Productivity, ADHD and Perfectionism

Just wanted to lay out a thought that’s been bouncing around my head now for a while.

As I left school and confronted the pressures and responsibilities that come with adult life, I quickly realized that my previous strategy of half-assing my life quickly wasn’t effective anymore. You can’t half-ass an office job. You can’t half-ass paying your bills on time. If you want to make people feel comfortable in your home, you can’t half-ass things like taking out the trash or keeping your place clean.

It was all way too much to handle at once for me. And as my responsibilities continued to grow, I turned towards the internet for help managing my life. That’s when I first encountered the rabbit hole that I like to call the internet’s “productivity community.”

What exactly is the productivity community, you might ask? Just search “productivity” on YouTube and see what comes up. Or, if you really want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, search for things like “Task Management Apps” or “Best Note Taking Apps” and, without fail, you’ll quickly notice that you see the same familiar faces, and concepts such as GTD (Getting Things Done) and Building a Second Brain.

At the time, this content was a revelation for me. I had never taken the time to develop solid organizational skills because I had an executive function disorder that flew under the radar. Before this, in school, I was able indulge in my own worst habits. I chronically procrastinated. I had a teacher who graded on completion and came to our desks only looking to see if we had something written down. I showed her old homework every single time.

Now, I was learning how to take control of my life. Over the years, I became well acquainted with GTD. I started using a task management app. I closed all of my “open loops” by religiously entering them into my inbox. I diligently did my weekly reviews.

I began taking detailed notes on things in a note-taking app. I learned the PARA method. When bi-directional linking notes together became popular, I followed suit.

When I felt as though my system wasn’t suiting me, I changed things. I changed the apps I used. Then I changed them again. Then I changed them again and again and again. My productivity system had to be perfect. I had to be perfect. Why couldn’t I just do the things I was supposed to do? Clearly these systems weren’t working for me. So I had to adapt. I had to look up more videos. More articles. More guides.

I watched videos on how to improve my focus, building habits, hacking your sleep, watching all your content on 2x speed to increase media consumption, how to purge all of your belongings, and so on and so on.

Nothing worked.

Early this year (2023 as I’m writing this) I was diagnosed with ADHD-PI. In the immediate aftermath of my diagnosis, seismic waves of realizations about my entire life and many of the things I’ve experienced over time washed over me. One of these realizations was that my endless pursuit of productivity and self-improvement stemmed from my undiagnosed condition.

I can recall a a moment where I had decided I had to change my productivity system up. I obsessively picked apart GTD’s five step process in and effort understand it better. I can remember telling myself, exasperated, that Step 5 – “Engage” or “Do” was the weakest link in the system. “It doesn’t tell you how or when to actually do stuff!” I’d tell myself. “It’s so vague!”

Clearly I didn’t consider that, for most people, the part where you “do” the things on your list is the easy part of GTD.

This leads me to my greater point… all of these systems, productivity methods, hacks, etc. are not designed for those of us with ADHD. They’re designed for those who might struggle with organization or who might need more guidance, but not those who are struggling with executive functioning, processing difficulties or short-term memory issues.

I also came to understand that self-proclaimed “productivity gurus” such as David Allen, Ali Abdaal, Tiago Forte, Francesco d’Alessio, Matt D’avella, Thomas Frank and many others, whether intentionally, or more likely, as a result of the dopamine fueled lotto that is social media, exist as hostile and predatory figures to the neurodiverse community.

These people operate by creating content that promises the viewer clarity, the ability to “get things done,” improve their thinking and creativity and, in some nefarious cases, make a great deal of money, among other things. All you have to do is take the advice they give in their videos on blind faith. Just check out this new app, try this new way of organizing yourself, connect your apps in this specific way, develop these particular habits. And then, since they’re content creators who operate in an attention-driven economy, and exploit social media patterns for their own gain, they release their next video containing new recommendations, new and better systems, and other, shiny new ways to do things ad infinitum.

To someone with ADHD who doesn’t know any better, like myself, this hijacks a genuine interest in improving oneself and becomes a hyper fixation that will likely only result in frustration, disappointment, perfectionism and burnout.

I’ve since realized that productivity influencers are overrated. Especially those who don’t struggle with issues like mine. Their advice for someone like me is bogus and won’t ever stick. You mean to tell me that I should organize all of my notes into a Projects folder, Areas folder, Resources folder or Archive folder, keep those folders organized, mirror this setup in a task manager, add contexts to my tasks, prune my notes for bi-directional links all while tracking my habits in a custom kanban database in Notion? Yeah right… the minute I fall off of a system this rigid in favor of something more simplistic is the minute everything falls apart.

I read some advice on the ADHD subreddit some time back. It said this:

“I really think the problem with most organizational systems for people with ADHD is that other people’s systems almost never work for us. We need to build our own, and understand that the things the system is telling us to do are coming from US, not some outside authority”

This has become my exact position over time. Nowadays, I keep things simple. I largely use stock apps on my iPhone, iPad and MacBook and focus far more on what works for me. I try not to worry about perfection anymore. I regard all the creators in the productivity rabbit hole with disdain, whether justified or not. It doesn’t matter to me.

Living with ADHD sucks. It’s not easy. I’ll likely have issues forming habits, being organized or taking charge of my own life for the entirety of my life. I can recognize that and work on my problems one step at a time. I don’t need random people with expensive cameras and Skillshare money to remind me that these tendencies make things harder for me. What’s more, I definitely don’t need them to sell me their new solution of the week as though it’s some golden answer that will fix me.