The Lost Skill of Resting With ADHD

Girl stressed thinking of tasks in front of her computer

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

We recognize that rest is a privilege that many do not get due to financial strain or poverty, disabilities, parenthood, and other life challenges. Marginalized folks are most affected by this deficiency (including neurodivergent folks but even more so BIPOC, lower socioeconomic status, queer and trans folks, sex workers, and those with multiple intersections of marginalization). This article recognizes and acknowledges that understanding and privilege.

By the time I was diagnosed with ADHD, I had become so burnt out from trying to manage a disorder I had no name for yet that I was struggling to get even 10 hours of work done in an average week. I knew I was working less than 10 hours because I had begun meticulously tracking my hours about three months earlier. My goal was to see which tasks were taking up so much of my time to figure out why I was producing so little. Instead, I found out that I was barely working at all.

If I was only working 10 hours per week, why was I so exhausted all of the time? All I did was lay in bed or on the couch in a state of paralysis most of the day but it wiped me out.

There aren’t many resources out there that teach you how to recover from burnout that’s not caused by working too much. The advice I kept seeing was to take more breaks and find ways to cut back on how much work I was doing. I already couldn’t afford to pay my bills with the amount I was working and it didn’t seem like a 10-hour week was really heavy enough to warrant cutting back.

In other words, the amount of work I was doing wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the time I spent not working was not spent resting.

Why People With ADHD Struggle to Rest

There are a few reasons living with ADHD can make genuine rest so difficult.

The first is the general perception of rest as a privilege that you earn through hard work, rather than a biological necessity like food or sleep. Whether it’s years of internalizing the idea that I’m just lazy and undisciplined or the simple fact that I hadn’t actually done anything that day that I consider productive, I was spending most of my time feeling like I haven’t yet earned the rest my body desperately needed.

There aren’t many resources out there that teach you how to recover from burnout that’s not caused by working too much.

Another reason is that the “doing nothing” that looks like rest from the outside isn’t really rest because, internally, I’m running through a list of all the things I should be doing instead and criticizing myself for not doing any of them. My brain exhausts itself from the anxiety of doing nothing so much that I have no energy left for actually doing something.

Doing nothing can also be less relaxing than it seems simply because ADHD brains are too loud. In one study, researchers measuring neuronal background “noise” in the brain using pattern electroretinography found that subjects with ADHD had 138% more background noise than those without.

As someone with ADHD, what that feels like is a constant state of racing thoughts and an inability to tune out sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory input around me. My brain is always on and it can be tiring.

What I’ve Learned About Resting With ADHD

If you don’t know how to rest and you find yourself struggling to follow the advice that’s out there, it can end up feeling like relaxation just isn’t in the cards for you. While I still have a long way to go, here’s what I’ve learned about rest so far.

The Way I Rest Doesn’t Have to Make Sense to Anyone Else

The way I choose to spend my breaks doesn’t have to look like rest. It just has to feel relaxing or rejuvenating to me. I generally take active breaks, for example. I’m a restless person with a sedentary job.

For me, taking a break means finally being free to move around. So my definition of rest includes things like going for a run, riding my bike, hiking, or dancing around to my favorite music.

Research confirms that physical activity can have a profound calming effect on people with ADHD while improving almost every other tendency at the same time.

Even more unusual, I allow chores to count as a break when needed. Household chores or errands don’t sound very relaxing, but they help me release some pent-up physical energy like running or hiking do.

I try not to make chores my default rest activities, but I find them especially useful on days when I can’t quite shake the shame of needing rest. Doing a chore is a way to appease that critical voice in my head. Then, once the sink is empty or the laundry is folded, that inner critic might quiet down enough to let me do something more pleasant, like go swimming or do some creative writing.

When I Rest Doesn’t Have to Make Sense Either

The standard recommendation is to take a 10-15 minute break every hour or so. If that works for you, that’s what you should do. In my case, frequent short breaks are too disruptive. I have a hard time with task switching so 15 minutes is rarely enough time for me to even switch from work mode to rest mode, let alone to actually benefit from the break. Instead, I’m usually just counting down the seconds until I’m allowed to dive back into the project, especially if I’m in a state of hyperfocus at the time.

