You know when people tell you to just “break the task down”? I always hated that advice, in the past. If I’m honest, I didn’t want it to work. Imagine my initial disdain and annoyance when I found out that this advice can sometimes be of benefit…with some conditions!
The “problem” with generic advice that is often crafted for neurotypical brains by neurotypical brains is that it may not work for us or we may fear it may not work for us. Now, we are right to be cautious, and it’s always worth thinking critically about self-support advice.
You don’t want to do yourself harm, set yourself up for failure (you probably feel you’ve had enough of that in your life), or waste time trying something that may not work when you could do something more suited to you. In terms of my own life, though, I find I can be too hasty.
I also find that my autism can bring with it some “black and white” or “all or nothing” thinking about these things. To be honest, coupled with some demand avoidance, I reckon this is what made me reticent about breaking tasks down.
I just wanted to rule out the strategy in its entirety and move immediately to something that was sure to work (!). Let me tell you about what happened two days ago. I was tired and very busy. I had a goal of completing a workshop pre-read and exercises, and it needed to be done.
While I enjoyed the topic and was keen to complete the pre-read, I was tired, overloaded, and had lots of different appointments through the day. However, by breaking the task down, I actually got it done despite those conditions that would normally throw me off.
This is what I did. And my paper journal has done a lot of heavy lifting for me, here! The day before, I wrote out what I needed to achieve in total and when I wanted that done by.
I then took each short section heading in the document and turned that into an action point on a tick list. This took less than 10 minutes to do for me. It may take other people less or more time, of course. But the point is, it wasn’t as hard or as long as you’d think.
I knew that each section would only take 5-10 minutes to do. This was based on intelligence I had gathered about how quickly I can write a short paragraph on a topic that I enjoy and am expert in.
This pre-prep put me in the position where I knew what I was doing, in what order, why, and how long it would take – and this was to a degree where I had lots of granularity and clarity on what I should be doing at any given time.
As such, each sub-task felt very short, sweet, manageable…and something that I could engage with in terms of my attention style and motivation levels – in spite of a busy and bitty day.
Now, here’s the kicker. Knowledge doesn’t always make a difference to what we actually go on to do, or not do. If knowledge was all we needed to change our lives, everyone would eat 5 fruit and veg a day and everyone would wash their hands all the time when they go to the loo.
But, in practice, this isn’t what happens, is it? Even though we all know, not everyone does all of these things all of the time. (Some might, but it’s fair to say most of us don’t.) The point is that, as Russell Barkley notes, things like ADHD aren’t problems of knowing.
We don’t have a knowledge challenge. We have an implementation or performance challenge. The challenge is around transforming what we know might work/help into actually doing the thing that will help us.
My belief is that, with ADHD, the learning cycle around absorbing how and why particular self-support strategies work is longer, and often needs some executive function support around it. Many of us can embed new helpful techniques BUT we may need longer.
We may also need some way of deliberately reflecting on and embedding the positive effects of a particular technique in order to feel compelled to do it again and really get to grips with it.
It has taken me a long time, but, this year, I can think of about 5 times where I have done this technique of breaking a task down the day before so I don’t worry about it and I know what I am doing. This lowered my anxiety, boosted my confidence and helped me to complete that task.
So the question then becomes not “What do I need to know to be able to break down a task?” but, instead, “What do I need to have or do to be able to carry this out AND see clearly how it helped me so that I want to do it again?”
I do have coaching on occasion, when it’s in my budget. But it’s not always in my budget. Therefore, 2 things have helped me. Externalising and sharing my thinking via posts like this on social media have helped me to get clear on my process and how it’s helping me.
I have also found it hugely helpful to just grab my journal after I’ve had a success like completing a big task by breaking it down and actually recording what helped me and why. Over time, that has led to habit formation through greater motivation to repeat what helps me.
If you prefer to talk rather than write, you can journal by using a free dictation service like Otter. You can work with a coach if it’s in your budget. Free peer support groups or supportive ND friends can also be of benefit here. The bottom line is that if you talk or write about it, you will “lock in” what has worked, why it worked for you, and how your process can help you in future. So this was basically the long-winded tale of how breaking things down turns out – annoyingly – to be helpful for me.
The usual caveats apply here. What works for me may not be enjoyable, realistic, doable or accessible for you. If it’s not, that’s ok. It doesn’t mean nothing will help or that you need to discard an approach completely. All you have to do is find what works for you.
And if you want to work with me to experiment safely and kindly with what might help you, then I am here if you want to reach out. You may also enjoy my podcast.
Good luck with finding what works for you!