Non-Linear Thinking and ADHD: 7 Tips To Improve Focus

Did you ever read the book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” by Laura Numeroff? I’m convinced that it’s one of the best representations of ADHD impulsivity and nonlinear thinking, all wrapped up in a children’s book. 

In fact, I love the story so much that it inspired episode 257 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.

graphic representing human brain

This episode is tailor-made for you if you often:

  1. Begin one task
  2. Suddenly find yourself absorbed in six other things
  3. Wonder where on earth the time went at the end of the day

In the episode, we examine how nonlinear thinking presents itself, consider its obstacles and strengths, and explore how to use it to our advantage. Then, we’ll discuss seven powerful tips to help you shift your brain into linear thinking when the opposite approach is needed. 

Like most things in life, there is no “best way” to get things done. It’s truly a “both-and” situation.

There are times when linear thinking shines and there are times when non-linear thinking leads the way. Episode 257 will help you celebrate and tap into both.  

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

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for a summary of the key takeaways.

In Episode 257 You Will Discover:

  • The strengths of both non-linear and linear thinking for an ADHD brain
  • When to apply both in your life
  • 7 Concrete strategies to help drop into linear thinking when necessary

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Episode #257: Non-Linear Thinking and ADHD: 7 Tips To Improve Focus (Transcript)

7 Tips to Improve Non-Linear Thinking

Today’s episode is inspired by a children’s book that I absolutely LOVED growing up.

The book is “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. In addition to being a delightful story, it’s also an absolutely perfect example of the ADHD brain, impulsivity, and nonlinear thinking


Here’s the gist of the story

There’s a little boy who gives a mouse a cookie. This seemingly straightforward gesture sets off a chain of increasingly elaborate requests from the mouse.

After the mouse gets a cookie, then he wants a glass of milk. To drink the milk, he needs a straw. After drinking the milk, he wants to look in the mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache. While looking in the mirror, he notices he needs to trim his hair, and he asks for a pair of scissors. After trimming his hair, he wants to clean up his mess and asks for a broom, and he proceeds to clean the whole house.

He exhausts himself and then needs a nap and a story. Then he gets so excited while listening to a story that he wants to draw his own pictures and so on and so forth until – after this busy afternoon – he realizes how thirsty he is and asks for another glass of milk.


“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” & the Connection to Non-Linear Thinking

I love this story so much. Not only are the illustrations awesome, and the story is so playful and fun –  but from an ADHD lens, I really think it’s a beautiful demonstration of what I talk about as the executive brain and the toddler brain when the toddler brain is running the show.

Just think about it.

  • The executive brain decides on a task. In the story, the boy decides to give a mouse a cookie.
  • From there, if left unchecked, the impulsive part of the brain takes over

Due to our non-linear thinking, we follow the connections the toddler brain makes from one thing to the next, and suddenly, after 30 minutes, several hours, or an entire day passes, we are reminded of where we began—in this case, needing a glass of milk.

Real-Life Examples of Non-Linear Thinking

Perhaps you get ready to clean the kitchen, and suddenly you find yourself organizing your bookshelf in the office. Or you’re planning to sit down and get some work done, but then you find yourself making banana bread in the kitchen. Yes-these are both my real-life examples.

I had one of these Give a Mouse a Cookie moments on Mother’s Day weekend…

On Saturday,  Ryan and I went to the garden store to get flowers for his mom, and while we were there I decided to get a couple of planters and some mulch for our yard as well. I should preface all of this with-we planned to take a quick 30 minutes to an hour to pick out these flowers and then head home to make dinner.

Once we got home, we unloaded the mulch and placed the bags in the different areas where I wanted to spread it in the yard, and – since I was in motion, I decided I might as well just quickly cut open the bags and spread the mulch.

After that, I remembered that I had gotten a few bottles of dandelion spray the day before, so  I decided I might as well just spray all the dandelions and thistle weeds that were starting to grow in the yard and the flower beds as they do at this time of year.

Then I needed to hang the planters we purchased, each of which needed hooks that I had to find and create. Then I needed to hook up the hose to the house and turn the water back on so I could actually water said planters that were hanging up over our front porch. I then figured I might as well fill up the hot tub as well since I already had the hose unrolled.

I kid you not, this 30 to 45-minute Excursion turned into a 2 and 1/2 hour event!

Advantages of Non-Linear Thinking

Now here’s the deal, I’m not mad about it. And I don’t want to put down this non-linear approach whatsoever.

There are times when we can use it to our advantage. When we don’t have other pressing items to prioritize and we have the energy to do so, we can get a remarkable amount of things done in a relatively short amount of time.

