• Before Jessica McCabe learned to work with her ADHD brain, rather than against it, she was burned out

  • Here's 4 organisational tips that she wishes she knew earlier

  • We have therapists who specialise in working with clients with ADHD – find them here

My whole life, I felt like I was failing to be the person I was supposed to be. When I was little, my mom would drop me off at school—my hair braided, jacket clean, quietly reading a new book. At the end of the day, my dad would pick me up—dirty, dishevelled, backpack unzipped and messy, anxiously shivering because I’d forgotten my jacket.

I went to school looking like the person I was supposed to be. I went home looking like . . . me.

And I wasn’t what anyone expected.

When you are eight, people expect you to be able to dress yourself, keep your shoes tied, and keep your backpack zipped. The basics. When you are thirty, people expect you to show up to work on time, pay your bills, and put gas in your car before it runs out. I’ve never been great at meeting basic expectations.

I could, however, exceed them.

In school, I took standardised tests every year. In third grade, my reading comprehension came back “PHS.” I asked my teacher what it meant: “Post high school.” (I really liked to read.)

In high school, I was assigned an essay to write. I do not remember what the topic was, but I decided that I needed to go to a duck farm, buy some eggs, incubate and hatch those eggs, raise the ducklings, and then teach them to swim in my bathtub. This wasn’t for a science fair project, by the way. I did this for English class. I’m not sure why I felt I had to go to those lengths, but the day I presented my paper to the class, I was the only student walking around campus with three ducklings in tow.

In college, I signed up for multiple classes on the music business because I wanted to support my then boyfriend, who was a musician. I had no plans to be a composer, but I took a composition class where I learned how to write music using math. I was pretty good at it, too! The teacher gave me the same feedback that I heard throughout my entire life: “You have so much potential!”

The fact that I could sometimes exceed expectations made it even more frustrating for me—and everyone around me—when I failed to meet the basic ones.

I knew I wasn’t the person I was supposed to be, at least not consistently, and in lieu of other explanations, I accepted and internalised the ones given to me, believing instead that I was irresponsible, messy, careless.

I still say these negative things to myself sometimes, even though I know better now. These judgments—even once I learned how inaccurate they are, even now that I understand the biology behind the invisible obstacles I kept tripping over and blaming myself for—are long solidified by decades of neural pathways wiring together and firing together.

I constantly felt like I was supposed to be doing more. My meds allowed me to do that. At fifteen, I was going to high school, taking courses on writing children’s books, attending swim team practices, working at the local fast-food joint, and dating a string of boyfriends, all while trying to be a professional actress. I pushed the limits of what my brain and body could handle, even with the meds.

As an adult, I kept the same pace. There was always more I could be doing...for my career, for my parents, for my partners, for my friends, for my financial health, for my physical appearance, and for my future. I pushed myself to get that second (or third) job, finish that extra workout, take that class, and show up for whoever needed me. I tried self-help books, seminars, and every organisational strategy anyone ever suggested. Whenever anyone needed something from me, my needs went out the window. When I failed to do the things I set out to do, I chastised myself: “Stop being lazy. You’re flaky. You give up too easily.”

After watching me struggle ineffectively with some task, one of my friends asked me, “Have you ever asked yourself if there’s an easier way to do this?” I looked at him. “No. I’m just used to things being hard.” The more I tried to meet everyone’s expectations, the less I seemed to be able to. I tried harder and moved faster, until my efforts were frantic. I would memorise lines while driving and doing my makeup. I ate while I worked. I sent my boyfriend a text after another fight while I was supposed to be hanging out with friends, or I cancelled on them at the last minute to pick up an extra shift at work. The only time I ever stopped was when I physically couldn’t keep going and passed out from exhaustion. Eventually, I burned out.

There’s a common saying that regularly makes the rounds in the ADHD community: “If you want to do more, do less.” The more you’re trying to do, the more you have to keep track of—and the harder it is for your executive function system to keep up. That’s true for everyone, but it’s especially true for those of us with impaired executive function. Because we often take on way-the-f*ck more than we can handle, one of the most helpful ways for those with ADHD to better manage their stuff is simply having less of it.

Here's some things I wish I knew before:

1. Delegate areas of responsibility

Delegating individual tasks often requires more cognitive resources than it saves for those of us with ADHD. Delegating entire areas of responsibility, however, can be more executive function efficient because it allows someone else to take over both the doing of a task and the management of it. 

Handing your partner a grocery list will save you one trip to the store, but mutually deciding that your partner is the one in charge of making sure there is food in the house frees up a ton of brain bandwidth.

2. Keep systems simple

While it might be fun to set up an elaborate organisational system when we’re hyper-focusing on it (see: issues with response inhibition), being able to maintain that system when we need to turn our attention to other things is another story. Simplifying your systems so they’re easier to maintain can make it more likely to be—and stay—functional in the long term. An example of this is “books go on the bookshelf ” as opposed to “books need to be put on the correct bookshelf, sorted by colour and size.”

3. Practice minimalism

Minimalism essentially means owning less stuff. It’s a lot easier to manage clutter if you don’t have a lot of stuff to create it. Many ADHDers I’ve met swear by minimalism, because they can function more effectively when they have less to manage, lose, organise, and/or clean.

This can work for projects, too; limiting the number of ongoing projects, especially long-term ones, takes pressure off our executive function.

4. Say no (to at least some things)

Limiting the number of ongoing projects, especially long-term ones, takes pressure off our executive function. The stuff-we-could-do-in-life buffet is unlimited. Our capacity is not. If your plate is full, don’t get another plate.

Do we have to do less forever? Not necessarily. But because of our neurodevelopmental delay, adults with ADHD are often stretched to their limit. If our coping skills don’t increase faster than the demands do, keeping up gets harder and harder, and we sacrifice more and more of ourselves and our wellbeing.

Jessica McCabe is the author of How to ADHD: An Insider's Guide to Working with Your Brain

Further reading

My 5 tips for good mental health living with ADHD

What does a neurodiversity-inclusive organisation really look like?

How I adapt therapy for clients with ADHD

How my ADHD and autism diagnoses helped me forgive myself for being different

What's the link between neurodiversity and trauma?