Work Flow and Cyclical Time for ADHD

I began using a blank journal as a planner in 2020. I completely trashed the expensive planner I was using. Because, quite frankly, 2020 has not fit into any neat boxes or timelines for me.

When talking with other ADHD and neuro diverse individuals, the idea of time blindness, hyperfocus and time management comes up frequently. ADHDers don’t work on linear time. A fellow community member (@neuroemergent_insurgent) described it as spiral time. I love that explanation because it reminds us that it takes time time to complete the circle and time never ends. Starting a project and not finishing for 2 years, just means it wasn’t time to finish yet. Maybe we needed more knowledge to get the work done. Perhaps we weren’t bored, but we simply felt our intuition pulling us in a new way.

In education there is a teaching theory and practice which uses spiral curriculum. It’s where key knowledge is introduced, taught, then retaught throughout the school year, a opposed to taught, tested, and finished. Learning is not a straight line, it’s cyclical. We’re always circling back over what we learned to deepen synapses connections and reach a fuller understanding of a subject or skill. And that is how the ADHD brain works best. It needs to pass over a subject a few times. You might take a break if it’s not time to absorb the lesson just yet, but then, the next time, it’s clear as a bell and you master it quickly.

Workflow for ADHD doesn’t shut off just because the timer went off or because we’re supposed to make dinner. If I’m writing or editing, I could spend 8 hours and never come up for air. If my son is editing a video for his tech/comm class, he could be on his computer for 4 hours. Then, I call him for dinner and all of the sudden he has to go to bathroom and is ravenous. We simply ignore our bodily functions when in flow. Our body is just the vessel, it’s needs are irrelevant to the work.

I’m coaching a client right now who has a lot of trouble getting work projects done while at home. We could call this procrastination, but it’s not. It’s just a lack of balancing satisfying and unsatisfying tasks. She has an art studio at home and loves to paint and express herself through that medium. Working from home has been difficult because she just wants to paint. So we made a plan for off-limit studio days. On Sundays, she’s in the studio. Mondays, she only does work tasks. When she is in a groove with work tasks (which doesn’t always happen, but can) she actually works more quickly than probably the average, neurotypical worker. This is because she’s given herself space to be creative the day before and is not burnt out. Creative expression can actually be energizing when harnessed to offset mundane or less creative tasks.

There is also a lot of “psyching yourself out.” “Oh, if I finish all of this I can spent the last 5 hours of the day in the studio, or writing, or cooking up a delicious meal for friends.” Whatever is inspiring to you, as an ADHDer, you must do that work. Get in the flow so you can recognize how it feels. And build time slots with no expectations around them. Block off AT LEAST 2 hours for work flow. Increase those block times whenever you can.

When I started this blog I had ideas, and wrote in short bursts. Now, piecing the book together, I can work for hours. I’ve come back around to the project. I learned the lessons once, and now I’m closing the circle; developing the ideas that I may have only understood at a surface level when I started. But that doesn’t mean the short bursts were’t worth it. They still gave me my creative work flow (and I worked in two hour blocks from 4-6 am when I started the blog).

This happens with my children as well. Virtual school is short bursts of a zoom meeting, lesson and work. But, for my dyslexic son, his solar system is beckoning him to come back. I set up all of the paints and planets. An entire table (out of the site of his zoom classroom) is ready and waiting for his workflow. Find the thing that gets you into workflow, and block out time to do it.

On the other side, don’t feel disappointed when you take a break from something (I don’t like the term abandon–negative connotation). Don’t start telling yourself, “I can never finish anything, or I’m incompetent” because the painters easel has sat undisturbed for 3 months. Love yourself enough to wait to come full circle. Be kind and listen to your gut. Move the easel to the garage while you pursue another work flow project.

If you’re an ADHDer, stop managing your time and manage your work flow. Balance your creativity with the “to-do” list. Write down past projects and revisit the list, often. Ask yourself for each project, “Am I ready to come back to this? Is it time to come full circle?”

Published by Family ADDventures

Nicole Santiago is a learning specialist, student advocate, and founder of Family ADDventures. As a specialist, she assesses and teaches clients (adults and adolescents) to manage and grow their executive functioning skills which include emotional regulation, task initiation, and time management. As an advocate (IEP coach), she is a member of COPAA and ensures inclusive (special) education students receive the most appropriate educational services possible. She often collaborates with OT's, SLP's and neuropsychologists all in the name of student improvement and success. Her practice is located in San Antonio, TX, and everywhere (virtually). The author grew up an army brat and spends time with her three ND children and husband in Puerto Rico whenever possible. She writes about mental health, parenting, education, and entrepreneurship on her blog:

3 thoughts on “Work Flow and Cyclical Time for ADHD

  1. Such useful information about how to save some time or a day to which to look forward after the work Is done. This truly makes the work flow seem lighter – we feel more motivated when we see our own “rainbows”/time to spend doing what we love at the end of completing the tasks at hand!


  2. Did I tell you that I really enjoyed reading this? I did!!!

    Love you and so happy we had our moments together and always so proud of you—

    I want to maybe come by train to FL but Covid is not going to be good this fall, I think.

    Dad is especially unhappy for me to travel, I think.

    Love you so much,

    Moma xoxo



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