Executive Functioning, Strategies

Tech for EF Part 3: Productivity

In part 3 of our Tech for EF series, we are tackling what is often the hardest task of all: getting started and staying productive.  Expect more posts to come on this topic, because it’s the one we spend the most time on with clients.

Can tech help me get started and stay productive?

The Problem:

Often the most challenging step in accomplishing tasks is just getting started on them. Initiation is a significant challenge for those with ADHD, especially if the task isn’t particularly exciting. Once you’ve begun, it can also be challenging to stay on track and keep a steady pace.

We talked about avoiding distraction in Part 2, which can be a big barrier to getting started and staying focused, so here we will talk about another major root cause of this problem: task avoidance. And, namely, avoiding tasks that feel overwhelming.

Solution: Break tasks into manageable parts

Often, when someone is stalling on getting started, it is because the first task feels overwhelming.  For instance, if the first item on my to-do list is “Write Essay,” I will feel significantly more daunted than if it were, “Create and Name Google Doc.” The latter, I can handle.  The former, makes me want to throw the covers over my head.

A great strategy for getting started is to stack your to-do list with a few easy items at the beginning, to build momentum and get you into “work mode.”

If using a task manager app like ToDoist or Wunderlist (which we will talk about at length in Part 4), create larger tasks with subtasks beneath. This act of writing out the subtasks serves several purposes:

  1. It builds in time to really sit with the assignment or task and wonder, “what is actually involved here?” This deeper understanding will demystify the task.
  2. If it is a project that will span more than one sitting, subtasks make it easy to schedule steps out over the course of time.
  3. Once subtasks are created, each piece becomes more concrete, and less overwhelming, making it more likely to get started.
  4. More subtasks means more frequent opportunities to “check” the box, which is one of the more satisfying things in life.

    Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 3.07.49 PM.png
    A history assignment broken down with subtasks in To-Doist

Unfortunately, for those with executive functioning deficits, the act of breaking things down into subtasks can be challenging in itself.  Websites like The Research Project Calculator  have templates that allow you to put in the kind of assignment, the day you’re starting, and the due date, and it will help you create subtasks and a schedule for completion. Another great option is to take the opportunity to sit with a teacher and ask for help breaking it down into steps. Questions get answered in real time, and you get some serious brownie points for effort.

If there is a type of task that occurs frequently enough, it can also make sense to create a template of subtasks.  For instance, perhaps in Science you do weekly lab reports. Or current events for Social Studies. These recurring assignments are perfect for creating templates: both for the assignment itself, and for a subtask breakdown. For this, you could simply use a word processor or google doc. If you’d like to get more visual, Inspiration can create graphic templates that then can be converted into outline checklists.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 3.19.54 PM.png
Creating a google doc that serves as a template for recurring assignments saves time and helps to get started. Plus, you’re less likely to accidentally forget a requirement.

If you prefer interactive lists, a workflow app like Trello can help you not only create templates of your task lists, but also keep track of where in the process you are by dragging them across lists.  We tend to name our lists “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done” to help stay mindful and intentional as we work through a task.  Here is an example of a Trello board we created for the Current Event assignment above. Once you create the board and the subtasks, it stays in your account. Each time you do the assignment, move everything back to the “To Do” column and start again.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 8.15.50 PM.png
Trello allows you to drag tasks from list to list, clearly indicating where you are in the process. Plus, they don’t delete once you’ve done them, so you can keep using lists over and over.

Consider it a challenge to make a list of tasks that are as simple as possible. With each small accomplishment and check of the box or movement to a new list, momentum builds.

Another strategy can be to assign times to these tasks and use workflow time apps like 30/30. Using a philosophy similar to the Pomodoro Technique, you can create chunks of time to accomplish each task. A timer will go off when the task is over, and can help you to stay on track.  This is especially useful for tasks that can quickly spiral in time like checking emails, researching, and brainstorming.


Key Takeaways:

  • Large, abstract tasks can overwhelm us and cause task avoidance
  • Break big tasks into smaller, more concrete chunks
  • Stack your to-do list deck by having a few easy items at the start and a few at the end
  • Have a way to mark tasks as completed so you can give yourself credit for getting stuff done
  • Use timers to make sure more abstract tasks don’t spiral and take longer than you intend

What are you favorite tools for getting started on work and productivity?


2 thoughts on “Tech for EF Part 3: Productivity”

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