Living With ADD/ADHD: Why You Should NOT Make Tasks Urgent
Since our brains focus better in crisis mode (thus why we do well in a crisis or why we can’t really start work until the day before a deadline) it is often suggested that if we make tasks feel like a crisis, this will help us get them done.
This strategy does work, but I do not think it is healthy over time.
When we set up tasks to feel urgent and a bit like a crisis, we kick our brains into gear by getting the increase of adrenaline, cortisone, and cortisol, which help our neurons fire faster. While this sounds good, it is also literally putting ourselves in a chronic state of stress.
Cortisol is good for a crisis, as it lets our body focus on survival and it conserves energy for our brain and heart to work. However, consistent high levels of cortisol lead to a host of problems. Dr. Chris Kresser notes:
“We know that high cortisol is associated with suppressed immune function, hypertension, high blood sugar, insulin resistance, carbohydrate cravings, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, fat deposits on the face and the neck and the belly, increased accumulation of visceral fat around the organs, reduced libido, and bone loss. And that’s just for starters. So it’s definitely a major issue. It can wreak havoc all throughout the body. But it does have specific effects on the brain. Animal studies have shown that giving rats daily injections of cortisone can kill brain cells. Cortisol has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for episodic memory. Chronic stress has been shown to cause premature brain aging.”
If you really have tasks you need to get done and the only way you can do them right now is to make them feel urgent, do it if you have to. Maybe by setting timers, making a colleague hold you accountable to earlier deadlines for a project, or setting consequences for yourself if you do not get something done by a certain time.
However, I suggest that at the same time you increase your ability to function while NOT under stress.
Here are some tips to getting things done without needing to make them high-stress:
Meditate. Those of us with ADD have a really hard time understanding the passage of time. We often feel like two minutes is really ten and we have a hard time handling any task that we perceive will take a long time. We need to get used to time feeling slow and not panicking when things feel like they take forever. Meditation can help us train our brain to handle that feeling. The easiest way to do this is to sit down in a comfortable spot and set a time for two minutes. For two minutes, close your eyes or have a soft gaze about a foot in front of you (looking at something plain, like the floor) and breathe in and out. Every breath cycle (in and out) is a number, and you want to count up to ten and then start again at one. If at any time your mind wanders and you think of other things, or you get angry and jittery because it is taking FOREVER, start back at one. (See Zen Mountain Monastery for more detailed instructions.) Eventually two minutes will not be agonizing, and then you can increase it to three, and four, until you work up to 15-25 minutes of meditation. Meditation also helps you recover from chronic stress. So, if you procrastinate at school and work and do put yourself in a state of stress to get something done, you need to calm your system down and decrease the stress hormones. A session of meditation will help you recover.
Time how long it takes you to do tasks. Many daily tasks overwhelm us because we do not have a sense of how long they will take, or how complicated they really are. If you think putting away laundry takes an hour, it might, but when I have had people time putting away their laundry, it usually takes 10-15 minutes. When you know daily tasks are not as overwhelming as your brain perceives them to be, your brain slowly rewires to not panic at these tasks and you can do them without needing to be under stress.
Have a routine that you have timed out. Creating a routine (and timing out each task) can help program your brain to not be in a constant state of stress over each task. With no routine and no idea how long things take us, we often end up in a state of stress. For example, if you would have told me to make pancakes for my son every morning, I would have told you no way! That takes way too long, it is too much work, too many steps, and I would have just shut down. However, on a weekend I timed how long it takes to make my son’s pancakes. They take less time to take than making eggs and a banana separately. They certainly take less time than it takes to get up every morning and figure out what I will make him given the three choices we have in the fridge. So, I leave out our griddle and I (or my son) make his pancakes in about ten minutes every morning. My mornings are so much easier and I do not have that feeling of stress and panic at trying to make breakfast. Find routines and ways to make daily tasks LESS urgent so that your stress levels are not constantly high.
Set timers. Sometimes we have chronic stress by working under pressure and feeling we can not stop until something is finished. (We also hyperfocus at times, but that is for a different blog post.) Knowing we can stop and take a break to do something we like or to calm our system with meditation or listening to music can decrease the amount of stress we feel. So, break up your work into 15-20 minutes segments with five to ten minute breaks in between. If your timer goes off when you are in the flow of work and you feel good and low stress, feel free to reset the timer and see if you need a break in another 15 minutes. You having control over your time and how long you “have” to work will make you feel much less stressed.