The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

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Trouble tickets: not just for the IT helpdesk

This post is adapted from an excerpt of my upcoming book, Order from ChaosPreorders will open on Amazon in January. Stay up to date by joining my mailing list!

I’ve written before about writable surfaces in the ADHD home, and about my love for sticky notes, but sometimes it pays to create a more formal, organized system. I first encountered this idea in college, where I worked at our university’s IT helpdesk. We had a standard template we filled out for every computer dropped off at the desk. I loved having a place to collect my thoughts and track my progress. I appreciated having a form in front of me to remind me what information I needed to collect from the user. Most important, I always felt secure in knowing I hadn’t lost track of anything.

Few people love filling out forms. However, I’ve learned to love having them in my life, and their usefulness extends far beyond the IT helpdesk.

Just because it looks like red tape…

When I provided IT support to a small office, my colleagues gave me flak for my red tape. Why fill out a form, they wondered, when they could just stop by for a chat? Well, I wasn’t doing busy work just for fun. I have ADHD, after all. I was trying to make sure I helped people when they needed me.

People often caught me by the coffeemaker to chat about their latest computer woes. This system worked great when I could solve a problem by giving advice while refilling my mug. It fell apart for anything that required follow-up. Our breakroom was well-stocked with coffee, creamer, and a variety of hand-me-down ceramic mugs. It lacked any physical containers for my thoughts. By the time I took the 20 steps back to my office, I’d forgotten all about the computer conversation. Of course, the person asking for help would not forget. He might even complain at a meeting with my boss.

To solve this problem, I created an IT help request form. The form collected the person’s name, a description of the problem, and some indication of the level of urgency for them. People chafed against this all the time, but I insisted: this isn’t bureaucracy for its own sake. I literally will not remember to help you otherwise.

If your job requires you to accept many of the same type of request — e.g. account creation, tech support, website update, etc. — and you don’t already have a template to guide these requests, consider creating one with your favorite word processing program. It might feel stuffy and bureaucratic at first, but give it a chance. When you standardize a request process on paper, you take the pressure off your brain and ensure you have all the information you need, right out of the gate.

Trouble tickets at home

At home, trouble tickets and help requests can be as formal or informal as you like. Amazon has several varieties of pre-printed suggestion cards, or you could simply write “suggestions” on a jar and leave a stack of index cards beside it. If you have a tool/workshop area in your home, you could include such a jar on your workbench and use it only for home maintenance requests.

My husband has set up an electronic trouble ticket system for our house. He writes software for a living, so this is the system he knows. We enter all maintenance issues, home improvement ideas, renovation projects, and the like into this database. We can also indicate whether one projects depends upon, or blocks, another. For example, we couldn’t install our new kitchen shelving until the kitchen renovation had come to a close. We use a piece of software called JIRA for this, but there are several other project management and issue tracking apps on the market, including Trello and Asana.

Feel free to have fun with request forms, especially at home. Allow your family to formally request special outings, favorite meals, or changes to routines that aren’t quite working. Too often, important requests go in one ear and out the other while we’re distracted by something else. Explain to your household that having it written down in a predictable format will help you make these things happen for them. They may even thank you. A template can be very helpful for people who struggle to articulate thoughts in writing.

How about you? What systems have you implemented in your life to make sure you act on others’ requests for support?

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Women, ADHD, and expectations of kin-keeping

Several months ago, I caught part of an NPR interview about kin-keeping. Kin-keeping describes those little things that keep family and friends connected: sending birthday cards, planning vacations, setting up regular Skype dates, purchasing Christmas gifts. It takes time and energy, and it’s a burden usually shouldered by women.

I immediately thought, wow, what about women with ADHD? If this makes the average woman feel overstretched, burned-out, and inadequate, what about me?

Kin-keeping requires exceptional organization, memory, and executive functioning. The emotional cost of failure is high. And yet, I look at my own family and see, yes, I am the one doing this for us. My grandmother sometimes phones to thank me for it, actually. She tells me she doesn’t know how I do it, or where everyone would be without me.

I don’t know, either, but this simple thank you means a lot. It’s not easy. And the fact that it’s not easy? That’s not easy, either.

 

People, not projects?

