ADHD, Inflexible Thinking, and Doing Things “Right”

Many of us with ADHD navigate inflexible thinking, which means our brains often have all-or nothing thoughts. Rather than seeing shades of gray, our brains focus on black or white.

While this clear delineation may support us at times, when left unchecked, it can keep us stuck. Especially when it comes to our productivity.

How?

By inadvertently overlooking a fresh approach that works best for our brains.

We might tell ourselves there’s only “one way” to navigate a challenge since that’s how everyone else does it…but that “one way” just isn’t working for us.

Or we go down the rabbit hole looking for the “right approach” to planning our schedules, convinced that once we find it, we’ll finally get our work done on time… meanwhile, we’re avoiding the work we want to complete in the process.

Some of our perfectionist brains completely resist doing things out of order for fear of doing it “wrong…” so we follow every single detail when – in reality – our brain may thrive with a different approach.

Here’s the deal…

When we’re stuck in this inflexible mindset, we often completely disregard what works best for our ADHD brains.

We overlook the power of doing what’s most supportive for us even if it requires extra steps, skips certain steps, or takes an entirely different approach.

And bypassing these supports can ultimately impact our efficiency by inhibiting our ability to take action and stay focused.

So what can we do about this?

That’s exactly what we’re talking about in episode 175 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast. 

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode #175, ADHD, Inflexible Thinking & Doing Things “Right”, You’ll Discover

  • Why many ADHD brains struggle with inflexible thinking
  • How to spot this tendency in your life
  • Strategies to release the black-or-white thinking and start seeing the shades of gray
  • How to use this information to work with your brain and positively impact your overall productivity

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Episode #175: ADHD, Inflexible Thinking, and Doing Things “Right” (Transcript) 

Do you have less cognitive flexibility as an adult with ADHD?

Today we are looking at a key component of peak productivity when it comes to working with an ADHD brain. It is an element that I think is often overlooked, and it’s one that I want to shine a spotlight on today because I see it tripping many of us up.

So, we are focusing on releasing the belief or the understanding that there is one “right way” to do something. Or that in order to be successful in a particular area or skill, there’s a specific approach we need to follow because that’s what the “normal” sequence is, or that’s how “everyone else” has done it.

I was inspired to share this episode after a conversation with one of my clients in We’re Busy Being Awesome last week. In the group, we were exploring the topics of prioritization and time management, and this person mentioned, “I can’t wait until we get to the task initiation section. I’m pretty clear on my priorities, but I just can’t get started on them.”

After she mentioned this, I told her just skip ahead. That’s literally why I do not drip the content.

I want my clients to have all the tools and concepts that they need exactly when they need them. It is absolutely okay to go out of order. And after I mentioned this, she laughed a little bit saying, “my perfectionist brain definitely has something to say about that. I can’t go out of order.”

I totally get this. I’ve been there. My brain loves to offer this thought as well. But what I reinforced to her and the group as a whole, is that the program is designed as a choose-your-own adventure.

It’s probably the educator in me, but I worked hard to design my program this way. Each training can stand on its own, and it works together as a whole just as a lesson plan in school needs to stand on its own and contribute to the overarching objective.

So again, I reinforced that I created the framework so you can lean into what you need, use the tools in whatever areas of support you need most, and then we get to coach on whatever comes up throughout the week.

As we’ll talk about later in the episode, I think this can apply to many different situations in life. Now, of course, there are certain things where you do need to follow the step-by-step approach, but I think that our all-or-nothing brains love to assume this is the case for everything, not just some things.

This exchange left me thinking about all the different ways we tend to box ourselves into the “one way” or “right way” to do things.

We convince ourselves that we have to follow all of the steps. We have to do it exactly as we learned it, even if it doesn’t feel supportive for the way our brain works.

So, let’s talk about the following:

  • How it’s not only okay but sometimes even more impactful to allow yourself to go out of order or do things in a way that’s different from the typical standard approach.
  • Ways that we can think about this concept. Areas where you might explore this concept in your life.
  • How you can implement what we cover today to help you uncover the best approaches for you, in turn, increasing your effectiveness and efficiency by working with your brain.

Why Many People With ADHD Struggle With Inflexible Thinking

women frustrated with head down

As we dive into the topic, I want to first normalize why it’s so easy to find our brains to get stuck in searching for and following the “right way” or “only way” of doing things.

We Were Raised This Way

The traditional education system teaches us that there is one right answer, and in order to get an A, we have to follow those exact steps. If we deviate from that, we may even be penalized for it.

Just think about needing to show your work in a math equation. If you don’t show your work, you don’t get credit. And of course, I can see the reasoning behind this, but it is also reinforcing this messaging quite strongly.

