How Embracing the Chaos Helps My ADHD

Woman sitting on brain illustration with papers and objects circling her

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

ADHD brains seek novelty and oscillate unpredictability between intense focus and constant distraction. While routines can help create some consistency, I am learning that embracing the chaos by tuning into where my brain is at helps me forge a "path of least resistance" throughout my day. That way, I get things done without exhausting myself by constantly fighting my symptoms.

The result is that my typical workweek never looks too typical. Some weeks, I work seven days a week, for just a few hours each day. Some weeks, I cram the entire workload into two or three days of intense hyperfocus. Some days, I get tons of work done but completely neglect chores and social commitments. On other days, I seem to have limitless energy for chores or socializing but can’t sit still in front of the computer for more than a few minutes.

It looks messy, and I admit that, sometimes, I wish I could predict my weeks more reliably, but overall, the mess balances out in a way that I get enough done each week to stay happy, healthy, and employed.

Sticking to a Normal Routine Is Overrated

Before I knew I had ADHD, I had internalized the belief that the reason I couldn’t just “be normal” was that I was lazy, undisciplined, inadequate, reckless, and so on. When my psychiatrist diagnosed me with ADHD, I thought that would be the end of feeling ashamed and guilty for my symptoms. But that inner critic just revised the narrative to include an extra layer of shame for still not living up to the imagined ideal of “normal” even after I found effective treatment.

Normal is working 40 hours every week. Normal is adhering effortlessly to a more or less consistent routine day in and day out. Normal is sleeping eight uninterrupted hours every night. Normal is sitting still at a desk—a clean desk, in a silent office—and being able to focus for hours at a time, the same exact hours each day.  

But then I began to learn that a lot of what our society deems normal isn’t really based on any biological reality. Even without ADHD, most people aren’t built for those norms. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average U.S. worker spends 8.1 hours per day at work. However, a growing number of new studies and surveys show that employees are only productive for about three to four of those hours.

That’s not because they’re lazy or distracted but because that’s about as much sustained cognitive effort as a healthy brain can manage each day without wearing itself out.

Productivity aside, the standard 9-to-5 schedule also seems to be bad for your health. A 2014 study in the journal SLEEP based on the annual BLS survey of more than 124,000 workers found that approximately 40% of the population is getting less than seven hours of sleep, and the biggest risk factor for sleep deprivation was starting the workday at 9:00 a.m. or earlier. For each hour later than 9:00 a.m. that a person’s workday started, that person averaged an extra 20 minutes of sleep.

But then I began to learn that a lot of what our society deems normal isn’t really based on any biological reality. Even without ADHD, most people aren’t built for those norms.

All of this helped me realize that I’d been pursuing a set of norms that didn’t even really work for a lot of people and that I didn’t really want. The goal of managing your ADHD shouldn’t be to make yourself “normal”; it should be to make yourself happy. 

Why Destigmatizing Chaos Can Make Managing ADHD Easier

Many people with ADHD have dealt with years of feeling inadequate, hopeless, and lazy because they know a routine would make their days more organized, but they continuously fail to maintain them. When we compensate for lack of routine in atypical ways—like waiting until the last minute and then using hyperfocus to power through—we are often told that we’re wrong. We shouldn’t do it this way. We should do it the way everyone else does it.

That stigma pressures us to conform to a standard that doesn’t fit us, and increasingly, studies are starting to show that this may not even be necessary or useful. A growing body of research suggests a strengths-based approach to ADHD treatment and management may be more useful than trying to force people with ADHD to behave as if they did not have ADHD.

The goal of managing your ADHD shouldn’t be to make yourself 'normal'; it should be to make yourself happy.

The focus of the research is largely on how teachers can design more ADHD-friendly classrooms by creating tasks that are more interesting or purposeful, allowing physical movement during the task, or letting the student with ADHD take an active role in task selection or learning conditions. In other words, instead of demanding students with ADHD conform to a neurotypical standard of sitting quietly and doing repetitive, understimulating assignments, teachers are encouraged to embrace some of the strengths that often come with ADHD.

What are those strengths? In one meta-analysis, researchers found that students diagnosed with ADHD performed better at creative tasks than those without. They also showed strong divergent thinking skills, the ability to think in multiple directions at the same time, and an important skill for problem-solving or open-ended tasks. The authors hypothesized that these might be adaptive skills developed “to process and use the large amount of information they cannot selectively filter."

In other words, because ADHD is characterized by the inability to tune out irrelevant information—causing distractibility and difficulty focusing for extended periods—the brain compensates by simply finding a way to use all that excess information.

An ADHD-friendly classroom might end up looking a little more chaotic than a traditional classroom, but the resulting environment will be one that fosters learning and productivity in ADHD students while avoiding a lot of the internalized shame and stigma that comes with constantly failing to live up to a neurotypical standard.

My Strengths-Based Approach to Getting Through the Day with ADHD

As I learn to swap shame for a strengths-based perspective, I’m finding ways to follow the natural rhythm of my ADHD as much as I realistically can. Here’s what that looks like for me.

I Listen to and Compromise With My Brain

Trying to force my brain to focus when it doesn’t want to isn’t really an option. Medication definitely helps, but I feel like it does so primarily by reducing the resistance to a task, not erasing it. Sometimes, even the reduced resistance is still too strong to overcome.

Instead, I’m learning to compromise with my ADHD. “If I take you for a little walk in the park to get some sun, will you do some work then? What if I get rid of the clutter you’re obsessing over? Would you do some work then?”

On most days, between the medication and compromise, it’s usually enough to bring my brain to a place where it can eventually start a task it doesn’t want to do, even if it’s not until later in the day than I’d hoped.

There are a few days each month where even with all of that, it’s still a hard no. So I’m learning to just rest on those days. The few days of intense productivity driven by hyperfocus are usually enough to make up for the lost productivity anyway.

I Make Room for Productivity Instead of Scheduling It

Instead of mapping out every minute of my day, I just make a to-do list and give myself a rough time frame in which I want to get all of it done. That way, I can exercise some choice in what I start with and how I move through the list. Then, on days when I’m dealing with decision fatigue, I just start from the top of the list and work my way down.

Again, there’s a lot of fluctuation in ADHD which makes it hard to predict when you’ll be the most focused. That makes strict schedules anxiety-inducing because you can never really be sure if you will be in the right headspace to actually do the tasks at the time you originally scheduled them.

I Embrace Distractions and Impulses When I Can

The ADHD tendency to do literally anything else except the thing you’re actually supposed to do is very real. While conventional wisdom would have us fight this, I feel like it’s better to just roll with it as long as the consequences are manageable.

The ADHD tendency to do literally anything else except the thing you’re actually supposed to do is very real.

Sure, procrastination can end up forcing you to cram multiple days of work into one day later on. But for people with ADHD, the higher stakes of cramming everything into that one day can help us unlock hyperfocus. Plus, knocking out a few random tasks that you’d struggle to find motivation for otherwise can save you that stress later.

Maybe I won’t make as much progress on a project today as I’d hoped but as long as it’s not overdue, I might as well lean into this sudden urge to re-caulk the bathtub because when the hell else am I going to do it?

The chaos that results from this approach might look messy, but it can end up being less exhausting than the frustration of repeatedly failing to maintain a consistent routine. Our days don't have to look "normal." They just have to work for us.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.