truth.

Now, my planner never has more than one or two things assigned to each day. I don't always complete everything I want to get done every day, but I definitely complete more things now than I used to.

I've started trying to do less, and I've been getting more done.


Turn off your phone. Put it somewhere out of sight—the farther away, the better. If you must have your phone nearby and on, turn off notifications. Delete the apps that distract you until you finish the things that you need to finish.

A lot of people fear missing something. They constantly check their phones for updates but end up missing their life. I am the biggest perpetrator of this. I fill my brain up with lots of input. When I do this, it becomes harder to create things.

Twitter and texting and Instagram and television and books push information into my brain. They send it into my brain through the same pipe that my brain sends stuff out of. My pipe gets clogged up when too much information gets shoved into it. This makes it hard to write essays.

My phone makes it really easy for my pipe to get clogged up. It allows me to access information easily, and it rewards me for doing so with likes and points and clicky noises.

I have never been able to resist clicky noises.

My brain loves information. I spend WAY too much time reading random wikipedia articles, bad fanfiction, and politically charged tweets. I clog up my pipe a lot.

I'm currently sitting in room 216. Ms. Morrow gave my class a work day, and I REALLY need to finish this project. I know that my phone clogs my brain up-- I've accepted this inevitability. At the beginning of class, I turned it all the way off and shoved it into the bottom of my book bag. And guess what? I'm typing write now. I'm getting something done. The words that you're currently reading are proof of that.


Don’t aim to make your assignments perfect. Aim to get them done as quickly as you can.

A lot of people don’t realize that procrastination and perfectionism are correlated.

I struggle to start things because I’m afraid they won’t be good enough.

Sometimes just starting things IS good enough.

It is much easier to mover your grade from a 0 to an 80 than it is to move your grade up from an 80 to a 100. Most of your results are produced by the least amount of your effort. You need to balance your effort and your results.

You don’t have to complete every assignment to the best of your ability. You don’t always need to run at 100%. You need to be mindful and intentional about where you spend your energy and effort.

Earlier this semester, I had two assignments due-- one for English with Mr. Green and one for college Calculus II.

I had a 99.5% average in Calculus II. I knew that I would still have an A if I didn't do the assignment. I care a lot about math-- I want to major in it. I also didn't want to disappoint my Calculus II teacher. I didn't want to get a zero on my Calculus II assignment, but I decided my English assignment was more important.

I had a book project due for Mr. Green. I didn't think I could get it done, but I wanted to. I wanted it to be perfect, but I knew I couldn't make it perfect. I didn't try to make it perfect. I tried to get it done as fast as I could. I changed my goal. I decided not to aim for a well-crafted essay. Instead, I aimed for an essay that included all the required information. When I finished the essay, I knew it wasn't completed to the best of my ability. I also knew that it was done. My book project received a 100 for content and a 98 for grammar. It wasn't amazing, but it wasn't supposed to be. It was supposed to exist and contain the right information.

I can't do everything, but I don't have to. I only have to do the right things. I can't put all of my energy into everything, and I don't have to. I only have to put the required amount of energy in. For school assignments, the required amount of energy is almost never all of my energy.

School assignments don't have to be prize-winning or even publishable. All they have to be is complete.


Big projects are difficult for me because they usually aren't due the day after they are assigned. They lack urgency.

Urgency motivates me

My brain has two modes: "Now" and "Not Now."

Regardless of how much time an assignment takes, my brain probably won't consider it a "Now" task until the day it is due.

Projects take a while because they are made up of lots of little tasks.

I have to break tasks down and force important tasks into the "Now" part of your brain.

Timers help me do this.

I am currently using an app on my phone called Time Timer.

Screenshot by Ian L. of Time Timer app

I set it for fifteen minutes. I'm trying to finish this section before the timer beeps.

It's a race. It's urgent. The "Timers Make Things Urgent" section of my project is now urgent.

The "Timers Make Things Urgent" section is now done.


Do your homework in the bathtub.

Okay, maybe don't do it in the bathtub. Bathtubs are kind of hard and not particularly cozy.

Unusual work spaces CAN excite your brain into focus, though.

This is because they provide novelty.

Novelty: the quality of being new, exciting, original, or unique.

My brain loves novelty.

You can also make tasks novel by making them into games, making them competitive, incorporating exciting materials, having a homework party, or wearing a costume.

Novelty, by definition, doesn't last very long. You'll have to change things up more than once. Working in Bytes and Beans instead of the library might work a few times, but after a while, Bytes and Beans won't be new and exciting anymore. Get creative.

When I first got to Early College, it was super novel. Everything was exciting. I was actually pretty productive. After a while, though, Early College lost its shiny newness. Now that I'm a senior, Early College is pretty mundane, so I have to work harder to make things novel. The library, thanks to its bad lighting and generally suffocating atmosphere, was never a very productive place for me, but now I can get absolutely nothing there. I've found new places to work. Earlier in the semester, I was able to focus really well at Bytes and Beans. Lately I've been having trouble there. I've started working in Oak Grove Center instead.

A few weeks ago, I was working on a big essay at the last minute. It was due later that day, and I had barely started. i was working on it in Oak Grove Center with a friend I didn't know very well. The chairs and tables had been moved around, so the building looked very different than it normally did. He challenged me to beat his record for the most words written in the shortest period of time. The novelty of a friend I didn't know very well, a competition, and an unusual location set my veins on fire. I turned the paper in on time.


If you an assignment is unclear to you, ask your teachers for clarification.

If you think your teachers could help you with something, ASK.


Your teachers are not scary giants that live in the sky and want to eat you.

Original photo by Ian L.

They almost always want to help their students, but they won't come looking for you to do so. You have to ask.

Ms. Morrow has helped me more times than I can count, but she isn't the only teacher willing to assist students.

I almost didn't turn in the paper I talked about in the last section. I finished it, but I didn't have money to print it out. I was afraid to explain this to Mr. Green, but I did anyway. He was super understanding and let me print my essay out using his computer.

It almost never hurts to ask teachers for help. If they don't help you, you're situation won't get worse. No harm is done.

Talking to teachers is scary.

Do it anyway.


Take a deep breath. Drink some water. Eat some protein. Get some sunlight.

Okay, I'm done being cheesy now.

Try these tips out. Toss the tips that don't work to the curb. Add the tips that do work to your owner's manual. Keep adding to it. Keep learning about yourself.

I made my manual, and it worked. If you're reading this, I finished my assignment!

Go finish yours.


Created with images by Heidi Sandstrom. - "Explorer’s compass" • Rennett Stowe - "Get Plugged In" • LoboStudioHamburg - "twitter facebook together" • Thom_1985 - "Start" • Clara S. - "Finish" • ErikaWittlieb - "bathtub tub bathroom" • terimakasih0 - "ask sign design" • Jamez Picard - "Painted Heart on the Park Bench" • Bryan Minear - "floating towards the sun" • Smart - "Man On Arrow"

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