I think it also makes sense that we find our brains looking for the one way or the right way because when we’re learning something, we often look to someone who has done it before us or who has mastered certain skills so that we can gain wisdom and understanding from their perspective.

They usually have something to offer us. And again, this isn’t a problem in and of itself. This is literally the process of learning, which I love.

The problem arises when we take what that person says as the only way. As the right way. And if that process doesn’t work for us, we can find ourselves boxed in pretty quickly. And that leads me to the third reason why we tend to get stuck in this perspective.

As ADHD brains, we navigate cognitive flexibility, meaning we tend to have relatively inflexible brains. This is what creates our all-or-nothing black and white on or off thinking.

Due to this, it’s easy for our brains to get locked into that one and only way of doing things. If we hear something, and it makes logical sense, it’s easy for the brain to see it as the one and only way. This is how I have to do it. I can’t skip steps. I can’t add steps. This is the answer, so I have to do it this way.

We Lack Self-Trust

Another reason many of us fall into this all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to following steps or learning a new skill or taking a class, and this comes down to self-trust.

Many of us with ADHD and ADHD tendencies, often grew up feeling a little bit “off.” Like we didn’t quite fit in or we missed the memo on something.

We were told either advertently or inadvertently that we were missing the point, or doing it wrong. We were causing a problem, or we were too much, too loud, too emotional, too intense.

In addition, a lot of us might forget things we said we do, or we might say or do things because of our impulsivity without thinking much about future consequences.

With all of this combined, many of us build up this belief that we can’t really trust ourselves, so we start looking to others.

Because again, we might say we’ll do something and then we might forget. Or we get criticism or negative feedback from other people, and we take it as further evidence that we can’t get it right, or that our way is wrong. When our self-concept is quite shaken, it feels better to trust someone else’s system or strategy, or approach because we’ve adopted this belief that “we couldn’t possibly be doing it right.”

It, therefore, makes sense from several different angles why many of us struggle with owning our own approach or our own method.

It makes sense why some of us might feel especially uncomfortable with going against the system everyone else uses.

And I should mention that, as always, this isn’t true for everyone.

There are many people who do feel just fine diving in and doing whatever works best for them. But for those of you who, like me, can struggle with stepping outside the guardrails, whether it’s due to cognitive flexibility and perfectionism, or it feels better to trust someone else’s process, nothing’s gone wrong here. It makes perfect sense.

I want to invite you to start building up that trust muscle again – to start practicing a little bit more cognitive flexibility and allowing yourself to try the approaches that feel more supportive for you even if it’s not the “normal” way of doing things.

Note: This doesn’t mean you can’t be learning tools and systems and strategies from others.

Again, I am a lover of learning as well, you will never hear me tell you to stop learning. But I do think it’s important to remind our brains that other people’s strategies and approaches are not the be-all-end-all. Instead, they are another tool in your toolkit, and you get to use them in the way that’s most supportive for your brain.

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check in with yourself

Consider asking yourself the following questions…

woman frustrated while working

How do you feel when you think about coloring outside the lines a little bit?

Do you want to hold back?

what are the situations that feel a little bit clunky or sticky in the day-to-day?

Plus, what specifically feels clunky?

Maybe it’s weekly grocery shopping or answering your emails, following a schedule or putting away laundry. Or perhaps in you’re in a course and following certain steps. It could be making appointments or grading papers.

What are areas you wish were easier?

Or you wish you could accomplish in a specific way?

If you could do it your way, what would your way look like?

Give your brain some space to consider this. What steps would you skip? What steps would you add?

What I’ve found for myself and working with clients is that sometimes the “tried and true” strategy is exactly what we need. However, sometimes we may need more steps, and other times we may need fewer steps.

What I really want to stress here, is that all of these answers are exactly right. As long as it feels supportive for you, that’s all that matters.

Unfortunately, our brains have a hard time accepting this.

Instead of leaning into what actually feels good and supportive, we keep ourselves stuck believing we have to do it that one specific way.

Again, whether it’s black and white all or nothing thinking that prevents us from seeing that gray in between. Whether it’s perfectionism telling us we can’t possibly skip a step or do it in a different way.

We allow the “should” to get in the way.

Examples of Inflexible Thinking

How do we know if we’re falling into this trap?

I’m going to give a handful of different examples now to put things into perspective and I invite you to consider whether you notice yourself slipping into similar tendencies.

Let’s start with situations where we might need fewer steps or we could do better by skipping steps, but perfectionism gets the best of us. Our black-or-white all-or-nothing thinking keeps us stuck.

