Brain Hacks for ADHD Minds at Work
Desperate to improve your focus and productivity at work? Try these ADHD brain hacks — including the powerful DWYDN and PP478 protocols — to boost job performance and increase productivity naturally.
How I Began Hacking My ADHD Brain
Back when I was a struggling advertising executive, before I knew I had ADHD, I couldn’t stay on task or get projects finished. I didn’t know why, but I knew chances were good that I wouldn’t be promoted.
One day a friend gave me an audio book, Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. I thought, “A bunch of malarkey that I’ll never understand, much less be able to use in my pursuit of corporate success.” But in that book was an insight: 90 percent of the noise in my brain was useless, ego-based chatter — worrying about the past, anxieties about the future, and petty judgments about this and that. If I could recognize that noise, I could choose to listen to it or go with other thoughts.
This was my first “brain hack.” I could now make distinctions between malarkey and the meaningful, and “flip a switch” to shut down some of that noise. I could quiet my mind on demand.
Some of those with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) are physically hyperactive, but all of us are mentally hyperactive, which leads to excessive worry and useless rumination. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or unfocused, pause and really listen to the chatter in your head. That alone will give you a degree of control and choice.
I began to have more focus in my work — staying on task longer, spending less time and energy lost in rumination. And I started to get some traction in my slow-moving career.
Since then, I’ve developed, adapted, and curated hundreds of brain hacks that have helped me, my private clients, and broader audiences to live up to our potential.
Life Hacks for ADHD Brains
Think about a computer hacker. Someone who goes into someone else’s system and changes the code for advantage or gain. There is also “life hacking,” the shortcuts or tricks you can use to help you save money, learn, and work faster.
The “system” here is your brain, and the switches you throw can help you become aware of the noisy thoughts in your head. You can also hack your brain from the outside through diet changes, exercise, and better sleep.
Here are more of my favorite brain hacks:
1. Complete Your To-Do List by “DWYDN”
This brain hack was inspired by a line I saw from productivity guru David Allen: “Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”
DWYDN stands for “Do what you’re doing now.” I finally realized that if I could finish what I sat down to work on (“What I’m doing now”), my to-do list would get shorter fast.
I’m sure you know the universal ADHD truth: Too often we jump out of a task to pick up another task that seems easier or more interesting, and we never come back to the original task. Or, we do a little of this and a little of that and get nothing done. This is why our to-do lists stay so long.
Finishing the thing we’ve started is easier said than done for us, but here’s how you can use this hack: Next time you work on an intensive task, start by declaring, “This is what I’m doing now!” By saying that, you build a “fence” around the task to keep out potential distractions. When you get that text from your BFF, you will be equipped to say to yourself, “I’d love to reply to my friend, but that’s not what I’m doing now! This important task is what I’m doing now!” This hack has been responsible for my upward trajectory more than any other.
2. Get a Fresh Mental Start with PP478
What is PP478? It stands for “Pause and Plan with the 4-7-8” breathing technique. It’s a way to recover from that feeling of never enough time, way too much to do, and the debilitating stress that goes with it.
You may have heard of the 4-7-8 technique, which comes from the ancient practice of yoga. But it’s got plenty of 21st-century scientific support for reducing stress: You breathe in deeply through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, then slowly release your breath through your pursed lips for eight counts. Repeat three times and you will achieve what’s called heart rate variability. You’re now be able to do something ADHDers are rarely able to do: Pause and Plan—think clearly and calmly about what you’re doing and what you can/should do next.
3. Re-Ignite Your ADHD Brain with Venue Change
In his book, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns says that insight and discovery are most accessible to us when we break up our routines: “Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception…to provoke the imagination.”
Think about your typical workday: How many hours are you able to work on tough, important tasks with confidence and calm? Not many, right? ADHDers usually count focused work sessions in terms of minutes—and too often we count those minutes on one hand. But science says we can reboot our brain with pattern interruption.
