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Oct 30, 2023

In a world that rewards peak productivity and efficiency, living with ADHD can feel like you’re swimming upstream against a powerful current. No matter how hard you try to fight the current with willpower alone, you end up downstream from where you wanted to go, exhausted and discouraged from your failed efforts. 

Despite decades of research showing that ADHD is a very real neurological disorder, the belief that those with ADHD simply need to “try harder” persists. Studies show that those with ADHD hear 20,000 more corrective messages by age 12 than their peers, leading many with the disorder to believe that there’s something inherently “wrong” with them. Unfortunately, these negative beliefs are only compounded by the chronic Executive Dysfunction that impacts our organization, task initiation, impulse control, and attention and is partially responsible for making life with ADHD so difficult to cope with in the first place. 

As someone who is personally familiar with the daily challenges of ADHD, I’ve learned firsthand how hard it can be to cope with the disorder. Yet, I’ve also been able to find strategies and systems that make life with ADHD significantly easier to cope with. Today, we'll explore some of the most effective ADHD coping skills to support 5 key challenge areas:

  1. Procrastination  
  2. Sustained Attention
  3. Disorganization
  4. Stress Management
  5. Student Life

We're covering a lot here so feel free to skip around to what feels most relevant to you!

And before we dive in, it’s important to note that we’ll be focusing primarily on coping skills that you can try out for yourself independently. Although these strategies have been tried and tested by countless individuals (including our own clients!), they are no replacement for professional support and treatment for ADHD. If you find that these strategies are too difficult to implement or stick with on your own, I’d encourage you to learn more about the foundational components of ADHD treatment in this article first before trying these ones out.

 

ADHD Coping Skills for Procrastination 

Procrastination is one of the most common challenges for those living with ADHD - and for good reason. While everyone delays boring or difficult tasks on occasion, those with ADHD often use procrastination as a way to cope with the discomfort of demands that feel unworthy of our full mental energy. Even so, we can turn procrastination into productivity by applying strategies that support our ability to initiate tasks. Here, we’ll explore four ADHD coping mechanisms that are particularly effective. 

Strategy 1: Prioritize Tasks 

At its core, ADHD is a challenge of attention regulation (rather than "attention deficit.) This is especially true when there are multiple demands piling at the same time and we feel “decision paralysis” - i.e. when we're frozen by the choice of multiple tasks that all feel equally important or urgent. 

The Solution: Start by listing out all tasks, irrespective of their size or significance. Next, categorize them based on urgency and importance. Tools like the Eisenhower Box or the "urgent-important matrix" can be immensely helpful here. This method segregates tasks into four categories:

  • Urgent and Important: Do these immediately.
  • Not Urgent but Important: Schedule these.
  • Urgent but Not Important: Delegate if possible.
  • Neither Urgent nor Important: Consider dropping them.

By organizing tasks this way, you provide your ADHD brain with a clear roadmap of what needs attention now versus what can wait. This process also declutters your mental space, making task initiation less daunting.

Strategy 2: Break Down Big Tasks into Smaller Goals 

A common ADHD experience is viewing any given task as a singular, overwhelming challenge instead of a set of small steps leading towards a bigger goal. Left unchecked, this distorted perception can cause us to overthink and delay starting (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “analysis paralysis.”)

The Solution: Transform the abstract into the actionable. For instance, instead of noting down "work on presentation", break it into smaller chunks. For example

Step 1 - Research topic specifics.

Step 2 - Draft the introduction.

Step 3 - Outline main points.

Step 4 - Design slides for point 1, 2, 3…

Step 5 - Summarize points in conclusion slide

Step 6: Review and practice 

By compartmentalizing a task, you essentially create a sequence of mini-tasks, each of which feels more approachable. Every time you check one off, you get a dopamine kick – a neurotransmitter that’s crucial for motivation and is often dysregulated in ADHD brains. Over time, this practice can reduce avoidance and build momentum.

Strategy 3: Assign Your Own Deadlines

"Why do it today when you can put it off until tomorrow?” is an all-too-real sentiment for anyone with ADHD. The problem is that a vague, distant deadline will seem perpetually far away until that deadline is suddenly upon us, leading to panic and rushed work.

The Solution: Harness the power of Parkinson's Law, which states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion". By setting self-imposed deadlines ahead of the actual due dates, you create a sense of urgency. These personal deadlines should be realistic but slightly challenging, nudging you out of the comfort zone. Add reminders to the mix using tools like digital calendars or sticky notes and remember to celebrate when you meet these deadlines. Doing so reinforces their importance and can help train your brain to respect them in the future. 

Strategy 4: Get Help

Navigating ADHD challenges by ourselves can be an isolating experience. When we're always working towards our goals alone, we may run into low motivation due to a lack of external accountability. 