Instead of short breaks throughout the day, I have one wide window of free time in the morning and after work. Then, I alternate between work days and rest days. I’d rather work 12+ hours straight and follow it with a full day off than constantly interrupt my focus every hour for a 10-minute break.

Rest Doesn’t Have to Wait Until the End of the Day

I used to try that “eat the frog” idea of getting the hardest or least enjoyable activities out of the way first. It made sense. If I could get it done, I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. But I just don’t work like that. When I try to jump straight out of bed and get to work, my brain becomes so resistant, it feels like I’m trying to wrestle a cat into bathwater.

Instead, I started giving myself a three-hour window in the morning to wake up, get coffee, get dressed, and then spend whatever time is left on whatever activity sounds most appealing that morning: reading a book, doing some creative writing, sitting outside to enjoy an especially nice day. There are no rules. I just do whatever I feel like doing that day.

I can’t flip the switch between work and rest as quickly as is needed for a schedule of frequent short breaks to work. By the time I actually start feeling relaxed, the timer goes off and I have to get back to work.

The result is that I start my work day feeling genuinely relaxed and ready. Even on bad days, it helps to know that if I’m struggling to get out of bed, I still have three hours to pull myself out of this paralysis so I’m not technically procrastinating yet.

I realize that a three-hour window before work might not be realistic for everyone. But for anyone else who is not a morning person, I encourage you to find a way to carve out at least 30 minutes before your day starts to do nothing in particular, to just do whatever sounds appealing at that moment.

The Best Relaxation Activities Are the Ones That Let Your ADHD Move Freely

Part of the exhaustion of my day comes from the simple fact that I live in a world built for people without ADHD so I’m constantly wrangling my thoughts and forcing my brain to behave like a neurotypical brain. Activities that allow me to stop wrestling and just let go can feel relaxing, even if they don’t look like it.

That’s part of why I think chores can be relaxing for me sometimes. Doing dishes or vacuuming are productive enough to satisfy my inner critic on the days when she’s loudest, but don’t demand much cognitive effort so I can loosen the reins and let my mind wander freely for a while. Other, more interesting activities that I use to relax include cooking and creative writing or journaling.

Part of the exhaustion of my day comes from the simple fact that I live in a world built for people without ADHD so I’m constantly wrangling my thoughts and forcing my brain to behave like a neurotypical brain.

I’ve also recently taken up crochet and found it a useful way to calm my brain down. I initially decided to try it because I thought it would be a good repetitive hobby to keep my hands busy while watching TV so that I wouldn't compulsively scroll through social media instead of paying attention to the show.

It’s worked wonders for that, but it’s also just relaxing in that specific way my brain needs it to be. The process of crocheting something is pretty simple, and since I’m just doing it for myself, there’s no pressure to finish a project by any deadline. There’s also a tangible purpose—to make a scarf—and I can see the progress I make each night, providing enough instant gratification to appease my ADHD brain.

Burnout and Paralysis Are My Brain’s Way of Saying It Needs Rest

When I feel burnt out or trapped in a state of paralysis, my habit has always been to immediately go over all the reasons I don’t deserve to feel exhausted right now. But, whether I “deserve” to or not, I need to accept the fact that I am exhausted and that the only way forward from here is to give myself the rest I need.

On bad days when I can’t concentrate on work at all, I try to give myself permission to rest by doing one of the activities I enjoy, which calms my brain down. So far, I’m still not able to fully quiet the decades of shame and insecurity I feel about it, but being anxious about my lack of productivity while walking in the woods and listening to the birds is definitely better than being anxious about my lack of productivity while staring at the wall in front of my desk.

2 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.
  1. Bubl E, Dörr M, Riedel A, et al. Elevated background noise in adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is associated with inattention. Schmahl C, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(2):e0118271. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118271

  2. Waldera R, Deutsch J. Adhd and physical activity. TPE. 2021;78(6).doi:10.18666/TPE-2021-V78-I6-10563

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.