I’ve folded kin-keeping into my obsessive organizing habit. “Remember my sister’s birthday” can become a project in my GTD system. When I want to check in with a friend going through a tough time, I sometimes put a sticky note on my phone before bed to remind me to text them in the morning. Most days, this makes me look like a good friend.

I don’t feel like a good friend, though. I wish I could remember important events in the lives of people I love — on my own. No matter how much I love you, without my calendar and to-do list, you’d get the impression I never thought of you at all.

Maybe no one cares how I get there, because the end result — someone feeling loved and remembered — matters most. But women still suffer under societal expectations. We’re supposed to look put-together. We’re supposed to send birthday and Christmas cards on time. We’re supposed to let a friend know we’re thinking of her on the anniversary of her brother’s death. And it’s supposed to look natural. The machinery isn’t supposed to show.

In other words, I don’t give myself credit for remembering these things at the right time. My calendar and GTD systems do it for me. When people say “you’re so organized,” I don’t feel it as a compliment. If I’m organized, it’s only because I need to be. Shouldn’t I just remember, without a whole system of sticky notes and project folders and calendar reminders?

I’m sure everyone needs reminders, just like everyone has experienced ADHD-like symptoms at some point in their lives. But to be effective kin-keepers, women with ADHD need more — more than it feels like we should.

To meet the baseline expectations of “good friend” or “reliable family member,” I need to do more. I need to set up more task management systems. I need to rely more heavily on my calendar. My memory is shorter, and my proclivity for distraction and overwhelm stronger. Managing life in general takes more effort for people with ADHD. Managing kin-keeping, and making it look natural and genuine, feels like walking a tightrope while being circled by vultures.

My family needs me

And yet, without me playing the role of kin-keeper, where would my family be? Because I need to stay so much more organized to meet the basic requirements of being an adult, I’ve made myself a perfect fit for this role. Everything gets dumped into my organizational system, from the electric bill to my sister’s 18th birthday. While that may sound cold in its egalitarianism, I never forget the electric bill, do I? My GTD system will poke me every week to make sure I have a plan for my sister’s birthday, just like it reminds me to look for the electric bill in my email. Ironically, because I can forget so much, I end up forgetting relatively little. I maintain a more airtight system than most people I know.

Maybe, then, this effort of remembering isn’t hollow. Maybe I should honor all of it — my bullet journal, my GTD system, my Google Calendar, my sticky notes — for what it is: the glue that holds our family’s social bonds together. So what if it’s not all in my head? It’s better for all of us this way.

I talk a lot about this and more in my organizing book, Order from Chaoswhich is available for preorder on Kickstarter right now. If you appreciate my posts here on The ADHD Homestead, please support this project and help bring it to life.

 

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Order, chaos, ADHD, and why I’m writing a book

I had a great post all ready for you today, but like sometimes happens, a change of plans came to me in the shower.

You see, I was thinking about something a dear friend wrote on Facebook. He shared the Order from Chaos Kickstarter with a personal endorsement that made me smile: “Jaclyn is the woman who, as a seventh grader, organized my binder for me cos I was such a mess it couldn’t zip right. So, she knows of what she speaks.”

Lost and found

I knew right away what he meant. I remember sitting next to each other in Mr. Vandegrift’s social studies class with our Five Star zipper binders. My friend’s binder overflowed with notes, flyers, I don’t even remember what else. Whenever it reached the point where it wouldn’t zip, he’d pass the whole mess to me. I figured out what needed to go, and what belonged in the three-ring binder. I flattened crumpled papers and helped him decipher his own chickenscratch handwriting. From all that chaos, I found order.

I kept this up. Over the years, I learned what calmed me down and soothed my overwhelm. I made lists. I made my bed. On school days, I laid my clothes out the night before, with my deodorant on top so I wouldn’t forget. When life felt like too much, I put it into order. I even organized my larger-than-life emotions, by writing them in a journal, making them visible and concrete.

I lost this in my mid-20s, as I stumbled through my first years as a young professional, homeowner, and wife. I let my life slide into disarray. My office swam in stacks of paper, my desk disappeared under layers of sticky notes. I lost checks from my employer, forgot to pay bills, didn’t clean my house or wash my dishes. I made a mess of a room in my house, and rather than fix it, I spent months pretending it didn’t exist. After I finally cleaned it up, I let the whole cycle happen again. I eventually felt so adrift, so hopeless, I contacted my employer’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) for a crisis intervention.

