Muscle memory is a powerful thing. It allows you to do seemingly complex things without having to mentally process every step involved.
By default, I tend to think more literally about muscle memory and relate it to personal and physical applications like drumming. I don’t think about what each of my limbs needs to do to play a beat. I think about the beat that I want to play and it just happens. Literally, my brain is basically beatboxing and my body makes it happen.
Despite it being called “muscle memory”. your muscles shouldn’t get much credit. Your brain ( really your entire nervous system) is actually responsible for muscle memory. You’ve done something enough that your brain can associate a series of commands with a single thought. When you think of it in this way, it’s actually more like coding.
For someone with ADHD, it’s extra hard to build a consistent habit of anything. Mostly because building a habit requires repetition and repetition requires you to remember to do something you’re not used to doing. Ironically, once we do have something worked into our routine, it’s almost painful to disrupt it.
There’s a way to approach this that has worked wonders for me and that I’ve seen work well for a number of others. At a super high level we want to figure out:
First we start with “What needs to be done and why?”
Then we move on to “How is it supposed to be done?”
After that, we look at “What is the best way for ME to get it done the right way?”
Finally, “What is the best way for me to do this consistently?”
Understanding Your Mission
What needs to be done and why?
Those of us with ADHD (and probably most people) have a hard time initiating things that:
When it comes to picking up a new responsibility or working through a new process, it helps to get ahead of the friction before it can come into play.
Start by digging into the new things and finding your angle for what it’s worth your time. How is it going to help your company, your team, or even just you? Make sure you look beyond the highest level KPIs and consider things like improved efficiency, lower stress, better communication, etc.
Once you find the value in “the thing”, your interest should follow, and it’s more about figuring out how to approach it.
For this I have a simple order of operations:
- Is there documentation?
- If yes, read it. Write down any questions you have after reading it and try to find the answers from others who have done it or the people who asked you to do it.
- If no, evaluate its complexity in terms of how obvious it is to you. Since you’re the one actually doing the work, you should listen to your gut before deciding the next step.
- Plan to the thing in the way that seems/feels obvious. You can always feel it out for bumps and ask for feedback after your first time through to find some ways to optimize it.
- Outline and share your suggested approach and call out any unknowns. I even like to tag in the people that I feel would be best suited to answer my questions or own the parts of “the thing” I don’t really understand.
At this point you should at least be mentally prepared to start doing “the thing” with as little friction as possible (at least from your ADHD). Pending on the size and complexity of “the thing”, this could take anywhere from an hour to a few days, so keep that in mind and give yourself some breathing room.
Breaking Down the Process
How is it supposed to be done? or How will it be done?
Processes help a team work more fluidly, they reduce inefficiencies, and they tend to help ensure ideal outcomes when it comes to the quality of the end result.
More importantly (for us), processes help set expectations for:
- How long something should take.
- Who is responsible for what.
- How to move between each step.
- When “the thing” is done.
Without these expectations in place, we tend to build up a lot of anxiety, which we try to battle by doing anything, which usually causes the other people we’re working with to also have anxiety. You know what I’m talking about.
In tangible terms, understanding the process and your approach to “the thing” means that you’ve turned one overwhelming task on your to-do list into a lot of smaller to-dos and were hopefully able to order and prioritize them.
Finding a Cadence
What is the best way for me to get it done the right way?
To me, a cadence is mostly about how I consistently fit “the thing” into my day and a little bit about the steps I take to do “the thing” or, at least, a step in the process of doing “the thing”.
I know that if it’s something I need to do on an ongoing basis, I have to find the least painful way to work it in, and that requires a bit of thinking and a lot of testing.
Things to figure out
- What kind of mindset do I need to be in for this to go well? Hyper focused? Mentally flexible? Just going with the flow? Once you know this, you can think about what can come before it.
- I like to do things that require bits of short focus back to back e.g. emails, Slack messages, ticket review, etc.
- I like to plan larger chunks of work for deep focus sessions that usually start after some sort of break. e.g. after my morning dad duty or after my workout.
- What references, tools, or information do I need to minimize the friction in doing this?
- If I’m testing new work, I like to have the information for what work was completed on one screen and a window with where I can see the completed work on a new screen.
- If I’m reviewing designs I like to have the current version open on one screen and the new design in another.
- If I’m writing, I like to have things I know I will reference saved and available in a nearby tab.
- How much time will this take me?
- Avoid scheduling too close to calls or meetings.
- Keep yourself from planning to get more done than you really can outside of “the thing”.
Sometimes you can’t figure these out without some trial and error so I wouldn’t let them keep you from getting started. Just pay attention so that you can consciously add them to your cadence the next time.
The confusing part in this is that you can develop a cadence for a specific series of tasks and then also a cadence that includes those with other unrelated things. So you might end up with an Inception situation.
Assuming my toddler actually sleeps I have developed a cadence for my morning routing to help oscillate between work and personal responsibilities.
- Wake up
- Breakfast + Coffee
- Clear out emails and messages that don’t require heavy thought.
- Wake kids up
- Make kids breakfast
- Start kid’s school
- Start work.
I also have a cadence for checking progress that was shipped by the teams I’m working with:
- Go to my column in the project management tool we’re using e.g. Basecamp, GitHub, Airtable, etc.
- Open the issue/ticket in a new tab.
- Open a new browser on my second monitor.
- Read through what was completed and any instructions for testing.
- Start testing according to instructions, make sure the broader experience is changed in a positive way, poke around and try to break related functionality.
- Assuming it’s good, comment to confirm that I reviewed it. Close the issue. Move it to the “done” column.
For something like writing a post or an email for internal communication:
- Write bullet points.
- Convert to actual paragraphs.
- Fix everything Grammarly caught.
- Read it start to finish.
- Move stuff around.
- Scan it quickly.
Establishing A Routine
What is the best way for me to do this consistently?
The best way to remember to do something is to not actually have to remember it at all. Now, after all of those words, we’re circling back to the muscle memory thing I started with.
Once you’ve optimized your cadences, you can start building your repetitions and turn it into something you do *almost• automatically. From my perspective a routine is like a cadence but much more zoomed out and more predictable.
If I know my wife and kids have an activity on Wednesday afternoons, I might decide to use that quiet time to record videos or a podcast or whatever needs recording for work.
I know that I need to post my plan for the week on Monday morning, so I usually start work by going back through my activity and putting together a summary of what I did. While I’m doing that, I’m usually reminded of what still needs to be done, so I’ll update my to-do list in real time.
Tools to Wield
It doesn’t really matter whether you think about these systems in terms of routines or protocols or cadences or habits. What matters is that you have a system to help you successfully take on a new “thing”.
We’re not the type of people who are going to stay engaged and happy by doing what essentially the same thing day after day. This means we’ll have things that end and new things that start fairly often.
If you can take them on in a way that feels good to everyone involved, the opportunity behind each new thing will grow.
If it feels chaotic or stressful to those involved, people be less willing to give you important “things”.
Quick note: There are exceptions to this, like when making things less chaotic feels stressful to those who are already used to the chaos. We’ll cover that some other day.