You can interrupt the pattern of your day by changing your venue. I work in five or more different locations around my home and office on any given day, and sometimes I work in my truck. I’m constantly re-energizing by changing my venues. Even if you work in a tightly controlled physical environment, you can vary your work-places: change the way you’re positioned at your desk; work in a conference room for a couple of single-tasking sessions; sit at a desk not being used by anyone.
4. Fuel Your ADHD Brain by Feeding It Right
Too many adults with ADHD fuel their brain with sugary snacks and drinks that are almost pure glucose, which is not efficient or effective fuel. You get spurts of mental energy, but you crash in a few minutes—as your brain begs for more sugar.
If you were to get your glucose from, say, dried fruit (a food in which the glucose is still attached to its fiber), the delivery curve of the fuel is extended. Add to your snack some protein, like raw nuts or jerky, and you extend the delivery curve further.
I regularly snack on raw pumpkin seeds (these and almonds deliver the most protein bang for the buck) and dried apricots.
If you’re hankering for some fresh fruit (or worried about the calorie count of dried fruits), grab a banana or a sliced apple, and spread peanut butter on it.
5. Reclaim Your ADHD Brain with a Recovery Ritual
Feeling restless, hungry? Having a tough time focusing? ADHD brains are wired so that we don’t have access to the key neurochemicals that sustain mental acuity and effort over long periods of time. So we need to pay more attention to the signals that our brain and body send us. The longer we ignore them and try to push, the more we’re depleting our day’s limited energy supply.
When I accepted the fact that my brain is not designed to operate at the same level all day long, or even for a few hours, I began using occasional recovery rituals. Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, says the length of renewal is less important than the quality. Knowing that there may be limits to recovery you can engage in, here are a few tips, starting with simple things you can do at your desk:
- a mini-meditation (two minutes)
- stretch for 60 seconds (it brings fresh oxygen to the brain)
- tidy up (when you reset your environment, you reset your mind and body)
- take a short walk or hit the staircase
Digital strategist Tom Gibson said, “We need to understand that ‘on’ is impossible without ‘off,’ and the distance between the two needs to be made closer.”
We do have more control over our thoughts and actions than we’ve been led to believe. Most of what I’ve shared are classic brain hacks — tweaking your thoughts to change the way you view something (or tweaking your diet or breathing to alter your brain chemistry). Try them, and see your productivity increase at home and at work.
Unconventional ADHD Brain Hacks That Work
Here are a few odd — but evidence-based — brain hacks:
Interrupt Your Stress with…a Couple of Yawns?
The quickest way to interrupt your stress circuitry is yawning. Mark Waldman, of Loyola Marymount University, says yawning reduces hyperactivity in the frontal lobe and, combined with slow stretching and gentle stroking of your arms and hands, can help you enter a deep state of relaxation in 60 seconds or less.
Calm Your Nerves with…Three Words?
When confronted with a high-pressure situation, our natural response is fight-or-flight. But research at Harvard Business School suggests that if you utter three words, “I am excited,” your ability to thrive under pressure is enhanced. This mantra takes you out of a threat mindset and puts you into an opportunity mindset, improving your performance.
Generate Big Ideas by…Doing Nothing?
When you let your brain quiet down, you activate a network in the brain called the default mode network, where uncommon neural connections take place. More specifically, when you allow your brain to enter its default mode, you are more likely to find new ideas that have been rolling around in the back of your head. This is the power of doing nothing… of getting bored.
What does “getting bored” look like? First, you need to identify a handful of “mini-downtimes” — the typical times during your day when you don’t have to be “on.” This could be during your daily commute, walking the dog, or doing the dishes.
The next time you’re in a mini-downtime, see if you catch yourself thinking, “OK, what’s the next thing?” If so, stop and look out a window or up at the ceiling. Allow yourself to be bored for a few seconds. Some worries may jump into your inner dialogue, but look at the ceiling and let them go. If you can stay bored and daydream for a spell, you’ll find your brain’s default mode.