This ADHD “Time Hack” Actually Helps Me Get Chores Done

published Dec 18, 2023
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Credit: Viv Yapp

As much as I love cleaning schedules and homekeeping routines, I don’t expect to get everything I need to be done within the confines of prescribed parameters. Life happens and this calls for a certain amount of flexibility within a plan that keeps undone chores from getting out of hand.

Additionally, even the planned, expected chores don’t magically get done just because they’re on the checklist. No matter what, those tasks require a decision and a space of time to earn that checkmark. It’s at this inflection point that my responsibilities are either completed or put off. 

Although I am neurotypical, I’ve found tremendous benefits in the past from utilizing productivity strategies that serve the ADHD community. I’ve employed flexible rituals and body doubling. As Aarushi Agni explains in “6 Tips and Tricks I Used to Make My Apartment More ADHD-Friendly,” “… people with ADHD have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (associated with motivation and reward) in their brains. This often means that a task must be more interesting or exciting to their brain in order to get the same amount of dopamine for it.” I think it’s this focus on motivation and reward that makes ADHD tactics for getting things done translatable to individuals who aren’t neurodivergent but sometimes have trouble completing tasks (like myself).

With this in mind, I’m always on the lookout for strategies that help spring me into action. I recently came across an Instagram post along these lines that stopped my scroll. It was a text-only post with a headline reading “ADHD brain hack: the timer is a social construct, the boiling point of water is not” (sic). The post goes on to detail how using a “non-arbitrary measure of time” is a much better motivator than merely setting a timer. 

A timer doesn’t work for some because it can be ignored and “nothing will happen.” Deciding to wash as many dishes as you can until the electric tea kettle whistles or to fold the laundry until your podcast episode is over, however, puts you under the pressure of a specific consequence and thus provides that extra bit of motivation that comes from knowing that time really will be “up.”

I talked to a few experts to find out why this particular strategy works. Jule Landry, co-founder of NeuroSpark Health, says that “people with ADHD often struggle with something referred to as ‘time blindness’” and explains that “smaller chunks are helpful for those who struggle with task initiation or are overwhelmed by large projects or too many things on their to-do list.” She continues, “The technique [described in the Instagram post] works because it creates a sense of urgency and breaks tasks down into smaller chunks that feel more manageable.”

Clinical psychologist Joel Frank of Duality Psychological Services delves even deeper into the why: “Individuals with ADHD many times struggle due to brain-related under stimulation. So for some individuals with ADHD to function like neurotypical individuals, they require more stimulation.” He says that engaging in tasks with deadlines and timeframes offers increased stimulation. “The deadline offers an extra layer of pressure to complete the tasks, so the brain must incorporate the extra pressure into the execution of the task.” 

Credit: Photo: Sidney Bensimon; Prop Styling: Anna Surbatovich

To hear how this strategy plays out for individuals with ADHD, I also spoke with Allie K. Campbell, a digital communications specialist at Center Reach Communications. As someone who has “navigated the waters of ADHD” her whole life and has years of experience creating digital spaces where ADHD brains can thrive, she is uniquely positioned to offer insight into this productivity strategy. 

“Regarding the concept of using external ‘events’ as time markers for tasks, I do think this method can be highly effective for ADHD individuals; it’s certainly something I’ve experimented with myself and has been useful. Personally, I tend to respond better to immediate and sensory-based cues, which have a way of temporarily ‘overriding’ my executive dysfunction by tricking my brain into viewing the task at hand to be more engaging and less cumbersome.” she says. “I think this method has a great way of leveraging the ADHD brain’s preference for tangible sensory experiences that have an element of passive control, providing a more intuitive way to navigate time management and increase productivity.”

Finding out that I can make both of these strategies more powerful by switching my timer from an “arbitrary” amount of time to a “real-world” amount of time makes the technique even more powerful and, with any luck, will help me use my time more effectively than ever to get stuff done.