You’re late to work (again), behind on a project, or can’t remember the action points from the last meeting. If you’re one of the roughly 10 million U.S. adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it can be a constant challenge to stay on task.
Anthony Rostain, MD, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in Philadelphia, says you can get distracted by external stimuli like noise or internal stimuli like daydreaming; these different distractions require different coping strategies, he explains.
Here’s how to pinpoint your weaknesses and 10 strategies for getting the job done.
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Write it down
If you want to raise an important point in a conference call, but don’t want to butt in, you may not absorb what the others are saying while you wait to bring it up.
Better to jot down a keyword to remind yourself what you want to say, says Linda Richmand, a Westchester County, N.Y., certified professional coach with a specialty in adult ADHD and ADD. "Now you’re ready to fully attend."
She recommends keeping a "random-thought pad" on hand, whether you are at your computer or folding laundry. Enter important reminders and any brilliant ideas that pop into your head so that you are less distracted by them as you work on the present task.
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Map it out
In a day chock-full of appointments, odds are good you’ll forget to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home.
A study in the journal Science found that the human brain can handle two complicated tasks simultaneously. Add a third, though, and the brain can’t keep up. People lose track of one of the original tasks and begin making errors, the study found.
No need to keep it all in your head. In the morning, map out your day, including errands, and refer to your “road map” throughout the day, Richmand suggests. It helps to visualize your plan like athletes do before a big game, she adds.
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Create the right environment
Make your environment work for you. If noisy colleagues are rattling your concentration, request a quieter work space.
However, it’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to find dead silence even more distracting. If you focus better when listening to music or with ambient nose in the background, then try to make it happen.
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Paying the bills: Could there be a more mind-numbing task? You procrastinate and the late fees pile up. The trick is to make it a priority, Dr. Rostain says.
Schedule time for plowing through the thicket of envelopes, and don’t do anything else until the job gets done. Elicit your spouse’s or partner’s help. Have him or her bring you coffee and cookiesanything to ease the monotony.
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Take a quick break
If boredom is ruining your productivity, take short breaks. Just getting up to walk around, have a yoga stretch, or take a quick sip from the water fountain may be all you need.
When you’ve completed a task, give yourself time to regroup.
Be careful, though, not to move into procrastination mode and let a quick break morph into an hour-long Facebook chat with friends.
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Set a timer
If your on-time arrival is suffering, it may be because you’re squeezing in last-minute tasks before heading out the door or failing to set a realistic departure time.
Figure out how much time it really takes to get where you’re going and let technology work for you.
Program your phone to alert you when it’s time to get going. Or, when you go to sleep the night before, set a timer that’s more than arm’s distance from you so that you’ll be forced to get up.
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Plan some joy
It’s OK to reward yourself for sticking with a task until it’s completed. "Make sure you plan into your day something that’s enjoyable, something you look forward to doing," Richmand suggests.
Have coffee with a friend, watch something great on Hulu, or just take a walk at a local park, she says. Not only is it an incentive to finish the job, but it will also help you recognize "that it’s not all drudgery."
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A job well done doesn’t mean doing everything yourself.
"Know when to delegate; know what you do well and what you don’t," says Lenard Adler, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Adult ADHD Program at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City.
Focus on your strengths and ask for help when you need it.
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If you have trouble estimating time or shifting gears from one activity to another, approach tasks for limited periods of time. For example, give yourself two 15-minute periods to work on something with a break in between.
Psychologists call it "chunking," or breaking work into manageable pieces.
If you’re in the middle of a larger task, stop at a specific time and assess the situation, Dr. Adler advises. It may be time to switch gears and move on to something else.
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Some people find gadgets work better than paper and pen for keeping lists and reminders.
“Do what works for you,” says Dr. Adler. "Electronic organizers can be wonderful."
Smartphones are a great option, as are digital sound recorders. Input your to-do list, appointments, and upcoming events.