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The ADHD burnout cycle is characterized by our tendency take on too much stuff, more than we can possibly manage, only to get overwhelmed and then burnout.
The most common thing I see in my ADHD clients is that they have no idea how capable they are because they get in their own way by wanting to do ALL THE THINGS.
When we say yes to everything, we try as hard as we can to juggle all the balls, but inevitably, we can’t do it and everything drops. The balls, the aspirations, our confidence and our will to keep going. Enter, burned out.
When a client comes to me complaining about burnout, we look at their life, and no surprise – they’re doing 643 bazillion things. And because they’re high achievers that have so much to prove to themselves and the people around them, they just like run themselves into the ground.
So what’s the answer to this dilemma?
Managing ADHD Burnout Cycles by Managing Energy (The ADHD Energy Model)
Based on the idea of a traffic light, I have categorized the way we spend our energy on green yellow, red activities.
- Green means go
- Yellow means slow down.
- Red means stop.
Green Activities | Where Life is Easy Peasy
Green tasks are easy activities. They’re something you can do without effort.
They’re fun, interesting and they take very little cognitive, emotional or physical energy to complete because you don’t have to give it much thought. Green tasks for you might be anything from brushing your teeth, to cuddling with your dog, and even working out (if that’s something you love to do and you find it quite easy).
Yellow Activities | The Experiences That Help Us Grow
When we think about a traffic sign, a yellow light is an indication that you need to slow down and get present, because something’s about to change. So how does that translate to this model? Yellow tasks are things that you need to be present for. They’re important, but not necessarily easy. They’re valuable, they’re meaningful, and they feel roughly 20% out of your comfort zone . That’s the growth zone.
It’s also very creative activities that very often bring us into a state of flow or hyperfocus because we can really get involved in it, but it’s not a green task because it’s not simple or easy and it requires your full attention.
Red Activities | The Birth of the ADHD Burnout Cycle
Red represents stop. When you think of a traffic light, these are things that are hard or feel pointless, annoying or boring. You may feel resentful about them, and when you think about having to do them, you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and eventually burned out.
Because these are things we don’t want to do, this is very often where our procrastination comes in. Procrastination doesn’t just happen because things are hard. Often it’s because these tasks are boring or because we don’t know the first step to get going.
Red activities can feel hard to initiate because you don’t know what that first step is. Or the first step is freaking terrifying. When we have too many red activities filling our days, especially ones that are out of our control, we get stressed out. When we can’t complete the stress cycle by leaning into more green zone activities, our bodies stay in fight or flight mode, all the time.
Finding the Optimal “Zone” Balance
When you think of your day, what zone are most of your commitments in? Is it a mix of all of the zones, or heavily weighted in one area? I think this is going to be different for everyone based on their specific season in life, but I can say this for sure – the goal of life is not to always be in the green zone.
Because even though the green zone is comfortable, familiar and safe, it’s not where growth happens. That happens in the yellow zone.
So should we aim for a completely yellow life? There’s no one-size-fits all answer, but I would imagine we wouldn’t always want to live every area of our life outside our comfort zone. Sometimes we need rest, and that where green zone activities are helpful.
What about the red zone? Should we actively avoid it?
I don’t think we can avoid red zone activities. Sometimes life is hard and we just have to accept that bad things happen outside of our control. That said, it’s much easier to handle red zone experiences when we have the energy and capacity to show up for it fully.
Balancing Burnout Cycles By Applying the Energy Model to Your Life
I have been using the energy zones in my weekly planning, by color coding my tasks and appointments based on their perceived zone. It’s very helpful to step back and visually see where most of your energy is spent, based on what color is dominating your calendar.
I’ve also been using it in my business. I wrote down all the tasks I currently do as an entrepreneur and assigned them the appropriate energy color.
It was interesting to see that many of them were yellow zone activities for me. I’m okay with this, but I know that in order to scale my business, I need to either automate or delegate many of my yellow and red (and even green) tasks, in order to keep myself focused on the things that I do best.
The ADHD Energy Model + Relationships
Lately I’ve been thinking about all my relationships with family, friends, social media connections and acquaintances. I took notice of how I felt when I interacted with people to understand if our relationship felt yellow, green or red. While I am open to having both green and yellow connections in my life, I am drawn to understanding why some relationships cost so much energetically and examining whether or not they are worth maintaining.
I think this model is applicable to anything you want to be more clear about in your life. I hope you find it useful, and would love to hear how you use it to be more intentional about how you spend your time and energy!