 When we have the momentum behind us, and we’re in motion, and we have nowhere else to be, I love it. I knew for myself if I let those things sit for “later,” they would have become very heavy things on my list. They would have become shoulds that I kept transferring from one day to the next instead of things I genuinely wanted to do in the moment.

Plus, it was Saturday evening, and the only things I knew I wanted to do that evening were make dinner and watch a movie with Ryan, both of which I could easily do after I was done. 

Challenges of Non-Linear Thinking

With that being said, there are also times when this tendency has not worked in my favor. This is when my non-linear, impulsive brain takes me down the rabbit hole of an entirely different project than I had planned for, and that I genuinely did want to do that day. 

This leads me to call out:

Getting Sidetracked from Important Tasks

I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s experienced this and many of you can relate to those situations where you map out a plan and you’re ready to make it happen.

However, all of a sudden, you find yourself picking up a prescription from the pharmacy and getting an ingredient at the grocery store for this new recipe you heard about, rather than entering the billing data or the grades that are due by Friday at 5:00.

Even though you accomplished a lot, you would have preferred to complete the billing or the grading or whatever it was you had planned on your list instead.

Today I want to talk about those times. So again, I am not here to villainize or shine a bad light on the nonlinear approach to getting things done.  I genuinely believe we can get so much done on those days. And often, they are those types of tasks that – on other days – we might genuinely dread doing.

  • What can we do when the nonlinear approach is preventing us from doing the work we want to do?
  • What can we do when we struggle to prioritize the important tasks that move us forward on our longer-term goals?
  • How can we help ourselves stay focused on “the one thing” rather than listening to the impulse of the many things?

7 Ways To Stay Focused (So You Can Practice Linear Thinking)

Today, we’re talking about 7 simple ways to help your brain stay focused on what matters so that on those days when you want to practice a more linear approach, you have the tools in your toolkit to help you get the thing done and check it off of the list.


I will also mention that I have a free training called How to Boost your Focus and Concentration

Image shows Woman working on a laptop. Text reads: How to Stay Focused with ADHD Free Training. Click here to sign me up!

If you have not taken this yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Especially if you want to learn how to boost your focus and maintain your attention. It is a training broken up into small, bite-sized videos of 3 to 5 minutes. So you can watch one at a time and put them to use in 5 minutes a day. Or, if you want to watch them all at once, you can do so in about 35 minutes. Check it out HERE or by clicking the image above.


With that, let’s dive in and talk about 7 simple ways to help your brain drop into linear thinking and stay focused on the task at hand.

1. The Distraction Notebook

A distraction notebook or notepad is designed specifically for jotting down any distracting thoughts, ideas, or tasks that pop up while you’re working.

Keep the page open while you’re working, and anytime something pops in your head, you simply write it down.

This act helps close and open the loop in your brain. It assures your brain, don’t worry. I’ve got you. I’m not going to forget this. I’ve written it down.

Tip: I will also offer to put a reminder in your phone about 30-60 minutes before your work day ends so you can tend to the tasks that do pop into your mind or schedule them for later. This is an important step, because you want to show your brain you actually will take care of the items on the list.

Alternatively, you may also dismiss them because they weren’t actually important or urgent tasks, they were just thoughts that popped into your mind that you can easily dismiss. Either way, you’re helping your brain stay focused by acknowledging the thoughts without letting them derail your current focus.

2. Task-Specific Playlists

For those of you who like to use music while you work, you might try creating custom playlists for different types of tasks.

You could use:

  • Instrumental music for writing
  • Upbeat tracks for brainstorming
  • Nature sounds for deep focus

As you know, I am a huge fan of brain.fm, which actually has different playlists for different types of focus needed. Whether it’s deep work that requires intense focus, motivation music to help enhance your drive and concentration, creativity to help with ideation and expression, learning to help with knowledge retention or long periods of reading, and music for light work with multiple tasks that you want to quickly.

So again, whether you create your own playlists or you use something like brain.fm where they have science to help foster these different states of focus, this can be a powerful way to help your brain stay on track with the task at hand.

👉 Grab a free 30-day trial of brain.fm and give it a try!

3. Focus Zones

Tip number three is to create different focus zones in your space. Now, this may not be as readily available for people who work in an office, but I think it is a fun concept to play with.  

Essentially, creating focus zones means designating specific areas of your home or workspace for different activities.

Examples of Zones:

  • “focus zone” for: deep work
  • “creative zone” for brainstorming
  • “break zone” for relaxation 

Physically moving between zones can help reset your mind.

Since our ADHD brains struggle with transition, sometimes physically shifting to a new location can help the brain associate certain types of activities with certain areas.

For example, when I was in grad school, I did all of my writing at my desk at home. However, I did all of my studying for coursework and my general exams in the seminar room before and after classes.