The Solution: Seek out an accountability partner! This person could be a colleague, friend, or coach. The essential aspect isn’t their expertise in what you’re doing, but their role in keeping you accountable. For instance, if you're writing a report, having someone to whom you commit to sending an outline by a specific date can be the nudge you need. They don't need to review it; the very act of promising and delivering can be a game-changer. Furthermore, consider joining ADHD support groups or forums. Sharing your goals and progress with individuals who understand your unique challenges can provide both motivation and invaluable insights.

 

ADHD Coping Skills for Inattention

Focus is another key challenge area for the ADHD brain, but only in certain areas. In fact, those with ADHD actually have enhanced focus (also called hyperfocus) for the things they’re excited about or want to do. With the right strategies and systems, it’s possible to harness some of that hyperfocus and apply it towards important responsibilities. These six coping skills for ADHD in particular are a great place to start.

Strategy 5: Jot Down Distractions

One of our coaches once described the ADHD brain as "a Lamborghini engine with bicycle brakes" and I don't think there's anything else that I could write to better explain why it can feel so difficult to resist distractions with ADHD.  

The Solution: Instead of trying to battle the temptation of each and every distraction, try to build a better understanding of what distracts you in the first place. One way to achieve this is through a "Distraction Notepad." Essentially, every time an unrelated idea or thought pops up, quickly jot it down and return to your task. This serves two purposes: it acknowledges the distraction (thereby reducing its insistence) and ensures you can explore these thoughts later without fear of forgetting them. Over time, this practice trains your brain to see these distractions not as interruptions, but as deferred explorations.

Strategy 6: Use Timers 

The concept of time can often feel abstract or nebulous for those with ADHD. As a result, extended periods of focus can be daunting and lead to avoidance or rapid burnout. 

The Solution: The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time-management method that can be a real game-changer when coping with ADHD. It involves working with intense focus for short periods (usually 25 minutes), followed by a 5-minute break. This cycle repeats, with every fourth break extended to 15 minutes.

This technique capitalizes on the ADHD brain's natural bursts of energy and attention, making work feel more like a series of sprints than a marathon. The short breaks in between serve as reset periods, preventing overwhelm and aiding sustained productivity.

Strategy 7: Set Alarms

When we get into a state of hyperfocus, our ADHD brain has a tendency to lose track of time entirely, often leading us to missing appointments or losing time that we initially set aside for another important task.

The Solution: Use alarms as your external timekeeper. If you have back-to-back tasks or appointments, set alarms 5-10 minutes before you need to transition. This serves as a cue to wind down one task and mentally prepare for the next. It also acts as a safeguard against the time-blindness that ADHD often causes.

Strategy 8: Body Doubling

For many with ADHD, the mere presence of someone else, even if engaged in a different activity, can provide a subtle anchor for our focus. On the other hand, working alone too often can lead us to lose perspective on our productivity or make us less motivated to stay productive independently. 

The Solution: Body doubling leverages this phenomenon. This strategy involves having someone work alongside you. They don't necessarily have to be involved in your task or even be physically present in the same space (virtual body doubling is a thing!). Their presence serves as a psychological cue, promoting mutual focus and creating a shared productivity environment. Over time, this practice can also evolve into mutual accountability, further enhancing its effectiveness.

Strategy 9: Reward Systems

The ADHD brain has a unique relationship with dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to motivation, pleasure, and reward. Specifically, one of the more difficult quirks in the ADHD reward circuit is that we don't receive the same feeling of reward or satisfaction for completing difficult tasks that our neurotypical peers do. As a result, it can be much harder to reinforce habits that require delayed gratification or hard work when you have ADHD. 

The Solution: Break tasks into chunks and assign a reward for each completed segment. These rewards could range from a short break, a snack, a few minutes of a favored activity, or even accumulating points towards a larger reward. This system transforms tasks into a series of mini-challenges, each with its own dopamine-driven payoff. It makes tasks more engaging and provides consistent motivation to stay on course.

Strategy 10: Take a Break

Physical stagnation can lead to mental stagnation. When we find ourselves hyperfocusing on a task but not making significant enough progress, continuing to force ourselves to work can end up being counterproductive.

The Solution: Integrate short, frequent physical breaks into your routine. These could involve stretching, a quick walk, jumping jacks, or any movement you prefer. These breaks serve a dual purpose: they act as a mental reset, clearing any accumulating cognitive fog, and they cater to the ADHD brain's need for physical stimulation. Over time, these breaks can significantly enhance overall focus and productivity during work sessions.

 

ADHD Coping Skills for Disorganization

Another symptom of ADHD that’s widespread and difficult is disorganization. Once again, we have the ADHD brain to thank for this challenge as its rapid-pace of thinking can manifest into external chaos within both our living and working environments. In other words, picking up that pile of clothes on the floor can seem unimportant relative to what else is running through our ADHD minds at any given moment. Even so, there are some great ADHD coping methods to help you harness some of that mental energy towards getting organized. 

