How an ADHD-I person gets something done (and maybe everybody else, too?)

Just went to lunch with a friend of mine who is having me come in to the psychology classes he teaches and present on marriage and family therapy.

Here is what this presentation thing will look like for me. Though I will want to work on this long ahead of time, any time I actually open my material to work on it, I will become distracted by any of 40,000 things, taking my brain away from the necessity of active cognition. Hours will pass, and nothing will get done even though I’m “putting in the time,” sitting there looking at my materials, probably all alone. This will be very frustrating, and I will wonder what is wrong with me, and (as always) why I just can’t focus. On approximately the day before (or being more honest, the day of) , I will finally get the surge of fear that will allow me to focus on what I need to do enough to figure out what I will present. The work will be very quick, my focus will be incredibly intense for a short period of time (thanks, adrenaline!) and I will accomplish in record time what should have taken me hours to do. In a bad case scenario, that moment of focus will never come, and I will look like a complete fool.

This is the summary of my entire academic life. Whenever I talk about this, people tell me that they know exactly what I’m talking about, and that they do the same thing. I’m always shocked by this, because I never see anybody going through it. Is that true? Is this kind of thing really that common? Is this not a part of ADHD-I at all, and I am misguided?

Any insights or experiences to help clarify this for me?


  1. I feel like I know what you're talking about in some aspects but not others. As a procrastinator, I do rely on that surge of adrenaline to help me get a weeks worth of stuff done in just an hour or two, but the main difference is if I were to take the time to sit down and work on it earlier, I would get it done. I just don't take the time. I would imagine it would be extremely frustrating to feel like I was "putting in the time" because I had tried the whole week and yet not had anything to show for it. I do not believe you are misguided in your idea that it is ADHD-I related. I think it is. Most people are procrastinators, but probably closer to what I do as opposed to what you do. Does that make sense?

  2. I agree. I think there are a lot of people who can relate to the procrastination aspect of it, but I don't think a whole lot of people who find themselves "throwing it together at the last minute" get to that point because they are mentally incapable/less capable of doing it beforehand.
    I personally can definitely relate to what you are talking about, but unfortunately with some things (particularly things that really only affect me or seem to olny affect me -like schoolwork) I often find myself in the last minute without the needed motivation/surge of adrenaline.

  3. I don't have ADHD as you defined it before, but this is my entire academic life as well. Every paper I have ever written has been 100 percent adrenaline. When I was working on my master's thesis, there was a day when I locked myself in my room for a week. At the end of the week I had one paragraph.

    Are you able to write rough drafts? I write one paper and agonize over every sentence until I am completely satisfied. I also obsess over the flow of the paper, so after I write each sentence, I reread the entire chapter up to that sentence.

    Whatever the problem is, this is what keeps me from accomplishing anything at work. I will get home after an 8 hour day, and realize that I didn't accomplish a single thing.

    There are two tricks that help me occasionally at home, but I can't do them at work. 1) Giving myself a quick pep talk out loud. 2) changing locations – if nothing's getting done on the desk, sit on the floor, stand at a counter, sit in the corner, etc. Even with these tricks though, adrenaline is the main impetus. Not to be boastful, but I think I've written better papers in two hours than my classmates could write in a week. The only scary part is the rare occasion when the adrenaline never comes.

  4. I used to do this, but I actually stopped the procrastination thing when I started my master's program. Mystically, I started doing things early and getting things done way before they were due. I can't explain it. I still get distracted a lot when trying to get things done, but not like I used to. I can usually buckle down and get 'em done these days. I think for most people, they experience this kind of thing when they are working on things they DON'T want to get done. Perhaps the difference is you might experience this even when you WANT to get something done… although maybe that's common too? Maybe it's an issue of pervasiveness across multiple areas of life? Interesting things to think about!

  5. Though your ADHD no doubt plays a major role in your working methods, I wonder if your distracted mulling is also a sort of brainstorming/pre-writing.

    I say this partially because I think people get too tied to the platonic ideal of the writing process*–which composition pedagogists all agree doesn't really exist outside out of books. So you end up sitting for hours without anything concrete to show for it, but at the last minute, you can pull it out. For me, any worthwhile writing is almost always preceded by a long walk–a walk that never has a "and now I shall walk about and consider what I'm going to write" purpose.

    *And here I am using the writing process as a stand-in for work of all kinds.

  6. Thanks, guys, for all the awesome feedback so far. I feel like I'm understanding this a little bit better.

    Kimmie–thanks especially for your explanation. It really resonated with me, and the way you explained it makes total sense to me. It explains why I've always felt like it was connected to ADHD-I, but also why other people can relate to my experiences in a very real way. Thanks for stating it so clearly and simply.

