Energy management is crucial for people with ADHD.
There's a lot of focus in ADHD land on managing your time to increase your productivity. But when it comes to managing our energy and bandwidth, there's a tendency to put this under the "self-care" banner.
My experience is that adults with ADHD consider anything in the self-care space as something they'll get to once they've got everything done.
People with ADHD are especially prone to extended sprints and crashes. This looks like overextending yourself on days when you feel good or have an urgent deadline, really sucking the tank dry, and then crashing.
(Just try saying “pace yourself” to the ADHDer in your life. It’s all go or all low.)
Big change can happen for adults with ADHD when they shift their focus from time management alone to considering their energy and attention as equally important and equally finite resources.
Understanding how your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day and which activities deplete and restore your energy will help you plan your time more intentionally.
Things that affect ADHD energy levels
Your level of interest
People with ADHD have an interest-based nervous system rather than an importance-based nervous system. You’re wired to be more motivated to do what’s interesting to you. (By the way, I’m not saying only do things that are interesting to you. I’m saying that - for the purposes of an energy audit - be aware that tasks that working on tasks not interesting to you may be energy intensive).
Managing emotional energy is a challenge for people with ADHD but the juice is worth the squeeze.
People with ADHD may feel their emotions more intensely and this can be wildly draining on energy.
Focusing on negative experiences andd perceived failures depletes energy. Acknowledging successes and feeling optimistic are energising.
Having a sense of hope and purpose is also energising.
These include the obvious and not so obvious liked:
- exposure to sunlight
- consistency of sleep/awake (circadian) rhythm
- sometimes supplementation
- getting your meds right.
Sensory factors/external distractions
ADHD is a disorder of regulating attention. The ADHD brain pays attention to everything!
This means focusing on what we’re supposed to can be difficult, as it’s tricky in the moment to filter out irrelevant stimuli.
Managing a lot of sensory distractions is energy intensive. Pings from emails, texts, social media etc go into this category.
Internal distraction can include holding conflicting thoughts in your mind, or general mental clutter. Relying on your memory to hold onto facts and dates and to-do’s can also aadd to that load.
Chronic pain and injury is also incredibly draining.
Context and task switching
Switching between tasks and contexts requires is an executive function heavy process, requiring significant inhibitory control to stop one task and then attention regulation, planning and task initiation to begin the next. Research shows that people with ADHD show substantially larger “switch costs” than their neurotypical buddies (an effect which is reduced by stimulant medication).
Why energy tracking is helpful for people with ADHD
- Tracking your energy promotes self-awareness and mindfulness. Even just completing this activity (it's coming) requires you to regularly check in with yourself. People with ADHD often struggle with interoceptive awareness, or noticing the sensations in our bodies that tell us we’re hungry/tired/sore/edgy/on the brink of a meltdown. Difficulty picking up on what your body is telling you can result in ignoring and overriding your bodily instincts, pushing yourself too hard and burning out.
- It increases self-compassion. People with ADHD are often really black and white about their producitivity and find it difficult to appreciate the context of everything that happens over the course of the day,. And that they’re human! Measuring yourself on just one metric - how many things did I tick off an unrealistic to-do list - lacks nuance and sets you up to feel like a failure.
- Because you have an interest-based nervous system, seemingly easy and mundane tasks can actually be really draining if they don’t interest you. Making sure you actually get these things done in a sustainable way means accounting for these things being draining.
- Parents, this way of thinking can be easily tweaked to help your neurodivergent kid avoid or minimise meltdowns!
What’s an energy pacing system?
A pacing system allows you to monitor, manage and plan for your energy fluctuations so that you can function more sustainably.
We want to manage these sprint and crash cycles better. Each time we go through these cycles, it takes longer to get back to baseline. And that’s how you end up in burnout.
Pacing systems help create a more balanced lifestyle that balances your energy expenditure.
Energy pacing systems have been developed for people who live with chronic illness and fatigue can really help neurodivergent people - in fact we’ve all got a thing or two to learn from these systems that account for how we feel. Examples include Maja Toudal and Dr Tony Attwood’s Energy Accounting and Christine Miserandino’s Spoons Theory.
Step 1: Track your energy levels hourly for one day
(Or over the course of a few days). What does this even mean?
- Every hour on the hour assess your energy. Give yourself a 1-10 based on your energy and note down what you were doing the hour before.
Step 2: Monitor the activities that affect your energy
Identify the activities that deplete your energy and the activities that bring it back up.
- Make a list of energy depleting and energy replenishing activities.
- Give them a score that reflects their magnitude. This helps you have a tangible way of “balancing your energy budget”. For example, working in a noisy environment might be a -20, and going for walk outside with no phone might be a +20. Task switching might be a -10.
The point is what is energising and depleting for you. Don’t try to do this perfectly!
Step 3: Plan based on energy
Based on this data that is specific to you, you can plan your week based on these predictions of your energy rhythms. You can also decide how much context switching you can cope with, add in transition rituals, and think about when you want to be doing your highest level, most important work.
Yes you’re still going to have to do things you don’t feel like. But your can use your data to balance your day and your commitment, or even make a to-do list that ranks your tasks basked on whether they’re draining, energising or neutral.
Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.