Strategy 11: Dedicate Specific Areas for Specific Tasks

For the ADHD brain, context is key. If spaces are muddled, with no clear boundaries or purposes, it becomes easy to get sidetracked or overwhelmed.

The Solution: Dedicate specific spaces for specific tasks. For instance, establish a quiet corner as your reading nook, with all your books and reading accessories contained therein. Similarly, if you're working from home, have a dedicated workspace, distinct from where you relax or eat. This creates environmental "cues" for the brain, signaling it to gear up for the task associated with that space.
Having designated areas not only reduces the likelihood of misplacing items (because everything has its 'home') but also improves focus. By repeatedly using a space for a specific activity, you train your brain to associate that space with a certain mindset, making it easier to slip into the task at hand. 

Strategy 12: Use Lists to Stay Organized 

The ADHD mind is often bursting with ideas and big picture plans, making it challenging to remember the small details of daily life, leading to forgotten obligations, last-minute scrambles, or feelings of being overwhelmed.

The Solution: Embrace the power of lists. Start each day (or the night before) by jotting down tasks for the next day. This could be in a physical notebook, a digital app, or even voice memos. As you progress through the day, the satisfaction of ticking off tasks can be incredibly motivating. Furthermore, lists act as external memory aids, reducing the mental load of trying to remember everything. Over time, this practice not only ensures that obligations are met but also instills a sense of accomplishment, as you visibly see tasks being completed.

Strategy 13: Color Code in a Calendar or Planner

If you're already using a calendar or planner, you ay have noticed that they can quickly become a jumble of unclear notes or entries, making it challenging to discern what's actually important. 

The Solution: Assign specific colors to different task categories. For example, blue could represent work-related tasks, yellow for personal chores, pink for social engagements, and green for self-care activities. By using distinct colors, you can quickly get a visual snapshot of your day or week, understanding the balance (or imbalance) of activities. Color coding also aids in quickly locating specific tasks. Need to find a doctor's appointment amidst a sea of entries? If all health-related notes are in purple, it becomes a breeze. Additionally, the act of assigning colors can help in processing and internalizing tasks, making them less likely to be forgotten.

ADHD Coping Skills for Stress Management

Life with ADHD comes with a whole lot of stress. After all, when you combine ADHD symptoms that impact our ability to self-manage and self-regulate with a world that expects everyone to do both flawlessly, can we really be surprised that those of us with ADHD get overwhelmed? Luckily, with the right strategies, there are also lies an opportunity for resilience skill building in learning to cope with the stress of life with ADHD.  These 5 coping mechanisms for ADHD are the perfect place to get that ball rolling.

Strategy 14: Self Compassion 

As I mentioned before, ADHD is usually accompanied by a critical or negative  internal dialogue sometimes. This voice might chastise missed deadlines, berate moments of forgetfulness, or magnify perceived shortcomings due to ADHD. 

The Solution: When coping with ADHD symptoms, it's important to embrace self-compassion. Recognize that ADHD is not a measure of your worth or capabilities. It's a unique neurodiversity, with its set of strengths and challenges. Instead of being your harshest critic, become your own cheerleader. Celebrate small victories, forgive slip-ups, and remind yourself of past successes. Practice affirmations that resonate with you, such as, "I am doing my best with the tools I have," or "Every challenge I face is an opportunity for growth." Over time, a compassionate dialogue can significantly reduce stress by reframing setbacks as learning opportunities.

Strategy 15: Exercise

Studies show that exercise has an extremely positive impact on the ADHD brain. Why? Well, according to one expert, exercise stimulates our brain’s arousal center, making us less prone to impulsive behaviors or reactions that may be disproportionate to a given situation. On the other-hand, when we don't exercise, the ADHD brain struggles with emotional regulation and impulsivity even more. 

The Solution: Integrate regular exercise into your routine. Whether it's a brisk walk, a gym session, dancing, or any form of physical activity you enjoy, movement can be therapeutic. Exercise releases endorphins, the body's natural mood elevators, which can counteract stress. Moreover, it provides a structured outlet for the ADHD-driven energy, leading to a sense of accomplishment and physical well-being. Over time, consistent exercise can serve as a powerful stress buffer.

Strategy 16: Mindfulness Practice 

As you already know, the ADHD mind moves through thoughts and ideas so quickly, that we can often get stressed out thinking about future possibilities while simultaneously losing sight of the present moment. 

The Solution: Mindfulness, at its core, is about being present, anchoring oneself in the current moment without judgment. Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or even simply tuning into one's senses can provide moments of calm amidst the ADHD storm.
Apps like "Headspace" or "Calm" offer guided meditation sessions tailored for varying needs and durations. Engaging in these practices can reduce the brain's stress responses, foster a sense of acceptance, and enhance our overall well-being.

