My ADHD clients often seek help with planning, time management, and accountability. Although they each share similar concerns about remembering appointments and completing tasks on time, the causes and the solutions to these obstacles are as unique as the individual. Using a planner, or agenda, is the standard answer but the way that you use it can transform a planner from a solution that’s not working to one that is. Let’s explore some variations on the four essential steps for effectively managing a planner. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
Step 1: Thinking It Through
Earlier this summer, Nathan, a student, was excited about an upcoming 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!” I proposed that he open up his currently blank planner saying, “Let’s just have a look at your month-at-a-glance agenda.” (Getting an overview of the coming months will help him visualize the big picture and 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. He then 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 social and extracurricular activities in blue, school-related activities in red, and save green for his available work hours. When we finished plotting, Nathan couldn’t help but laugh as he concluded that he has too much going on this summer to work and should put the job on hold until fall. I agreed.
Conclusion: Nathan lives in the moment and struggles to keep the future on his radar. He’s discovered that his internal voice, the one that asks the important questions, is faint. He has realized that he processes information best verbally. We created a list general questions he can ask himself daily and he determines he can stay organized by talking out his schedule (with me, his Mom or a friend.) We dubbed this “The Buddy System.”
Step 2: Writing It Down
Kate complained that her homework is always assigned as the bell rings, “I try to remember it because 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 to ‘guestimate’ how long she thinks it takes to record a standard assignment, Kate predicted two or three minutes. I suggested a new approach; “Let’s try something. 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.” Kate was surprised to learn it took just 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. 1.) As the class begins, Kate gets her planner out to avoid digging for it later. 2.) She writes the subject before every assignment. 3.) She draws a box in front of each task to check when it’s completed. 4.) She will star items that require she bring home a book or handout, which will make it easier to spot necessary materials from her locker when she’s hurrying to catch her bus.
Conclusion: Kate playfully diagnosed herself with “TD” – ‘time distortion.’ She realized that time has always eluded her and determined she’s going to create a time dictionary to record how long different tasks take. As Kate raises her self-awareness, she’ll be able to block out realistic chunks of time for tasks, and now that she has an accurate estimate of the time it takes to write her assignments, she’ll make that a new habit.
Step 3: Planning It Out
Sue has two active teens, a husband who travels a lot, 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 and hide essential information. She’s constantly searching for that important note or number. When looking at a typical day in her agenda, I could easily see how her disorganized approach has her frenetically ricocheting from home to appointment and back, stressed and overwhelmed.
After a little research, Sue opted for an online calendar with a dedicated space for notes, a Contacts Folder where she can permanently capture important contact information, and, best of all, a way to have recurring appointments recreate automatically each week so she doesn’t have to remember all her standing activities. I suggested grouping her activities to save time, reduce stress, and enable her to focus so she can actually 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 to be completed 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 key areas of her life, Sue is now able to relax. She has time allotted to think, which she says feels great. Her schedule is tidy and less stressful to look at. Open spaces (and booked slots) are easily spotted when scheduling new appointments. She’s also taking advantage of alarms in her computer calendar to signal when it’s time to transition from one activity to another. To her relief, these systems and routines eliminate Sue’s reliance on her working memory, which she is now free to dedicate elsewhere.
Step 4: Checking It
“A tool is only as good as the skills of the craftsman using it.” For planners, this translates as, “A well-organized planner only serves the person who looks at it.” Here’s how two people manage to actually check their daily agenda.
Noah is an attorney who meticulously records every detail of his life but wakes each morning in a fog, stumbling through his routine without looking at his agenda. Attempts to review his agenda the night before don’t work since, by morning, he forgets what he saw. He has to look at his planner first thing in the morning, so I asked, “Where is the first place you go each morning?” He smiled. That’s it! He decides that he will put his planner on the toilet seat. Now, how can he remember to place it there each night? Noah will use his evening habit of brushing his teeth to anchor placing his planner in its spot onto this existing task. For insurance, he tapes a reminder on a neon index card to the mirror. Voila, it works!
Kevin, a self-described geek, is studying to be an engineer. He loses every piece of paper but his technology is sacred – he is one with his smart phone. Kevin always has his planner with him, synchronized on his phone, desktop, laptop and iPod. 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! Just Google it.” Now every time he opens his phone, Kevin is reminded of his schedule for the day.
Noah and Kevin both find their own answers for remembering. Noah uses the piggy-back method of taking a current habit and simply adding another on top of it. For Kevin, it’s finding a visual he can’t ignore.
In all cases, taking control of your planner (and your life) is all about learning about your needs, understanding how you work best, and being creative. Happy planning!