The Hidden Workload: Why Your ADHD Brain Feels Overwhelmed

If your best-laid plans fizzle into oblivion, it may not be because you’re unproductive or unmotivated, or whatever less-than-kind judgement you make about yourself.

Many of my ADHD coaching clients make thoughtful plans for getting the important stuff done, but feel like they can’t follow through on their intentions for their time.

They do all the “right” things. Break their goals into steps, allocate it time. But what about the invisible work that goes unnoticed yet consumes our time and energy? For individuals with ADHD, this hidden workload can be particularly challenging to manage.

Your time, energy and attention are finite resources.

Yet many of us - and especially ADHDers - will doggedly try to stretch the possibilities of our time, energy and attention. I never understood physics, but my vague year 9 understanding is that these things are impossible.

Invisible work nicks time, energy and sanity.

Invisible work, a term coined by sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels, encompasses tasks that are essential but often overlooked or undervalued. These can range from planning and coordination to emotional labour and relationship maintenance. In her book "Making Work Visible," Dominica DeGrandis identifies five "thieves of time" that contribute to this invisibility:

  1. Too Much Work-in-Progress (WIP)
  2. Unknown Dependencies
  3. Unplanned Work
  4. Conflicting Priorities
  5. Neglected Work

Time management strategies fall over.

You want to get better at managing our time. So you:

  • Make an unprioritised list of all the things you need to do for all of eternity.
  • Maybe you take it a step further and book things into the calendar.
  • Perhaps you might even try a further strategy, like the Eisenhower matrix (TL; DR but there are quadrants with urgent and important, etc.)
  • We might even go full ninja and try time-blocking our calendar to get to those non-urgent but important things.

All of these are just fine strategies and not inherently wrong. But something happens between these elaborate colour-coded plans and making them come true.

And the conclusion that many of my clients will come to is that they can’t stick with anything. Here’s another reason why planning is a waste of time. They believe that they can’t motivate themselves to get it done. Okay, maybe there’s some truth in that.

But when you drill in and account for what’s happening with your time, you might uncover a heaving pile of work you never acknowledge.

What’s really on your plate?

How often do you put these things on your calendar or account for them in your plans?

  • Time to find a park and walk to work
  • The daily chipping away at a never-ending pile of laundry
  • Phone calls from your kid’s school and the endless stream of emails that interrupt your focus and demand action
  • Your biological needs as a human (😬 I once enthusiastically made my own time-blocked plan for the week that was in 10-minute blocks, with not one wee, water or eating break accounted for)
  • Last-minute ingredients or lunch box shops after everyone in your house chomped through the food at an alarming rate

I wonder how much invisible work we all do but never account for. Stuff that has to happen, but never makes it to your task list or your calendar. The things you believe should be so easy, so quick, so inconsequential, that there’s no point in letting them take up space.

If you don’t acknowledge everything that’s on your plate, here’s what happens:
  1. The obvious: you’re not allocating time where this could happen. This will either mean that it doesn’t happen, creating stress and those dropped balls that we kick ourselves for. OR something else that was on your plan gets squeezed out to make space for the must dos that you didn’t account for
  2. The insidious: when your work stays invisible, you’re not taking the credit for it. This counts at work and in relationships. And it counts even more for your own self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.
  3. The energy drain: a high volume of invisible works means heaps of context switching, jumping from one bucket of your life to the next (evidence shows that switching costs ( https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking) drain executive function for all brains. Imagine the toll this takes on an ADHD brain where executvie function is already compromised). on the days wehre you feel extra exhausted, consider: how many times did i swtich hats today?
  4. The treadmill of reactivity: Tasks that never get clocked mean we’re pinging from one urgent task to the next, keeping us in a reactive state.

How to get your hands around what’s really on your plate

Take stock for a day. Either look back on your day yesterday. Or, if you’re anything like me and your working memory is a little shoddy - particularly when frenzied - track yourself for a day.

Step 1: How many different hats are you wearing?

What are all the project buckets in your life? What are your roles? For example:

  • Parenting
  • Work
  • Relationship
  • Friendships
  • Housework
  • Health
  • Keeping everyone fed
  • Caring for parents
  • Life admin

Write all these buckets or roles down.

Some clients are great at planning out their work life. Perhaps you have your kids’ calendars and family life nailed.

Step 2: Track what you do for a day

I’m only asking for one day here, and I know that’s a big ADHD lift. But the evidence will likely shock you. Keep a timesheet of all the things you did throughout a day. For example:

7am: Made lunches

7:15am: Email school about an early pick-up today

7:20am: Chuck on a load of washing etc etc

Step 3: How many hats did you wear in one day?

Take stock of how many of those hats you wore throughout the course of the day. Called a friend? Friendship hat. Popped into coles? Feeding the hordes hat.

Step 4: How many times throughout the day did you change hats?

Now look at your timesheet again. How many times did you take one hat off and put another one on?

Next steps

The point of this exercise is not to depress you, make things feel hopeless and send you into a “whats the bloddy point” spiral.

The goal is for you to have a realistic appraisal of what is really on your plate so you can be more intentional with your time, energy and attention.

Now, some questions for you to think on as you decide next steps:

  1. How can you make your invisible work visible? (Remember for the ADHD brain: if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist).

  2. How can I simplify or create efficiencies for the tasks that I’m doing all the time?
  3. What else is standing out to you?

Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.

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