Strategy 17: ADHD Support Groups 

ADHD is hard to navigate alone - especially when you don’t know anyone else who is also struggling with its many symptoms and challenges.

The Solution: Seek out and join an ADHD support group! These spaces, whether in-person or online, provide a platform for individuals to share their journeys, challenges, and victories. By engaging in these groups, you not only receive support but also gain insights into strategies that others have found effective. Simply knowing that you're not alone and that others share and understand your struggles can be immensely validating. Furthermore, these groups often serve as reminders of the many strengths and gifts that accompany ADHD, reducing feelings of inadequacy and the consequent stress.

Strategy 18: Get Adequate Sleep

ADHD and irregular sleep patterns often go hand in hand. Whether it's the challenge of winding down our mind at night or stepping away from an activity that's triggered our hyperfocus, sleep can be elusive for us ADHDers, something that only heightens our day time stress levels.

The Solution:  Prioritize your sleep! If you already do but still struggle to enough rest, take a hard look at your overall sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene involves creating a consistent sleep schedule, optimizing your sleep environment (dark, quiet, comfortable), and integrating pre-sleep rituals that signal the brain to wind down, such as reading or gentle stretches. Many people with ADHD also benefit from tech interventions, like blue light filters on devices or apps that play ambient sounds or white nose. By ensuring restful sleep, you equip your brain and body to better handle the many stresses of life.

 

ADHD Coping Skills for Students

Between taking notes, completing homework, writing essays, studying for tests, and multitude of demands stemming from extracurricular activities, the constant pace of school can be downright overwhelming for those with ADHD. As a result, students with ADHD are more prone to missing homework and deadlines, getting distracted in class, and poor study skills - all of which can lead to bad grades, conflict at home, and a whole lot of stress. The good news? With the right strategies and tools, students with ADHD can not only survive but excel in their academic life. Here are 4 coping skills for ADHD students to get the ball rolling.

Strategy 19: Turn off Your Phone While Doing Work

While smartphones have become indispensable tools in our daily lives, they can also be a major source of distraction (especially for an ADHD brain that already struggles to focus!)

The Solution: Make it a habit to turn off or put your phone on 'Do Not Disturb' mode during study sessions. If turning it off feels too extreme, consider using apps that limit social media usage or block notifications for set periods. By minimizing these digital intrusions, you create a conducive environment that allows for deeper focus and more productive study sessions. Over time, this simple habit can lead to enhanced retention and understanding of study material.

Strategy 20: Sit at the Front of the Classroom 

Seating plays an important role in our ability to focus in class. More specifically, a seat that’s far away from an active lesson can make it much easier to zone out or get distracted. 

The Solution: Opt for a seat at the front of the class. This position minimizes potential distractions from fellow students and keeps the focus squarely on the teacher and the lesson at hand. Moreover, sitting upfront often makes it easier to engage with the lesson, ask questions, and participate in discussions. This active involvement can aid memory retention and understanding.

Strategy 21: Ask Your Teachers for Help

Not every school day will be a successful one. Even so, when struggling to keep up becomes the norm, we shouldn't expect ourselves to fix it alone. 

The Solution: Students with ADHD can greatly benefit from asking teachers for help more often. Doing so not only gives an extra opportunity to solidify new knowledge, but it also strengthens the teacher-student relationship by demonstrating that you care enough to ask for help and advocate for yourself. Additionally, being proactive in seeking help signals to educators your commitment to learning, which can foster a supportive teacher-student dynamic. This partnership can be a foundation for academic success to grow throughout the school years and beyond.  

Strategy 22: Do Homework in the Same Room Everyday

Completing homework on time requires control over many of the Executive Function skills those of us with ADHD struggle with the most. As a result, completing homework can quickly become one of the hardest parts of our days (and the easiest to procrastinate on!) 

The Solution:  Choose a specific spot for doing homework and stick to it. Whether it's a quiet corner in your room, a library nook, or a dedicated study space at home, ensure that this place is free from distractions and conducive to concentration. Over time, as you consistently use this spot, the brain begins to associate it with study time, making it easier to slip into a focused mindset upon entering.
 this phenomenon. 

The Takeaway

Although it can be difficult to figure out how to cope with ADHD, I hope these strategies sparked some new ideas to help you navigate your own support journey more effectively. As you continue forward, remember that ADHD coping mechanisms can't replace professional support or treatment, but they can complement each by giving you reliable systems to lean on for many years to come when life inevitably gets more demanding. 

Photo by cottonbro


 

11823 Webinar Graphics (Facebook Post (Square))Learn how Executive Function coaching can help you implement these strategies and live a successful life with ADHD. 

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About the Author

Sean Potts

Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart and a recent graduate of Ithaca College’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming students’ lives.

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