How to become better at following directions

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Ever tripped up by directions? Learning to become better at following directions is a straightforward way to make yourself look smarter and to be more successful…

When I was setting up my first apartment more than 40 years ago, I can remember sitting in a sea of junk in my living-room: particle board panels, multiple Allen wrenches and IKEA-instructions on flimsy white paper. I stared at those instructions for hours, desperately trying to assemble my desk, but I just couldn’t do it.

The instructions might as well have been written in Greek or Swahili, for all I understood them. I eventually called for help from a friend, and even he had difficulty figuring them out. 

Following directions is an important life skill and one that’s especially hard for some people.  Attention Deficit Disorder (don’t tune out now if you don’t think you have it — I’ll explain why in a moment) and learning disabilities run in my family. I was lucky enough not to get ADHD and my learning disabilities are all related to math so as long as you don’t ask me the square root of 45, I’ll appear just like a typical person.

But people close to me have faced all of these challenges, and I’ve learned how to help them. In fact, I’m convinced that while ADHD is thought to affect somewhere between five and 11 percent of people, the percentage is likely higher in any community of writers and artists. Why? 

People with ADHD are much more likely to be creative. So, if you’re drawn to creative work, odds are essentially higher you have ADHD. Now, I know many people believe that writing requires a great deal of focus and attention — attributes that people with ADHD aren’t likely to have. But here it’s important to understand that for people with ADHD, attention is selective. In fact, it’s likely that people with ADHD have greater attention for the small number of tasks that truly interest them — just lesser attention for everything else. 

When I worked in a newsroom for 10 years, I was likely surrounded by writers with ADHD, even though I never knew that at the time. This is because working at a newspaper gave them the chance for a multitude of very short deadlines on a wide variety of topics. A perfect breeding ground for ADHD! (Also, they could smoke and drink lots of coffee, both recognized as ‘treatments’ — albeit not necessarily healthy ones — for ADHD.)

If you’re interested in learning more about whether you might have ADHD, understand that it’s found in adults as well as children and that it occurs more or less equally in males and females — it’s not just a thing for boys! If you are concerned, you should get yourself assessed by a mental health professional. Meanwhile, however, here is a quick test you can take, at no charge.

And whether you have ADHD or not, here is some advice on how to do a better job of following directions — as well as a better job of giving them:

How to follow instructions better:

  1. Ask for directions more often and ask specific questions about those directions. Make sure you fully understand the project and all the details of what you’re being asked to do.
  2. Get context for the task you need to do. Understanding the reason behind certain projects or tasks will help you make greater sense of what needs to be done.
  3. Understand your own learning style. Experts have identified seven different learning styles: Visual, auditory, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary. In my case, I know I’m not a visual learner (those damn IKEA instructions!) and instead I’m much more comfortable with verbal and logical instructions. When I get instructions, I make sure they match a style I feel comfortable with. 
  4. Look for distraction triggers. If you know you’re at risk of going down the Twitter or Instagram rabbit-hole at any time then, for goodness sake, turn off social media while you’re getting or following directions. In fact, turn off your phone entirely. 
  5. Visualize yourself getting the task done. As you’re starting to follow a set of instructions, visualize yourself finishing them and, along the way, ask yourself questions like, “when will I be half-done here?” This kind of orientation will help keep you on track.
  6. Talk to yourself. Giving yourself a pep-talk will not only help you follow directions better, it’ll also help you stay focused on the task at hand. 
  7. Practice by giving instructions to others. Teaching something is a great way to learn it. You’ll start to recognize tricks and techniques you can use to help yourself. 

 How to give better instructions 

  1. Give directions in a helpful, non-aggressive way. Put yourself in the shoes of people who will be receiving your directions and figure out in advance what it is they need to know. Be cheerful and friendly, not dictatorial. Invite plenty of questions.
  2. Be specific, not vague. If something needs to be done in a specific way then tell people that for goodness’ sake! Don’t ever expect others to read your mind. 
  3. Give context for the task you need done. Understanding the reason behind certain projects or tasks will help your employees/subordinates make greater sense of what needs to be done.
  4. Make allowances for different learning styles. Experts have identified seven different learning styles: Visual, auditory, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary. Make sure you understand the learning needs of the people on your team and provide them instructions in a manner that’s going to best suit them
  5. Don’t micromanage. It’s often tempting to think that everything should be done exactly the way you would have done it yourself. Instead, understand that people will respond best if they have room to use their own preferred styles and methods. And, hard as it may be, you also need to leave them room to fail from time to time.

There’s an enormous payoff for becoming better with instructions. Acing the act of following and giving instructions can simplify what you have to do, increase your effectiveness, eliminate confusion, and save time. All wins – no losses.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. This would be a terrific program to start in the new year! You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed how to deal with supply chain problems in publishing. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How’s your skill at following directions? What tricks do you use? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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