The long climb out

Order and structure don’t always come easily to people with ADHD. We’re adults; we know we need to stay organized. We know it’s important. We don’t want to pay our bills late, or leave our dining room half-painted for a year and a half, or forget we promised to meet you for coffee yesterday morning.

We get stuck on the “how,” though. And we struggle to connect the everyday tedium of sorting through incoming mail with the distant reward of avoiding late fees on the credit card.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve struggled, but I also discovered the transformative power of putting one’s things in order early in life. Even as a sulky teenager, I knew: I felt better after I cleaned my room. I stopped freaking out if I made a list. Among adults with ADHD, I’m special. I know firsthand how hard it can be to manage the nuts and bolts of adult life. But I’ve also spent my life figuring out how to do it anyway.

Why I’m writing a book

20 years later, my friend keeps his own things in order. I know he hasn’t forgotten those days when his binder would refuse to close, and he’d turn to me for help. Sometimes he’ll text me a picture of a list he’s made to quell his anxiety, and I’ll smile. I understand what he’s feeling.

I want everyone to feel it: not just the smallness of standing at the bottom of a mountain, but the smile deep in your heart when you find yourself at the top. I know I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Maybe it’s my nature: that odd something that drove me to organize my friend’s school binder all those years ago. Maybe it’s my thirst for reading books about ADHD and getting organized. Maybe it’s my connection with so many great people in the ADHD community. Regardless, it’s something I want to share with you beyond the pages of this blog.

That’s why I’m writing this book, and why I’m asking you to take this journey with me.

From now until October 26, you can preorder your copy of Order from Chaos via the Kickstarter campaign. You can support the project by sharing it with your friends. And you can ask me anything you want! Use the comments here, on Facebook, on Kickstarter, wherever, for questions about the project.

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Don’t call me clean, organized, or hard-working.

Sometimes I wonder: what does it mean to be good at something?

When people praise me for being organized, motivated, or a hard worker, I don’t feel complimented. Being told I’m “good at” something doesn’t make me feel accomplished.

hold-the-praise

Perhaps because “good at _______,” “hard worker,” and “organized” all hint at innate aptitude, not actual hard work. I avoid discussing so-called natural “gifts” (including those often attributed to ADHD) because gifts don’t set us apart. The nature and quality of the work we do — personal and professional — is what defines us. ADHD makes it difficult to maintain consistency in this work. Success ought to be recognized for what it is, not cheapened with random labels like “organized” or “creative.”

Telling someone he’s good at something can be a comment on ourselves, too. It’s like admiring a person’s physical appearance: we fail to consider the complex reasons she might be thinner or stronger than we are.

This doesn’t come naturally…I have ADHD.

natural-gifts-labels-adhd-pull-quoteI won’t be so presumptuous as to call my house clean or uncluttered, but others have said this about me. Sometimes, I envy friends with messy homes.  I’m not naturally clean. I don’t love tidying up my whole downstairs every single night. I was born a collector, not a minimalist. Maintaining an alphabetized filing system and emptying my inboxes regularly isn’t easy.  It’s like when people tell me I’m good at yoga. Nope. I’m committed to a surprisingly modest daily practice that’s accessible to just about anyone.

And so it is with everything in my life. All my good habits are “for now.” None are particularly ambitious. I expect to fall off the wagon and get back on over and over, for as long as I’m alive. I set the bar low enough to clear, even it makes my goals embarrassingly small.

I’m not an overachiever…I do what I need to do.

Despite my hard work, I only do what I need to do to stay sane. I don’t keep boxing up and giving away my possessions because it’s fast and easy. I do it because I won’t clean my house if there’s clutter all over. I do it because an uncluttered, lower-stimulation environment gives me an uncluttered mind. I maintain an obsessive system for my calendars and to-do list. I write everything down on sticky notes. This is because my memory is so terrible, it’s embarrassing and a little scary.

Sure, you can tell me, “wow, I’m jealous, you’re so organized.” I’d like to point out, though, it’s like telling a person in a wheelchair, “wow, I’m so jealous, you have great upper body strength.”

Likewise, when you call me a hard worker, sometimes I’m reminded of the flip side: I have to work harder than the average person to get the same results — so I do. I maintain my lifestyle because I enjoy the significant personal benefits it provides. But is this worthy of praise?

We can un-earn praise.

