Danielle Sullivan, owner of Neurodiverging Coaching, discusses the challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in completing tasks and offers 5 tips for improving productivity. Productivity should not come at the expense of self-care.
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Transcript: A Neurodiversity Coach’s Top 5 Tips for Better Productivity | Neurodiverging Podcast
Hello, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging Podcast. My name’s Danielle Sullivan, I am your host. I am the founder of Neurogiverging Coaching and an autistic adult, and today, today, today, we are here to talk about productivity. Before we get into that I would love to thank my patrons at patreon.com/neurodiverging. Patrons pledge a little bit of money per month to support the podcast and keep it going so that this resource can be free for all of you. Thank you to all of you for supporting this work. If you’d like to become a Patreon and throw in a couple bucks in the can and get some amazing perks back, please check out patreon.com/neurodiverging. Thank you all for your support.
So, one of our jobs as neurodiversity coaches is executive function coaching, and soon we will actually have a class out all about executive functioning. But many of our clients come in initially and they’re like, “I have to do these tasks for work, I have to do these tasks for school, I have to do these housework things, I have to remember to buy groceries or I won’t eat anything. How can I make this happen better for myself?” And I want to say that with a lot of autistic, ADHD, and other kinds of brains, getting stuff done is actually really hard. There is a lot more that our brains have to do manually than a neurotypical brain.
Neurotypical brains can do a lot of things automatically that neurodivergent brains have to really think about and process and take step-by-step-by-step-by-step. This gives us a higher workload, and it can take us longer to get the same amount of things done. Though, I will say that often we get the same things done better because we are a little deeper with it. That’s not universal, but it is often true.
So today I just want to give you a couple of very quick tips that are sort of strategies that you can use to improve your productivity, and get more things done during your day. Before I dig into this I just want to say: my interest is in your overall wellbeing, right? We live in a capitalist society, there’s a lot of pressure on us to get lots of things done so that we can make our employers satisfied with our performance. Even the school system, right, is going to be grading you based on what you produce as opposed to what you’re actually learning. When I am giving you productivity tips, I am hoping that you will take them and make your life better by remembering to eat and drink and sleep, and supporting yourself in ways that are actually going to encourage your overall wellbeing.
Sometimes we have to be productive in order to be functional in society. That said, these tips are not meant to encourage you to, like, work until you fall over. These tips are meant to help you get the things done that you need to get done so that you can have a good life.
I also just want to say that whether these things work or not for you is up to your brain. Different brains are different, when we work with clients in coaching we develop strategies that are individual to each client. It’s almost always the case that each individual person will need a different set of strategies and different set of structures and scaffolding around their day-to-day in order to hit high functional levels. What works for other folks might not work for you.
I encourage you to take these ideas and strategies and play with them and tweak them, and see if you can make them work for you in your life. And if they don’t work, I also encourage you just to not give up and know that there are so many strategies out there, and you may just not have found the one that’s exactly right for your brain, yet. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you or you’re doing anything wrong.
If It Takes Less Than A Minute, Do It Now
So with all that said, let me start off with the one that I think was the first one that really changed my life, and you’re gonna laugh at me because it’s wickedly simple, but about 10 years ago, somewhere on the internet — and I don’t know where it has been lost to the sands of time — somewhere on the internet I read the phrase, “If it takes less than a minute, just do it now.” (laughs) And I know it’s really simple and some of you will be laughing at me, but it changed my frickin’ life!
I am easily overwhelmed. I don’t handle housework particularly well. I have constant issues deciding what to eat to the point that I get overwhelmed and choose not to eat — Which is a bad decision, don’t do that! I am not endorsing that decision. I would walk past clothes on the floor, dust bunnies in the corner, cat vomit in areas, I would walk past spiders in the hallway, one stubborn weed in the garden, whatever it was. Because in my brain I was like, “Oh, that’s not a priority,” or, “I’m already overwhelmed, I’m not going to take that spider out right now.” What happens, though, is that all those little things that would have taken me one — literally one minute, not just like figuratively one minute, but actually on the timer one minute to solve and would improve my life immeasurably, in my brain they were lower priority. And so I would walk past all this stuff because I’m focused on something that I perceive to be higher priority.
