Adult ADHD Motivation Productivity

Power Through Email, Complex Projects, or Boring Tasks by Tracking Your Progress

It’s been a while since I posted about my diagnosis with Adult ADHD earlier this year. When I wrote that post, I promised that I would be sharing more about my experience and especially about the coping mechanisms that I’ve implemented to help me overcome some of the difficulties.

The Liberation of an Adult ADHD Diagnosis

Let me begin by saying that there is something very liberating about my diagnosis. I don’t see my ADHD as a disability in any way—in fact, just like with Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Bill Gates, and Albert Einstein, I feel it has been a strength and a contributing factor in my success up to this point. However, there are challenges and difficulties. One of those challenges is that it’s difficult (and sometimes impossible) to stay mentally focused and engaged on tasks that we don’t find interesting.

Imagine that you were wrestling with The Invisible Man. He has you pinned to the floor and no matter how hard you try to get up, you can’t; there is this unseen resistance that you can’t overcome. You feel paralyzed for no reasons and just feel like if you tried harder you get up. You’ve never heard of The Invisible Man before, you can’t see him, he’s bigger and stronger than you are, and he’s got you pinned to the floor. Then suddenly, someone (probably your clinical psychologist or psychiatrist) throws a bucket of paint on the two of you. All of a sudden, you realize you aren’t paralyzed after all—you just have a big man on top of you holding you down. Now you can see your challenger! After he has been identified, you are then on a level playing field where you can meet his challenges.

This is what my ADHD diagnosis was like for me. Now that I can see my challenger, I can find ways to overcome those challenges. To those without ADHD, these may seem like small insignificant challenges. That’s OK. You’re wrestling with The Invisible Man. But those who are need some strategies and techniques in order to win the fight. This article is one such strategy that I’ve stumbled upon that helps me tremendously.

Progress Bars – What Are They?

You’ve seen progress bars when your computer was performing some kind of processing. There is usually a graphical bar and sometimes they will display a percentage complete. Sometimes they will even display the number of items to be processed and indicate the current process that is in progress. I don’t remember, but I think I got the idea in this post from this latter kind of progress bar. I’ve been using it for several months now and it’s really helped me. There area few ways I implement the method, and I’ll try to share as many of them here as I can.

Counting down – How I Power Through Email

When I process my email inbox, my goal is to process everything there and for my inbox to be empty. This is what David Allen calls Zero Base and what Merlin Mann calls Inbox Zero. When I start processing my email inbox, I grab a scratch pad of paper and write down the number of emails that are currently in my inbox. Then periodically as I process them I will scratch through the number and write down the new number. For some reason, this helps me to see the goal as getting closer and helps me to maintain my focus on the task.

I have several email addresses, all for different purposes. Most of them are combined into one email inbox, but some of them have to remain distinct and separate. In my main email account I also have lots of things that automatically got a label named “ads’ that I only process once every week or two. I write each one of these down as a separate column as I’m processing each one. Here is a picture of my scratch pad after processing three email accounts.


You’ll notice that I will often process several emails before scratching through a number and writing down a new one. At other times, I’ll only process one email before I scratch through and write down a new one. Essentially, I do this each time I feel I need a boost to my focus. Writing down the new number brings my mind back on task to process the next email.

Marking-off Numbered Tasks – How I Power Through Reading Books

For as long as I can remember, whenever I was reading a book, I would always make a note of the last page of the chapter I was reading at the time. This gave me a short-term goal to work toward and I felt really good when I finished each chapter.

Right now I’m reading a book for school that is very challenging to stay focused on. To take this book one chapter at a time is too big of a chunk for me. However, to take it one page at a time is about right.  So, before I read a chapter, I write down the page numbers for that chapter on a piece of scrap note paper. Then as I read each page (or sometimes after reading a few pages) I will mark through the page number(s) I’ve just read. If I’m tempted to stop reading, I can usually talk myself into reading, “just one more page,” so I can mark of just one more number.

Here is a picture of a couple pieces of my scratch pad. The first one shows all the pages marked through after reading Chapter 10 and the second one shows the pages I need to read before I go to bed tonight.


Journal What I’m Doing as I’m Doing It – How I Power Through Complex Projects

I love to document things. This has been a very helpful tool in writing courseware for the SharePoint Training classes I write and teach. As I’m working through a project I will often document my progress to help me stay on task. As I perform different tasks, I make notes about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and sometimes little conversations about how I’m feeling at the time. This documentation is not only encouraging, but also useful for troubleshooting. I recently had another consultant take over for me on a job I had been working on. I gave him all my notes about what I had already done so he easily knew the landscape of the project. I usually take these notes in Evernote. Here is a screenshot of part of one of those notes:


Chat Style Documenting of What I’m Doing as I’m Doing It – How I Power Through Boring Tasks

Sometimes a boring task doesn’t really lend itself the kind of detailed documentation I’ve indicated above and it doesn’t include numbered or counted items like in the previous two examples. I need something in between; I need something like Twitter or Instant Message. Sometimes I’ll Instant Message a coworker what I’m doing at the time, and update this each time I switch to a new task.

Here is an actual chat session I sent to one of my coworkers. Notice that I was providing updates as though he were watching a server automatically perform the tasks.


I also have a simple chat client installed on my own web server and I’ll use that to do this sort of thing as well. Here is an excerpt from when I was packaging some hardware and handling some emails. Notice that once again it has that computer-like tone of: I’m starting… I’m doing… … completed.


This could be accomplished using a Twitter account as well.

Amateur Cartography – How I’m Motivating Myself to Exercise

One of my favorite ways to get my body moving is walking. However, I find walking around my neighborhood very boring. I do like to be out in the woods though. I’ve been using the GPS on my phone to map some trails. I’ve also been taking other notes about the trails, and I’m gathering quite a bit of information about them. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll use it, but at the end of a hike I feel like I have something to show for it. I can look at my data and see that I have created something of value. One of the reasons I’ve never liked to exercise is because I don’t feel like I have something tangible to show for it; now I do.


So, there you have it… five ways I document my progress. These simple tools help me stay focused on the task at hand until it’s done. There are many variations you could take on these five methods too. Hopefully you’ll share your own ideas and tweaks in the comments.

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  • Reply
    Ricky Spears’ Blog » Blog Archive » A Recurring Dream Theme and My ADHD Diagnosis
    11/13/2011 at 8:37 pm

    […] Power Through Email, Complex Projects, or Boring Tasks by Tracking Your Progress 13 […]

  • Reply
    Judi H.
    11/29/2011 at 12:59 am

    Haven’t checked your blog for a while. Thanks for posting your tips for working with ADD. I hate “To Do Lists,” so I started writing progress reports years ago. I handwrote details on a yellow pad, and enjoyed crossing off the things I’d accomplished throughout the day. Breaking tasks down into tiny steps helps, too. For tedious tasks I set a timer for 15 minutes. Most of the time I just keep going after the timer goes off, but for those times when I just can’t stand it, I allow myself a breather to refocus. One of the quirky things I do that helps me immensely is to stop and turn around before leaving a room. This has helped me avoid walking out the door without my cellphone, etc. I’ve also returned to turn of the lights, shut a cupboard door or two and turn the iron off.

  • Reply
    12/5/2011 at 12:02 pm

    Judi – Thanks for visiting again and sharing some of your own coping mechanisms!

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