I mentioned my client from we’re busy being awesome, and her brain told her, you can’t skip these steps. You can’t jump ahead. You’re doing it wrong.

I’ve definitely been there too.

When I Started My Blog

I took a course on how to blog and the first part of the course was actually setting up a WordPress site. Now I already had my WordPress site set up and working….nevertheless, I couldn’t let myself move to the next steps until I finished that first part of the course.

But not surprisingly, that was essentially a waste of time because my website was already done. And because I made myself do these extra steps that I already had done and already knew, I dragged my feet and procrastinated a whole lot, which slowed down the process overall.


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Now this may sound like I’m contradicting messages that I’ve shared in other episodes.

I’ve certainly talked about the power of being a student and maintaining a beginner’s mind. I’ve talked about the willingness to stay curious and learn. And I think that this is one of those situations where both things can be true.

Yes, there are definitely times when hearing information that you’ve already heard before can truly deepen your understanding or further your knowledge from where you’re at period I know this is certainly the case for me.

There are also times when it might be better for us to dig into an area where we really need support because we have already learned or completed the earlier steps.

In this case, my website was already set up I had followed the same steps, so rewatching that tutorials was literally just spending time so I could check the box knowing that I did the steps.

My Social Media Strategy

Another area where this pops up for me is around social media for my business.

If you take any course, they will tell you to map out a 30-day or 60-day I’ve even seen 90-day content calendars. They tell you to map everything out, have clear themes, and a beautiful flow that moves both visually and thematically, etc.

Now I could hear that and tell myself I should do that.

I could use this information against myself and hold myself back since that’s what many of the social media gurus repeat over and over. But I also know that I’m not going to do that. No!

A 30 or 60-day social media content calendar is a full body no. I am going to freeze up in the content creation phase and everything will feel super stifled.

That’s because I know for myself it’s much easier for me to work from what is happening in the now and share from that place rather than trying to speak to where my audience will be 90 days from now… I have no idea what will be front and center for me or them at that time period I would much rather speak to what’s happening in the moment.

Now I realize this is probably not the best marketing strategy, but you are not listening to this podcast for social media marketing.

What I do know is that my process of planning out a couple of days ahead of time dash sometimes the day of dash gets me sharing my content more often.

Whereas when I try to stick to a 30-day or 60-day content plan, I don’t share at all and I get stuck spinning, which is certainly less impactful than a non-cohesive feed.

Now I’m not going to lie, my perfectionist brain and my planning brain love the idea of a 30 or 60 or 90-day plan. But in practice I know it doesn’t work well for my brain. At least not in this season. And that’s okay. I’m okay with skipping those steps and posting about what’s happening that week.

Laundry

woman frustrated while doing laundry

A final somewhat silly yet no less relevant example comes with laundry.

As we know, laundry has about 6 billion steps involved, all of which demand our executive functions.

When Ryan does his laundry- for those of you new to the podcast, Ryan is my husband-he pulls his clothes out of the dryer, puts them in the laundry basket, he brings them up to the bedroom and dumps everything out on the bed to sort it, and then he puts the things away.

That is way too many steps for me. That is a full-body NO!

Instead, I literally hang the clothes immediately as I pull them out of the dryer. Once everything is hung, then I bring it all upstairs.

It’s way fewer steps for me to get distracted in the middle of this ongoing laundry process.

Now there is not one system that’s better than the other.

There’s one system that works really well for Ryan and one system that works really well for me. But neither of us are giving ourselves a hard time for not following the other person’s approach. We just use the steps that work best for us.

Skipping Steps Is Not Being Lazy

Now when we think about doing fewer steps or skipping steps, some of us have the thought that we are cutting corners or being lazy. Those thoughts are absolutely going to keep us stuck forcing us to follow the entire step-by-step process even if we don’t need it.

What I want to offer here as a counter to that argument in your brain is that…

  • It does not mean you’re being lazy or cutting corners
  • It can also mean that you know exactly what you need, and that you’re making the most effective and efficient use of both your energy and your time.

What If We Need More Steps?

Alright, now let’s talk about what it might look like if we need more steps.

Again, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy for your brain to start negative self-talk.

It’s easy to start shaming ourselves thinking, “I shouldn’t need to do this. I shouldn’t need to take these extra steps. I should just be able to do it like everyone else.

What’s wrong with me?”

If your brain is offering different versions of this thought, I want to propose a counter-argument.

If these extra steps are helping your brain and you’re getting the thing done, it means you’ve managed to find the support that works best for you. That’s awesome. In fact, it may even help you get the work done more efficiently because you’re not fighting with the other process that’s missing key steps for your brain.

I think about this especially when I work with clients on breaking down steps.