What happens then is that over time all these things build up, right? The spiders multiply, the weeds multiply, the dust bunnies multiply, the cat vomit, unfortunately, also multiplies I am here to report to you. And I think it was actually in my phase of, “Let me learn to clean the house. The problem must be that I don’t know how to clean, and so let me memorize cleaning routines and schedules and things,” which, spoiler: did not work for me. Though I am a lot cleaner than I used to be, it was executive function challenges that really inhibited me from keeping a tidy and hygienic household. And I’m not gonna say I’m tidy now, but we are hygienic, okay? So we’re getting there.
So when I read this phrase, “If it takes a minute or less, just do it now,” my mind, like — It was like that gif where your brain just goes (imitates explosion) and explodes. I was like, “Oh! I almost always have one minute.” No matter what the thing is that is my priority, unless the house is on fire, I do have a minute to refill the cat water, I do have a minute to take the spider outside, I do have a minute to pull this weed, right? Usually, it’s not even a minute, frankly. Usually, it’s 20 seconds to do the thing that you’re seeing out of the corner of your eye or the thing that you’re walking past multiple times a day and just not addressing. The thing takes 20 seconds! And you’ve been looking at it for two weeks, and it’s like, “Oh, I should have just done that then,” right?
What I found was it didn’t create world peace or anything, right? Like, there are still problems in my day-to-day life, but what it did do was it created enough space in my day-to-day that I felt like my living situation improved immensely, just kind of immediately, like with very little effort, frankly, on my part, and very little reorganization of, like, my values or my systems or my strategies. It was really like if you have the energy and you have the minute just do the thing.
If you don’t have the energy or you don’t have a minute don’t do the thing, right? And the truth is that even if you can do the thing five times out of 10 or two times out of 10, you’ll have two more things done than you did before, right? So, that is my first tip, I guess, for executive function challenges.
And there’s so many reasons this works, and I don’t want to get bogged down in, like, neuroscience and executive function stuff in this podcast episode, though we have lots of those resources in other places and I’m happy to link you to them. For this podcast episode, I just want you to know this works and it helps a lot of people. So, try it. If it takes less than a minute, just do the thing, okay?
I think what you’ll notice is that you get more done, you feel better because your life is better because you’ve gotten more things done, and also it’s a remarkably low-pressure way to go about it because you’re not saying, “Okay, I’m going to spend an hour cleaning my house today,” you’re just gonna look around and go, “Uh, if it takes a minute and I happen to notice it I’ll do it.” And you don’t have to look around right now and say, “What will only take a minute to do,” but just as you’re walking around your house, as you’re walking around your workplace, whatever you’re doing, and you’re thinking about all the stuff, if something occurs to you and you know that it would just take a minute, just do it. Just do it. It really helps.
The second strategy I would like to talk about is called structured procrastination. I did not come up with this, this is from an author, I think he’s a philosophy professor called John Perry. He’s written a book called, “The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging” — Oh my gosh, try to say that three times fast. “A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing”. He’s the emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University. I have not read this book (laughs), but the author does have some excerpts from his book and some other essays which he’s written on his website which I’ll link below.
Structured procrastination basically assumes that we’re going to procrastinate sometimes. All of us, we have piles of things to do, we know that there are some things on our list that should be more important but they don’t feel important to us for whatever reason and we end up procrastinating doing them. Structured procrastination further assumes that most of us are actually getting things done as we attempt to avoid the big thing on our list that we don’t want to be doing.
So say that I’m supposed to be outlining an article for the blog, and I am just not motivated to do it. In avoiding outlining that article I might have answered a whole bunch of emails, made my bed, read some books, recorded this podcast episode. So I’m still getting things done, even though I am absolutely avoiding writing that blog article, right? Many of us get a lot of things done when we’re actively procrastinating on doing some bigger task. What structured procrastination is, is this idea that you set yourself up, you expect to procrastinate. So what you do is you choose as your main priority task a thing that has a deadline but it’s kind of flexible, and it’s a thing that’s important but no one’s going to die if it doesn’t happen.
We all have these things on our list that are like, we should do this, it’s kind of important, it matters, but also does it matter, like, right now? Probably not, right? Probably not. So one example that the author wrote about was that he had a chapter due for a book that he was supposed to be writing and instead of writing the chapter he was doing everything else. He was grading his students’ essays, he was writing this essay for his future book, he was doing all this other stuff. And then, when he contacted the publisher to apologize for not writing his chapter, which he says itself was an act of procrastination on writing the chapter, just writing to the publisher, he found out that like all the other authors also hadn’t sent in their chapters, yet. So although there was a deadline and although it was an important project that everybody kind of wanted to get done eventually, it wasn’t really harming anyone that he hadn’t gotten his work done, yet.
