My ADHD clients, when asked about time management and task completion often describe their process of handling multiple competing obligations and tasks like this, “I had so much to do that I got overwhelmed and didn’t get anything done.”
One possible reason for their apparent paralysis is that they had too much incoming and no method for organizing, prioritizing and strategizing how they’d handle the influx of tasks that had landed on their mental to do lists.
So, this past week when a coaching client came in with the same type of challenge described above, I was excited to have the opportunity to learn more about that overwhelm/shutdown dilemma that is so common for people with ADHD. Together we could look at the reality of her current situation and develop awareness of what actually happens when too much lands on her plate. With that information we would be in a good position to generate ideas of what she can do moving forward to manage multiple tasks and task influx and keep moving.
As I listened to her describe the projects and associated tasks that had just heated up, what I noticed was that it seemed that all that incoming information was being carried in her head. She was attempting to keep track of all that had to be done and had been done with her memory alone.
Anyone would have difficulty carrying so much information in memory, given the complexity of the projects she described. However, one of the hallmarks of ADHD is having an unreliable memory and great difficulty with working memory. The way she was currently managing her project obligations was the equivalent of trying to capture all the details of her projects in a sieve. Some tasks were getting done, the lucky ones that got caught in the sieve, but even so, my client was aware that she didn’t have a complete grasp of all that needed to be done, thus she felt anxious.
I checked in with my client about how she was keeping track of all the tasks to be done. Was she in fact relying on her memory alone to manage her projects? Yes, all that data was floating in her head, stirring up anxiety. We discussed the option of making the projects and associated tasks visible, pulling them out of her head and onto paper or a computer screen. I call this “dumping your brain.” She liked that idea.
In our discussion my client admitted that by trying to keep everything in her head she really couldn’t see the total picture of her current obligations. Not being able to see her reality made her anxious. She also couldn’t see what she already had done, something that could have eased her anxiety and motivated her to keep going despite feeling the weight of responsibility associated with her projects. Writing out the tasks associated with each project would make it much easier to determine priorities, a timeline, a sequence for taking action and resources needed and available to complete the tasks.
By combining memory with making project details and tasks visible, my client agreed that she would in a better position to create an accurate picture of her reality, to develop a doable, strategic action plan, and initiate and complete tasks from a position of feeling in control and empowered instead of running on anxiety and urgency or becoming paralyzed by overwhelm. In our session she moved from “freaked out” by all she needed to get done to excited at the prospect of creating a visible action plan. Not being able to see the full picture of her obligations kept her anxious and overwhelmed. Creating visibility would help her manage her anxiety and make successful completions more likely.
Where are you shut down, paralyzed by the weight of the obligations you carry in your head? Make them visible and watch the tyranny of your emotions ease so you can spend your energy on effective thinking, planning and strategizing when and how to get them done instead of needing to spend valuable energy to manage anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings that emerge when you’re operating in the dark.