And, because ADHD makes us unreliable at times, there’s another worry: if you think I’m a calm, attentive parent, what happens when you catch me on a bad day? When I’m tired, or my meds are wearing off, or I’m in an environment that’s too overstimulating and my brain shuts down? If you think I’m super organized, what happens when I forget something big and important?

A couple weeks ago, I referred to parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s criticism of vague praise: it’s something you can take away. “Organized,” “put together,” “calm,” and “good listener” feel tenuous to me. I suspect many people with ADHD feel the same. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop — for someone to uncover our ruse.

Instead of marveling at my natural aptitude for cleanliness and order — it’s imaginary, anyway — ask me about my process for keeping my email inbox empty. Ask me about my favorite organizing book or app. Not only will I feel noticed for who I truly am — a person with flawed neurochemistry who’s worked very hard to construct and environment that supports my and my family’s well-being — I’ll talk your ear off about how you can do the same.

Natural gifts are just that. A great many of them end up gathering dust. When we recognize each other, it should be for our willingness to learn, to forgive ourselves, and to keep trying even when progress is slow.

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12 pieces of ADHD gratitude

I don’t believe in that “gifts of ADHD” stuff, but I still try to live a grateful life. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m starting a list of things I’m thankful for — simple things, funny things, and, by that token, maybe the most important things.

Please share yours in the comments. The world needs our positive energy!

I’m thankful for…

  1. A husband who understands I’m trying my best, even if it doesn’t always look that way.
  2. That kind bookstore employee who stood politely while I spaced out for what may have been minutes. I eventually realized I’d never handed her my credit card.
  3. All the minimalist bloggers out there who remind me that simplicity can breed calm — even for me.
  4. Tuesday night community yoga.
  5. Email reminders from the library. I feel like a much better person when I actually return my books.
  6. GTD.
  7. Books that teach me about my brain.
  8. My FitBit. It doesn’t just count my steps, it vibrates twice daily to remind me to take my meds.
  9. A home and lifestyle just a little smaller and simpler than we can afford. It’s like buying ADHD insurance.
  10. Mini Habits, which taught me to set the bar so low, even I can clear it — and I’d better not be too proud to do this.
  11. Sticky notes (much more grown up than writing all over my arms).
  12. A lovely online community of ADHD friends and advocates. You all are the best!

What are you thankful for today?

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Want to remember everything? Write it on the wall.

People with ADHD forget a lot — a lot of things, and very often.

We frustrate ourselves. Even worse, we frustrate, hurt, and disappoint the people we love. ADHD is cruelly egalitarian, in that we forget our spouse’s birthday as easily as our dry cleaning.

Even if we lived in total isolation, we’d still generate the same ideas over and over again, wishing we could remember them at the right time.

My solution: shorten the distance between myself and a good container for my thoughts. I call this “storing my brain outside my head” because my brain is such an unreliable container.

I’ve learned it the hard way, again and again: I need to write everything down. Everything. If I catch myself thinking, “that’s too important, I know I won’t forget it,” it’s a huge red flag.

Not only do I have to write everything down, I have to do this before I forget. It happens in a matter of seconds. As a result, I maintain writable surfaces all over my house: post-its, dry erase boards, chalkboards, you name it. Even the bathroom mirror. If there’s anyone out there who considers me a good friend, spouse, parent, or relative, it’s because I never trust myself to remember anything.

Instead, I remain vigilant for ideas — pen in hand.

Collecting ideas

There are some potty training methods that — bear with me here — require constant vigilance, so you’re ready to airlift your naked naked toddler to the potty just as he empties his bladder onto the floor. I picture my brain as this naked toddler. The moment it thinks of something — anything — I need to whisk it to a writable surface.

I should mention I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done system religiously to process all my notes. Allen insists that you need to be able to trust your system — or else you’ll get discouraged. “One of the main factors in people’s resistance to collecting stuff into ‘in,'” Allen writes, “is the lack of a good processing and organizing methodology to handle it.”

When I’m running a tight ship with my GTD system, I’m much more enthusiastic about writing down my thoughts. If you haven’t read Getting Things DoneI highly recommend it.

Our home’s writable surfaces

Bathroom mirror

DSC_3367-001There’s a reason you have so many ideas in the shower. You’re relaxed, relatively free of distractions, and experiencing a nice dopamine rush from the hot water. Your brain is primed for idea generation.