Another example that I saw, I think on a Tumblr post, and I’ll try to find it and link to it, I’m sorry if I can’t in advance. If it’s you, if it’s you, can you message me so I’ll put a link? Somebody mentioned wanting to learn another language, wanting to learn Chinese, right? A lot of us would love to learn a second language, it’s kind of important to us, right? And there’s sort of a deadline, because what if we go to that country someday and we want to be able to speak that language or at least read the table menus, right? Or know where the bathroom is. So, this is an example of something that we might kind of put at the top of our list, and then everything under that is the stuff that we’re actually going to be working on while we’re procrastinating writing our chapter or learning Chinese, right?
So, for this to work, as the author says you have to self-deceive, right? You have to say, “Actually, although I should be working on Chinese, I’m gonna work on all this other stuff,” and then put all the other stuff that’s actually important to you underneath the Chinese, right? And that’s structured procrastination.
And for many people, I have to say it doesn’t particularly work for me, but I’ve had many clients for whom it works, I think it just depends what kind of brain you are. If you are somebody who, like, wants to get stuff done, wants to get stuff — cross the list, just cannot focus on the big overarching task for whatever reason, structured procrastination might be a really good fit for you.
The Deliberate Stop
The third one is one that I’m sure has a name but I don’t know what the official name is. In our practice, we refer to it as a deliberate stop. So the idea is that many of us have very long tasks that we have to complete. Say there’s a home improvement project where there’s a lot of different steps, or say you have to write an academic paper for school and you have to, like, research it and compile your notes and actually write the introduction and then actually write all the — you know. And there’s a big long piece, okay? The idea here is that we know the project is going to be kind of too long to do in one shot, and we know that you’re gonna have to pause midway, so we want to be really strategic about where you choose to stop, and this is the deliberate stop.
Either before you even start the project or as you’re partway through the project and you’re approaching a time when you know you’re going to have to stop, what you want to do is don’t just stop willy nilly, because then what will happen is you’ll come back tomorrow and you’ll be like, “Wait, what was I doing? Where was I? What’s happening?” And you’ll waste a lot of time and energy and sometimes get frustrated enough that you just don’t do the project at all. Instead, what you want to do is when you are approaching a place that you have to pause, you want to stop your project, pause your project, when you know exactly what the next step will be. Exactly what.
So, I painted three walls of this room, and I need to take a break, I know that when I come back tomorrow my next step is gonna be to paint the fourth wall, okay? I finished researching everything about third-century Greek politics and I know when I come back tomorrow that I’m going to proceed into the fourth century and that is my next step, okay?
So basically you just want to get into the habit of when you’re starting a longer project, thinking about, “How can I pause myself so that I won’t have to think about what the next step is tomorrow?” Now my example about painting three walls, right? For some of us it’s very obvious that you’re going to walk in the room and go, “Oh yeah, I have to paint the fourth wall.” But, some of us have executive dysfunction issues, including myself, and sometimes, actually, it’s not very obvious that you have to paint the fourth wall, so in that case what can be helpful is actually to paint two and a half walls, because then you come in the next day and you’re like, “Oh, half the wall’s unfinished, obviously I’ll pick it up there.”
So you have to tweak this based on your own brain, and you might have to play around a little to figure out what is the thing that is going to set you up the next time you pick up the project? Where is the place to stop that when you pick it up it will be like, “Oh, obviously, this is what I was thinking,” right? For some of us that’s, for example, at the end of a book chapter, and for some of us that’s mid-chapter, right? So think about how you tend to work. Do you have projects in your life where it has been easier for you to remember the next step than other times?
If you can think of some times where it was pretty easy to be like, “Oh, this is the next thing I should do,” and mimic what you did then for your future projects, you’ll probably have a lot more success making a deliberate stop. If you just stop willy-nilly because you got hungry for dinner then you’re probably going to walk back in the next day and go like, “What was I doing? What was even happening?” Okay? So help your future self out by just taking an extra minute and setting up for the next time you come in. What’s the first thing you’re gonna do? It’ll make everything a lot easier.
The 5 Second Rule
The second to last strategy I want to talk about is from Mel Robbins who is an ADHDer and a writer, and they talk about the five-second rule. Now this is not like when you drop your candy on the ground and then have to decide if you can eat it, this is you know how you’re laying in bed in the morning, and part of your brain is like, “Oh, I should get up,” and then some other part of your brain is like, “No, you shouldn’t. You should definitely lay here longer,” right? The five-second rule is designed to help you interrupt that second-guessing thing your brain does, that all brains do, you’re not alone in that. All brains do it.
