By Becky Wheeler
My ADHD clients often seek help with planning, time management, and accountability. They each struggle with remembering appointments and completing tasks on time. But the causes and solutions to these obstacles are as unique as they are. Everyone recommends using a planner or agenda. But the way you use it is what determines if it works for you or not.
There are four essential steps for managing a planner. (We’ve changed names to protect privacy.)
Step 1: Thinking It Through
Nathan, a student, was looking forward to a job interview. I suggested we determine his availability before the interview. He replied, “It’s all good, Mrs. Wheeler, I’m free all summer – I can work any time they want!”
“Let’s have a look at your month-at-a-glance agenda.” He opened his blank planner. (Getting an overview of the coming months will help him visualize the big picture. He’ll then plan in more detail week by week.)
I prompted Nathan with, “Didn’t you tell me you were going on vacation with your family soon?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, “from June 20 through July 2.” He wrote “VACATION” in blue on June 20, adding arrows on each succeeding day through July 2nd. As we talked, he remembered his crew camp, his weekly coaching appointment, his SAT tutoring program, the week his nieces and nephews will be visiting, his church mission trip and so on.
We recorded each of Nathan’s activities. Social and extracurricular activities were in blue. School-related activities were in red. We left green for his available work hours. When we finished plotting, Nathan laughed. He concluded he has too much going on this summer to work. He should put the job on hold until fall.
Conclusion: Nathan lives in the moment. He struggles to keep the future on his radar. That internal voice that asks the important questions is faint. And he realizes he is an auditory processor. He needs to talk it out.
We created a list of general questions he can ask himself daily. He will stay organized using a “Buddy System” and talking out his schedule (with me, his Mom or a friend.)
Step 2: Writing It Down
Kate’s teachers assign homework as the bell rings. “I try to remember it. There isn’t enough time to write it down and get to my next class.” But Kate admitted it wasn’t working out.
When I asked her how long it takes to record a standard assignment, Kate estimated two or three minutes. I suggested doing a test. “When I say ‘go,’ write this down: Read pages 15 through 23 and do the assignment on page 24. Be prepared for the quiz tomorrow and don’t forget to go on Blackboard and comment on what you’ve read.”
It took Kate 40 seconds to record the assignment in her planner! I suggested an abbreviation key could get her time under 15 seconds. Here’s what she came up with: “R p. 15-23, do p. 24. Cmnt on BB. Q 2mrw.” “Fourteen seconds flat – perfect!”
We reviewed the process for potential roadblocks and created the following plan:
- As the class begins, Kate gets her planner out to avoid digging for it later.
- She writes the subject before every assignment.
- She draws a box in front of each task to check when it’s completed.
- She will star items where she must bring home a book or handout. She’ll use that list to collect materials from her locker before she leaves.
Conclusion: Time eludes Kate. She’s going to create a time dictionary to record how long different tasks take. This will help her block out realistic chunks of time for tasks. With an accurate estimate of how long it takes to write her assignments, she can make that a new habit.
Step 3: Planning It Out
Sue has two active teens, a husband who travels, and many interests. She prefers a paper planner but finds it doesn’t provide enough writing space. Notes, telephone numbers and miscellaneous scribbles cover the pages. She often misses essential information. Her disorganized approach has her running from home to appointment and back. It leaves her stressed and overwhelmed.
After a little research, Sue opted for an online calendar. This includes space for notes and a contacts database. Best of all, weekly recurring appointments track all her standing activities. She doesn’t have to remember them all week to week. Grouping her activities saves time, reduces stress, and lets her focus. Now she can enjoy her day. Here’s how she allocated her time:
- Desk Time for planning, scheduling appointments, reviewing emails, managing online orders and doing essential paperwork (Tuesday and Thursday mornings).
- Exercise Time and Errands done while she’s already out (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons).
- Personal Time and Appointments for lunch with a friend, practicing piano or a doctor’s appointment (Fridays).
- Kid’s Activities including carpool schedule for weekly school, sports and church activities (varied).
Conclusion: With time allotted for managing her life, Sue can relax. She has time to think, which she says feels great. Her schedule is tidy. Before, it was stressful to look at. Open spaces (and booked slots) are visible when scheduling new appointments. She’s also using calendar alerts and alarms to signal when it’s time to transition from one activity to another. Systems and routines reduce the strain on her working memory. She now has more memory and energy for other activities.
Step 4: Checking It
“A well-organized planner only serves the person who looks at it.” Here’s how two people manage to check their daily agenda.
Noah is an attorney who records every detail of his life. But he doesn’t act with a plan because he doesn’t look at his agenda. He tried to review his agenda the night before, but by morning, he forgets what he saw. He has to look at his planner first thing in the morning.
I asked, “Where is the first place you go each morning?”
He smiled. That’s it! He decides he will put his planner on the toilet seat. But how can he remember to place it there each night? Noah uses his evening habit of brushing his teeth to anchor placing his planner in its spot. For insurance, he tapes a reminder on a neon index card to the bathroom mirror. It works!
Kevin, a self-described geek, is studying to be an engineer. He loses every piece of paper but he always has his smart phone. Kevin’s planner is with him, synchronized on his phone, desktop and laptop. The problem: the planner’s buried a few clicks away and his alarms aren’t enough to prompt him to refer to his schedule.
Since Kevin is the technology expert, I asked how he can remind himself to refer to his schedule. He thought for a moment, pulled up his daily calendar, and saved it as his screensaver. When I asked him how he did that and he smiled and said, “There’s an app for that! Google it.” Now every time he opens his phone, Kevin sees his schedule for the day.
Conclusion:Noah and Kevin both find their own answers for remembering. Noah uses the piggy-back method adding a new habit on top of a current habit. For Kevin, it’s finding a visual he can’t ignore.
Taking control of your planner (and your life) is simple. Learn your needs, understand how you work best, and be creative. Happy planning!
Top Ten Tips for Using Your Planner
- ALWAYS write down things you need to remember. Time-saving abbreviations can make this faster.
- Make things easier to spot and track by color-coding types of activities/appointments.
- All information goes in your planner. Contact information, assignments and ideas all go in one place.
- Number groups of tasks in the order you’ll do them.
- Start with tasks that demand the most focus. Move to easier tasks as you tire or your medication wears off. If you struggle with a task, tackle it between two easier ones.
- Break projects into chunks. Plan mini-deadlines and book them in your planner.
- Plan for procrastination. Set deadlines early, leaving room for the unexpected, good (party invitation!) or bad (computer crash!)
- Use a visual cue to show you completed a task (a check box or strike through.)
- Star or note any material you need to take home or bring back (to work or school). Check your planner while packing.
- If you can’t finish everything, leave the assignment with the least penalties undone. Schedule time to finish it the next day.
Becky Wheeler is an ADHD & Life Coach dedicated to helping clients untangle their lives and find the strategies and systems that work best for them. For more information, visit newfocuscoach.com.