My brain had an easier time associating studying for courses in the seminar room, and I would do my writing in my office at my desk.

4. Themed Workdays

You might also help your brain drop into focus more easily with themed workdays. 

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a minute, you’ve probably heard me talk about this one, too. I tend to talk about it as batch working.

Essentially, this looks like assigning themes to different days of the week (e.g., “Meeting Mondays,” “Writing Wednesdays”).

This structure can help your brain prepare for specific types of tasks and reduce decision fatigue about what to do and when to do it.

You can also break it up so that only the mornings are themed days, and the other half of the day is open for whatever comes up

5. Create Rabbit Hole Time

My next tip may seem counterintuitive, but it’s to actually leave room in your schedule for rabbit whole time.

Our brains are going to do this. This is how our brains are wired. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, and in fact, I think it’s a lot easier for us to practice linear thinking and staying on task when we intentionally allow space in our days and our weeks for rabbit whole time.

Allow yourself space to go down the rabbit hole, to do the research, to bounce from one thing to the next. I’m telling you, when I started giving myself the time to do this, it was very freeing, and I fought myself to focus so much less.

6. Sensory Anchors

I love the idea of sensory anchors to help bring you back and ground you in the thing you’re doing.

This is essentially a different way to use a fidget toy. But I like the idea of a sensory anchor because it stresses the importance of using your senses to ground yourself.

Whether it’s a squishy stress ball, a smooth worry stone, or even a super-soft textured piece of fabric, having something to hold in your hand and engage your senses can help you regain your attention whenever it starts to drift. 

7. Storyboarding Tasks

Finally, tip 7 is to storyboard your day or your task.

What am I even talking about?

Essentially, it’s creating a visual representation of what you’re doing throughout the day.

What are the different steps, and what will it look like?

Now you may be thinking, Paula is this just a sneaky way of telling me to break down my tasks so that they’re smaller and easier to do?

Kind of. But also, I think there’s a truly powerful component when it comes to visualization and seeing the tasks at hand.

Examples of How You Can Storyboard Your Task/Day:

  • Draw it out as stick figures of you doing the different things
  • Imagine in your mind’s eye yourself moving through the process step by step
  • Associate different colors or different images with the different steps in the process

Whatever way you choose to storyboard or visualize, this visual process can be useful for helping to remind the brain and keep it on track.

For example, if I was storyboarding my podcast.

  • I would first have a picture of eyes and the book If You Give Him a Cookie so I could review it and remind myself of the story arc
  • Then I have a picture of a notebook and a pen for me to outline my ideas
  • Then I might have a picture of the podcast mic, which reminds me to record, etc

By creating some sort of visual reminder, or visualizing the process, you help your brain practice the process ahead of time. It helps you see the big picture, recognize where you’re going, and stay on track. 

Recap & Final Thoughts

So there you have it. While I am a big fan of non-linear thinking and a non-linear approach to getting things done at times, I also think knowing what works for us to approach projects and tasks linearly is a powerful tool in our ADHD tool kit.

I encourage you to experiment with the 7 tips we discussed today and see which ones work best for you. 

As a quick reminder, we talked about 7 tips to improve non-linear thinking:

  1. Using a distraction notebook
  2. Creating themed playlists or using something like brain.fm
  3. Establishing Focus zones
  4. Following themed workdays
  5. Setting aside Rabbit Hole time
  6. Using sensory anchors
  7. Storyboarding your tasks and projects

If you have other strategies that you like to use, I’d love to hear about them. You can pop over to Instagram, where I’m @imbusybeingawesome, and let me know. Send me a DM or comment on the post for this episode; I would love to hear about it.

💡 If you’re ready to take these concepts and apply them to your life and learn how to support your ADHD in a way that’s best for you, I invite you to learn more about my small group coaching program, We’re Busy Being Awesome, as well as through 1:1 coaching.

👉 Also, if you want to learn my simple step-by-step approach to locking in a routine and making it stick, be sure to check out my free course, the ADHD Routine Revamp.

Until next time, keep being awesome.

Links From The Podcast

Leave IBBA A Rating & Review!

If you enjoy the podcast, would you be a rockstar and leave a review? Doing so helps others find the show and spreads these tools to even more people.

  1. Go to Apple Podcasts
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  4. Simply tap five stars; that’s it!
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Paula Engebretson - ADHD Coach and Pdacster

About Paula Engebretson

ADHD COACH | PODCASTER

I spent the first 31 years of my life thinking I just needed to “try harder” while dealing with crushing self-doubt, perfectionism and imposter syndrome. Then I was diagnosed with ADHD.

Finally understanding the missing puzzle piece, I discovered how to work with my brain, build upon my strengths, and take back control of my life.

Now I help others with ADHD do the same. Learn more.


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