March 1, 2021

How To Help An ADHD Brain Do Stuff

If you have ADHD, or know someone who has ADHD, you’ll understand that keeping focus is a challenge, and getting easily distracted is common practice – every day.

You’ve probably asked yourself many times, “Why does it feel so difficult to do such a simple task! UGH!”

Having an ADHD brain looks a lot like walking to the kitchen to get a class of water, noticing on your way a pile of laundry that needs to get put in the wash, so you go do that… then you notice the dirty dishes in the sink, so you do that… then you remember that you need to order something on Amazon, so you do that… then, what should have taken 1 minute to do, 45 minutes later you’re trying to remember why you were in the kitchen in the first place… OH YEAH! Water. ๐Ÿ™‚

The ADHD brain is very visual. We see everything, and that can sometimes get very overwhelming. Listening, is a challenge. Reading, can be a challenge. Unless it’s interesting, it’s hard to keep a firm hold of our attention, our mind wanders and thinks of 100 things at once… unless it’s interesting, or we understand what the plan is – that is when we can zero in on the single task at hand and give it our full undivided attention! An interesting and exciting documentary on Netflix – ABSOLUTELY YES – we are all in!

So, this morning I opened up my Facebook to a very validating post I wanted to share today. It feels so good to be understood and learn even more about how the ADHD brain works; how it’s different than “normal” (neurotypical) brains.

For example, a “normal” (neurotypical) brain needs fueled by following the food pyramid we all learn about in school… maybe a multivitamin, or one or two supplements just to fill in the gaps depending on your diet. It’s fairly easy to manage the typical-normal brain. You experience normal ups and downs, and when stressful life events come up, or a project needs tackled, it’s ‘no big deal’ to recover, start and finish.

An imbalanced brain needs a little extra work. We may need a prescription medication to help the brain function properly and help manage and maintain stable emotions– our ups and downs swing higher and lower than normal. We will need supplements, vitamins, certain foods that have focused and intentional health benefits for our brain type, and we may need to avoid certain foods. Utilizing the Five Senses with essential oils, for example, will be part of our daily rescue remedy if emotions get uncomfortable, or panic sets in. We absolutely need regular talk therapy, and learn about and practice daily mindfulness to find a sense of calm and clarity throughout the day. We may even need to practice strategic ways to ‘hack the brain’ so we can complete tasks and make progress each day.

It’s one thing to understand the challenge of why it’s difficult to [finally] get stuff done in our day to day school, work, or managing a household, but what’s the solution? How can I ‘hack my brain’ so I can get stuff done?

Jana O’connor on Twitter @sayitslp shared the following information about her ‘Ah Ha!’ moment learning how the ADHD brain works, and how she can ‘hack her son’s brain’ to help him start, and finish tasks easier.

In a series of tweets, she shared the following information:

#NeurodiverseSquad no one has ever explained #ADHD or #executivedysfunction to me quite like Sarah Ward (@swardtherapy) and I need to share the awesome. (I’m a speech therapist with an 8yo son with ADHD, for background.)

First, memory. You have two broad types of memory: Long-Term Memory (LTM) and Short-Term Memory (STM). STM is often used interchangeably with Working Memory (WM), which refers to a sort of mental “scratch pad” where you can hold information in mind and use it.

Now, WM also has subtypes: The 1st is Verbal Working Memory. Verbal Working Memory is what allows you to hold someone’s phone number in mind, rehearse it, and write it down when you find a pen. It lets you remember a set of words someone said, or something short you read.

The 2nd kind of WM is Nonverbal Working Memory (NWM). This refers to your ability to hold images in mind. To see scenes from the past, pictures you saw, where you left your keys, etc. It also helps you imagine the future.

Not words about the future, but what the future LOOKS LIKE. Now, it’s the ability to see what the future looks like that is impaired in those with poor executive functioning skills, like those with #ADHD, #ASD, and #executivedysfunction.

I will talk about ADHD because my son has ADHD. NVWM impairment is exactly why it’s hard for someone with ADHD to just… do the thing.

Because #neurotypicals just imagine what “done” looks like, and work backwards from there to figure out what steps to take. Then backwards again to figure out what they need to get started. Then they know how to start.