We think to ourselves, I should just be able to write “prepare report” in my schedule and get started.

However, that is such a giant task that requires a nuanced breakdown of steps so that the brain knows exactly what to do. Yes, it takes a little bit more time on the front end to break down the steps, but it’s so much easier to get your brain on board, and it’s going to result in a whole lot less procrastination on the other side of it.

So in turn, it’ll likely go a lot faster.

For myself, doing this podcast is the perfect example of Adding More Steps.

I had this story in my mind for the first several months of doing the podcast that I shouldn’t need to write everything out.

I told myself, no one else does this. Everyone else just speaks from the cuff. And so I gave myself a really hard time and argued with the reality that I needed to write things out for my brain.

But once I accepted this fact and accepted that this does feel most supportive for me, I’ve been able to embrace it.

I’ve been able to celebrate the fact that it helps my brain, and it makes these episodes more clear and concise for you listeners, which ultimately makes the most effective use of both of our times. and in my opinion, that’s definitely a win.

Another Example: Creating Accountability

Another area where I have accepted the process of adding more steps is through creating accountability.

Rather than being a person who can easily go to bed right on time at 10:00, I have now incorporated a step where I ask Ryan to give me a nudge when it’s 9:00 o’clock so I can start transitioning my brain and getting ready for getting to bed by 10:00.

If there’s something that I want to create in my business, I will share it on the podcast or tell my clients that I’m working on something so that I have that extra accountability to move forward on it.

Knowing that I have that outer accountability helps me follow through more easily.

Is it another step? Yes.

Could I tell myself “I shouldn’t have to do this I should just be able to do the thing because I want to.” yes.

But why? Why not focus on the fact that I found the system that works best for my brain? Why not celebrate the fact that it’s easier for me to follow through now that I’ve found these systems and strategies to show up in the way that I want to?

One other area that I want to mention focuses on routines and schedules. So as the throwback to our latest episode on this from last week, episode 174, when it comes to routines and scheduling, some of us might need more steps in some of us might need less steps.

It can go either way.

Some of us love a strict step-by-step schedule. We love having the half-hour or hour breakdown of time because that extra scaffolding feels amazing.

Others of us feel really confined and we completely resist that type of strict structure.

Again, neither one is right or wrong. We don’t need to tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t need to do such a breakdown of what I want to work on each day” or “I should be able to follow a more detailed schedule without so much resistance.” No.

The most important thing is that you found what works best for your brain. What if we love that? What if we celebrate the fact that you get to do it your way because that’s what works best for you?

Next Steps

So again, I invite you to pause here and check in with yourself.

  • Where are you doing specific things in your day-to-day just because that’s how everyone else does it?
  • Where do you feel confined or restricted and it seems like you’re forcing yourself to follow specific rules or approaches?
  • Or on the other hand, where are you feeling a little bit untethered and wishing that you had a little more structure or a little more scaffolding to lean on in your day-to-day?

Identify those places.

Then from there, give your brain the space to explore this next question. If no one was looking, how would you get it done for you? If no one else had a say in it, what would your approach look like?

  • You might leave your clean clothes draped over the side of your laundry basket and skip hanging them up or putting them in drawers. If it works for you, great!
  • Maybe you start knitting in your meetings because it genuinely helps your brain focus better on the conversation, so you simply explain to your colleagues or the others on the PTA that this is an adult version of a fidget and it actually helps you engage even further. 
  • Perhaps you make the time to color code everything in your calendar because it really helps your brain recognize how many meetings vs. heads down work time vs administrative time you spend on work each day, which ultimately helps ensure you’re spending your hours the way you want to.

In other words, YOU DO YOU.

Give yourself the radical permission to experiment with it, to embrace it, and to find what works best for YOU. AND to allow yourself the space to change things around when you need to, too. It’s all a process of iteration as you find what works best for your brain.

When we can drop the “should” and the perfectionist thoughts of needing to do the “right way,” we can instead focus on the approaches that help us do the things we want to do with the greatest impact, that’s when things get really fun.

If you want to take these concepts further and really have the support and the coaching to dig in and build your own unique tool kit from proven strategies and systems designed by and for an ADHD brain, I’d love to have you join us in We’re Busy Being Awesome. It’s a small, supportive group of people with ADHD and ADHD tendencies who are ready to release their perfectionism and work with their brains to get things done.


Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.


Alright, my friends, that’s going to do it for us this week.

If you’re enjoying the podcast or finding it helpful in working with your ADHD brain, would you be a rockstar and leave a review? When you do, you help get these strategies to even more people.

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Until next time, keep being awesome. I’ll talk with you soon.

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