    Brad–Are you sure you don't fit the criteria? The way you've talked, it seemed to me that you might. If not, have you taken a look at OCD? Not that I want to throw around labels with reckless abandon, but the way you were describing what happens as you write, my OCD-o-meter went off just a little bit. I could be WAY off though–I have barely anything to base that on. Maybe something to check out.

    Chris–I totally hear you on not getting the surge of adrenaline. I hate it when that happens. A lot. That's when things go for weeks and weeks without getting done.

    Adam–thanks for reading! I seriously appreciate it.

    Melissa–Interesting thought. I definitely think there is some truth to that. I find it to definitely be true with more creative endeavors. Not so true with things like, say, math (which is even more difficult for me to focus on, incidentally, than anything else).

  7. I fight GAD and OCD on a general, but mostly Postpartum basis. My first "episode" was when I was 14, but under most circumstances, I can keep it under wraps until my hormaones are thrown out of whack or I just have too much stress that throws my hormones out of whack. 🙂

    I deal with almost an opposite problem because of it. It's very interesting for me to read your experience and run it through my own filters. Having to write a paper, I often dealt with the same procrastinating problem that Kimmie talked about(I learned that to perfection in "gifted" classes), however, when I have a say about what my paper is about, I often spend *way too much time* in the research phase, and not give myself enough time to pull it all together. I do it now all the time. I spend hours researching what to do on our family vacation, what carseat to buy, or how to fix the dishwasher. I devour non-fiction books on whatever my problem du jour is. I feel guilty if I don't read my library books from cover to cover, because it means that I haven't done all my research.

    Anyway, it wasn't until I had spent several years in therapy that I realized I did it. That and a sweet comment by my husband that was not meant to make me feel bad, just an insight. It became almost an epiphany for me.

    It makes me really good at some things and not so good at others. I'm better at early phases and behind the scenes work rather than pulling it all together and making sure the conference gets put on. I work better with deadlines, so I know when to stop. I've also learned that it is *ok* to skim a book. 🙂 I didn't even do this with textbooks without feeling guilty. I still feel guilty sometimes, but I'm doing better. Jared allows me to do the research for purchases and then I go to him when I have the comparisons for him. 🙂 He and I have an agreement that we are allowed to tell each other when we are going overboard because both of us have family history of mental illness. So I don't take offense when he tells me to get off the computer or I've done enough obsessing. He is very understanding and does see the good that it has too. 🙂

    So while I don't sit with the time passing with nothing to show for it, sometimes the things I have to show for it aren't really what I want to show for it… 😉

  8. I know I'm late again, and not sure if you go back to read this stuff, Josh, but I, also, love your posts and the questions that surface for me. One of my curiosities is…when you surge and get it done, is that uncomfortable? Is it like you're really anxious that it won't come out right, or once it begins to come does it flow?

    The other curiosity I have do you feel when it's finally on the page? Math, writing, whatever. Is it like, oh, well, that looks right? Or does it seem not as you'd want it?

    Just really curious if you get a chance to look at this!

  9. Karin–that is a really interesting perspective. It's too bad we never talked about this stuff back in the day. Who knew we were both struggling in our own ways? Thanks a lot for describing your process. It's fascinating to me. I was going to say that maybe you and I together would make one person that gets things done, but then I realized that I'm not very dependable on the research end OR the final product end. Ha!

    Marcia–Thanks so much for your questions. They're really great. When I surge, it's a little bit uncomfortable, but mainly that's because my brain still doesn't want to pay attention to what I'm doing. The higher the need for concentration (esp. on stuff I'm not naturally inclined to do, like formatting my writing in APA for example, or collating research) the more my mind attempts to find distraction as I do it. With the adrenaline, I'm able to over-ride that, which isn't at all comfortable. It almost psychicly hurts, even. I'm never really worried about whether something is going to come out right–I usually have confidence that once I can point my concentration that direction, I can do it well.

    Once something is on the page, I'm done. I never, ever edit my papers. It's like getting the concentration to even get it there in the first place was so difficult that I can't bear the thought of looking at it again–and probably would get distracted soon after trying anyway. Sometimes I'm able to do a quick read-through, but I usually don't even do that. I'm usually just fantastically relieved to be done, and willing to accept whatever small dock in points or perjorative "see errors where noted" I get for typographical stuff.

    With math, it's a totally different story. It's so foreign to my brain that it never feels exactly right. And my distractability is through the roof. I don't know that I've ever finished an entire set of math problems given as an assignment. I just can't keep my mind alert enough.

    Great questions!

  10. ADHD may be contributing to this behavior, but you don't have to have ADHD to act like that. That is a form of Procrastination. I do the same darn thing. That doesn't mean it isn't a terrible thing. It can wreck your school and work life which can in turn wreck your personal life, which can lead to living in a van down by the river. Don't ask me how I know that.

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