Folks, if you can’t easily imagine the end product, you can’t identify the steps that get the end product complete. And if you can’t identify the steps, you can’t collect what you need to start. And you… can’t start.

So WHY is it so hard for people with ADHD to just… do the thing? It’s because starting on a task is completely overwhelming when you can’t see what you’re working towards.

If a neurotypical person is going to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they’re gonna think about what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich looks like as a FIRST STEP. Practically instantaneously. What does done look like? Then they plan backwards from there.

What are the steps to achieve the “done” image? Well, laying out the bread, spreading the peanut butter, spreading the jelly, putting the two sides together. BAM. What will I need to prepare to do those steps? Bread, peanut butter, jelly, knife. BAM.

You plan backwards, and execute that plan forwards. Or: you “plan the work, then work the plan.” This is incredibly hard for those with executive dysfunction.

Learning this has helped me immensely. Once I could understand that this failure to see the “done” was what was holding my son back, all I had to do was make the “done” visible and visual for him.

What does “ready for school” look like? We took a photo of him ready with all his things. Now each morning I show him that and say “match the picture” and he’s ON IT. The photo helps him see the wholeness of what HE looks like in the future. He can see the done.

What’s more, this helps with his anxiety. He is always anxious about birthday parties. Why? I now know he can’t visualize what it will be like. Uncertainty = anxiety. What does the place/crowd/food look like? No idea. Stress.

Now we reduce birthday party anxiety by making the uncertain/unknown into something he can see. We google photos of the venue. Of kids eating cake and pizza. We look at several photos of what it might look like and anxiety is reduced. Hugely. This is wizardry, guys.

I shared this strategy with his gr 3 teacher and she (bless her) immediately put it into practice. He was unable to start on his journal writing one morning. She said “here is what done looks like” and flipped to a previous, complete journal entry.

She went through it with him and helped him identify the steps/parts (a topic, sentences, capital letters, spaces, etc.). That’s what done looks like. And he immediately got to work writing a new one.

This is so fundamentally different than giving a kid a checklist you made. You are _teaching_ the kid the skill of visualizing the “done”, and of _creating_ their own checklist from that “done” image. They are thinking through all the steps of planning themselves.

Building these skills is crucial for kids with executive dysfunction. I love this strategy, which Sarah Ward calls “Get Ready – Do – Done.” because it makes planning (as well as the thing you’re planning) VISUAL. This is building nonverbal working memory.

bread on white platter

After I read her ‘ah ha!’ moment, something within me clicked! This wouldn’t be helpful for only kids with ADHD, but adults (like me!) with ADHD as well!

“This is what done looks like.”


When you have a big project or goal you want to get done, but keep feeling like you’re hitting a wall, and such a “simple” task seems overwhelming, or confusing, try making a visual of ‘what done looks like’ and see if that helps make the task at hand easier to accomplish. Ask your spouse, friend, or any loved one you trust and feel comfortable with, help you create a visual road map of what ‘done’ looks like. ๐Ÿ™‚

I hope you find this as helpful as I have! If so, please share with me your experience, or feelings, in a comment below! ๐Ÿ’ฌโฌ‡๏ธ

Please also feel free to share this with your friends and family if you find this helpful! ๐Ÿ’š

About the author

Becky Cooper, Certified Brain Health Coach. Often times we find ourselves in need of support in accomplishing life, health, and mindful goals. It takes a great amount of courage to recognize that you canโ€™t do everything aloneโ€” we sometimes need someone to help us be accountable to what we truly desire to accomplish in life. ย It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child; I feel it takes a tribe to help raise each other [up].ย This is at the heart of what I do.ย ๐Ÿ’šย ย I have found life to be easier when I accept that I am a 'work in progress', and that's enough. While I continue to learn and progress, taking life one step at a time, I can invite others along my journey and help them too; teaching them what I have learned, and encourage them. In December of 2020 I completed the Brain Health training course directed by Dr. Daniel Amen, graduating with the official certification as an Amen Clinics Certified Brain Health Coach. This not only has helped me learn valuable solutions to help myself heal, but also help others who feel the same way as I do; others who are also in search of healing.Read More...


adhd, Mental Health Monday

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