The five-second rule is designed to interrupt that process, so you actually get up the first time you think about it, and here’s how it works: when you catch yourself thinking, “Oh, I should …” whatever it is, the minute you are finished thinking the thought you start counting backwards from five. Five, four, three, two, one. When you get to one, you take an action towards the thing that you thought you should do. So, “I should get out of bed. Five, four, three, two, one.” I sit up. Or I put my feet on the floor, or I do whatever — some action that is towards your goal.
Now how this works is, a lot of us have inadvertently trained ourselves into the habit of second-guessing ourselves and talking ourselves out of things, and this can make completing our tasks very difficult, right? I do this, personally. I already told you about I’ll get distracted or overwhelmed and not eat, right? I do this with eating. So I’ll be like, “Oh, I will cook an egg for dinner.” And then I will be like, “Oh, then I have to turn on the stove.” And then I’ll be like, “That sounds really hard, I don’t want to turn on the stove, I’m not gonna make an egg for dinner.” But then I don’t have a backup and then I don’t eat, right?
So, what works instead can be to say, “I’m gonna make an egg for dinner,” and then before your brain can go, “This is hard, don’t do it,” you count, five, four, three, two, one, and then you take a step towards making that egg. And for me, that might be turning the pan on, or that might be pulling the eggs out of the fridge, because once they’re in front of me I’m more likely to cook them, right?
Now this takes practice, this is not something that you’re gonna get 100% good at the first day you try it, but the more you do it the more you are actually training your brain out of second-guessing and into counting down from five, the more you practice counting down from five, the more likely you are to actually be taking those single steps forward into the activity, and the less likely you’ll get stuck as often, right? We’re all still gonna get stuck sometimes, getting stuck happens, it is neurodivergent life, but if you suffer with inertia, if you suffer with just second-guessing and frustration and overwhelm, this can be a really good option to sort of retrain your brain away from that.
Stare at the Wall on a Schedule
And the last strategy I want to share today is probably something that you know you should be doing and you’re not doing it (laughs), so I’m gonna tell you in my professional capacity: you need to be scheduling time for yourself where you are not doing anything. It needs to be on your calendar. It needs to be set in your alarms and your Google Voice reminder. The same way that you prioritize work or school or time with your children or whatever your priorities are, you also need to be scheduling time to let your brain chill out.
This can be having a choice menu, like choosing to go for a walk or reading, or taking a nap, right? But you need to have times set aside where you are doing no work. This is not just for your wellness, though it is for your wellness. But also, we are more productive as humans when we allow ourselves to rest. When we allow ourselves to let the unconscious parts of our brain churn on problems for a little bit. If you are actively trying to problem-solve every minute of every day, you will burn out, you will lose capacity, and you will get very, very tired if not physically unwell.
Your brain is not designed to actively problem-solve 100% of the time. Your brain is not designed to think hard for hours, and hours, and hours at a time, and that will not make you more successful in getting the stuff on your list done. The way your brain is designed is to focus intently on a task for a period of time and then to rest, and that rest is not idleness but that rest can be listening to music, painting a picture, coloring, watching something on YouTube, right?
Something that takes a small amount of your attention but not most of it. What that allows is for the rest of your brain to churn away on some of these problems and produce solutions for you unconsciously. When you’re ready, when you’re rested enough, when you’ve given yourself enough time, solutions will present themselves to the conscious part of your brain. This is — again, we could go into the neuroscience on this, and I can give you links if you like, I’ll try to put some below, but this only works, you only get more productivity about this, if you actually let yourself rest. If you actually engage in self-care practices like walking, like looking at nature, like counting the bricks out your window, like going fishing or coloring or knitting, or petting your cat, okay?
Whatever you like to do that takes some of your focus but not most of it, that is not inherently a problem-solving activity, you need to be scheduling in times in your day-to-day and making sure that you are prioritizing that rest for yourself. It will improve your mental wellness, it will improve your capacity to handle challenging things, and it will improve your productivity as well.
I hope this has been helpful for you and I hope some of these strategies spoke to you and feel like things you can implement in your day-to-day life! I want to thank again my patrons for supporting this podcast, thank you so much. If you’d like to join us over on the Patreon we would love to have you. We’re at patreon.com/neurodiverging. Please hit like or subscribe anywhere, whatever platform you’re on, it helps other people find us and we really appreciate it. Thank you so much for listening, and please remember we are all in this together.