When Can Overcompensating for ADHD Become a Problem?

Older adult in business shirt and pants looks at glass wall covered with notes, hands behind backMany people with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) learn to use various tools or other methods to compensate for the areas in which they struggle. Sometimes these methods can work well. They are often a great asset that has limited consequences.

But in some situations, people may use tools or methods at the expense of efficiency. A long history of struggling may lead to the development of systems that are also geared toward reducing the anxiety that stems from a fear of making mistakes or disappointing people. When underlying weaknesses in executive functioning are paired with anxiety, it can be especially tough to let go of non-efficient tools and be successful with implementing new ones. This is often the case even in spite of any issues a person has with efficiency.

Consider this fictional case example. Joe, a 45-year-old male, has struggled with inattention, time management, organization, and other issues since he was a child. He was not formally diagnosed with ADHD until his late twenties. At that point, he began taking medication. Only in the past two years has Joe begun participating in psychotherapy and ADHD coaching to gain practical tools to better manage his symptoms.

When underlying weaknesses in executive functioning are paired with anxiety, it can be especially tough to let go of non-efficient tools and be successful with implementing new ones.

Joe works in a company where he has to manage several employees, delegate tasks, and write reports based on data analysis that he completes regarding revenue from different branches of the company. He is generally on top of things but spends considerable extra time double-checking with each employee to ensure he provided them with given tasks and assistance planning how they should complete each task. In addition, Joe uses up countless hours manually inputting information into his own charts and tables so he can understand things before he runs any analyses.

The main problem Joe experiences is this: As a result of struggling to remain on top of things for many years, he uses systems to ensure that he does so now. However, his methods are not efficient. As a result, his boss is beginning to complain about his speed of completing tasks. However, Joe is very hesitant to make any significant changes to his systems. He fears he will not be able to be successful at following the necessary steps and will likely make more mistakes by trying to do so.

For Joe, and many people in similar situations, figuring out what changes to make and how to adjust to them can be difficult. The follow suggestions on how to navigate making changes in existing systems may help you be more efficient—without letting anxiety impede your ability to follow through with the changes.

1. Identify benefits and drawbacks of particular systems and methods. 

Taking the time to consider whether systems or methods are helping you or having a negative impact. These systems might include task lists, methods for managing staff, time sheets or other devices that track accountability to others, outlines, and charts, among others. You might find some of these to be helpful, but others may slow you down and be more cumbersome than anything else.

If a particular system slows down your completion of a task, you may wish to consider how helpful it is to continue with it. Consider the benefits of each system. If a system offers some benefit but is difficult to use, you might consider whether a suitable alternative might cut down on preparation time. There may be a simpler task list, for example, or an automated system for reminding staff of specific items.

2. Strive to alter systems rather than completely overhauling them. 

This will limit the impact that weaknesses in executive functioning and anxiety have on adjustment to a new system. If something, or part of something, is working for you, it can be helpful to consider what about it works and keep using that, if possible.

3. Transition to a new system by temporarily using both the old system and the new. 

This can be helpful in many cases by helping you reduce and manage the anxiety you may experience when switching to a new system. If you are switching from a whiteboard to-do list to an electronic one such as gTasks, it may be helpful to keep using the whiteboard and duplicating things on gTasks initially. If it turns out that a new system does not work as well as expected, you can easily switch back to the existing system.

It may be a good idea to block out extra time to devote to tasks when trying out new systems. If you are changing how you organize information (by making fewer charts or diagrams, for example), mentally prepare to feel nervous as you engage in a familiar task without the comfort of as many preparation steps as you’re used to. In some instances, tolerating being anxious can help you realize you did not actually need all the preparation steps you used in the past. You might make some mistakes as a result of adjusting your systems or using fewer steps. This is normal. But when it occurs, it’s important to have tools for readjustment in place.

This list is certainly not exhaustive of things you can do to help yourself make adjustments. But hopefully it will get you thinking about possibilities you might take action on.

Joe was able to simplify staff management by using an electronic task list that allowed him to delegate tasks with one click and easily see who was working on each item. He was also able to automate reminders for staff check-ins and use Google forms to synthesize information about updates from staff. In addition, Joe began to use some automated tables and charts, annotating them to better understand the information before analyzing it. This saved him hours of work per project. There were some instances along the way where using fewer steps led to minor mistakes. However, Joe was able to tolerate that as he fine-tuned his approach. When necessary, he used older systems to double-check things as he phased them out.

If you’d like help with ADHD symptoms or want to explore possible strategies for improved efficiency, consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor. Mental health professionals trained in helping people manage ADHD can offer beneficial support and guidance.  

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carey Heller, PsyD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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