I keep dry erase markers near the bathroom mirror so I can write a quick note before I’ve even dried off. The mirror is also a great place to leave a loving note or drawing for your spouse. When I worked in IT, my mirror notes reminded me to do early-morning server maintenance from home. Visitors occasionally spot our markers and join the fun, too.

Pantry door chalkboard

Our home is on the small side, making a big, common-area dry erase board impractical. Instead, I created a cute and functional chalkboard on our pantry door. It’s not as easy as tossing a few dry erase markers in the bathroom, but it’s a project pretty much anyone can do. I sanded the finished wood lightly, added a couple coats of primer, then applied this Rust-Oleum chalkboard paint. My son has taken over the bottom panel, and we use the larger top panel for grocery lists, reminders, fledgling Spotify playlists, and anything in between.

DSC_3431

 Small dry erase board

I purchased a small dry erase board for my dorm room door when I left for college. Somehow, I managed to keep it for over a decade and through several moves. This former clutter object now hangs on the side of the fridge and collects phone messages.

Post-its, post-its, and more post-its

I keep a pad of post-it notes in almost every room: on my nightstand, on my desk, in the basement, next to the coffee maker, in the car. I order sticky notes in bulk packages meant for large offices. Walking more than 10 steps to the nearest sticky note feels like too much.

Isn’t there an app for that?

I didn’t include any electronic note-taking tools here. There are some great ones available — Evernote, Toodledo, Google Keep, and PlainText, for example — but I find computers and smart phones too distracting. When I unlock my phone screen, I rarely make it to my note-taking app. Several minutes later, I realize I’m checking my Instagram feed and have no idea why I grabbed my phone in the first place. A simple pen and paper works best.

How do you capture ideas, especially when you’re in a place where you can’t easily write something down?

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You are your problem coworker

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If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ve encountered some difficult personalities. Even in the loveliest work environments, someone makes life difficult from time to time.

In your relationship with yourself, you are that problem coworker.

Practice being fair to yourself

Let’s face it, you do find yourself difficult to work with, don’t you?

The trouble is, we tend to hold ourselves to a different standard than our troublesome officemate. We beat ourselves up over mistakes, we scrutinize awkward conversations long after others have forgotten them, and we constantly remind ourselves of how we should be different — and better.

If you thought and felt this way about everyone around you who wasn’t perfect, you’d drive yourself crazy. And, though we’ve all wasted energy stewing over a tense working relationship at some point, most of the time we say “that’s just how he/she is.” Our approach to professional interactions can provide some important wisdom.

Accept, strategize, and move on

Despite my relatively poor social skills, I often felt I had an easier time working with my office’s difficult personalities. When it’s your job to collect important human resources documents or present a new health care plan, impasse isn’t an option. The work simply must get done correctly and on time.

How did I do it? By accepting people as they were and creating strategies to give them what they needed from our interactions. If someone managed email exceptionally poorly, sending email reminders would lead to strife and missed deadlines. If a colleague couldn’t stand being interrupted, I wouldn’t get anywhere by approaching her at her desk to discuss her incomplete timesheets — even if that was the method preferred by the office culture.

I learned how people operated, how they saw things, and what their priorities were, and I worked from there. The people weren’t going to change, no matter how much I berated them or set them up for negative consequences. The best thing to do was create a strategy for working with them.

Then, I moved on. I didn’t waste my time or energy complaining — aloud or to others — about how problem coworkers could stand to improve. If I stumbled in my dealings with them, I refined my strategy and kept going.

Developing a long-term working relationship

Would our lives be different if we remembered more, got distracted less, exercised better judgement, managed our calendars more effectively? Sure. Are we likely to start making these dramatic improvements tomorrow? Certainly not.

When things go wrong, don’t assume it’s because you just need to “get yourself together” or “learn how to manage that type of situation better.” That rarely leads to anything but negative self-talk, and it deprives you of the opportunity to figure out how to do better next time.

Instead of beating yourself up for not being perfect, figure out what went wrong. Learn what situations trigger your temper and irrational behavior. Learn whether you communicate best via email, text message, phone, or face-to-face conversations. Learn when you’re most likely to overindulge in sweets. When you know what steers you toward trouble, you can figure out how to keep yourself from getting there.

For my coworkers, sometimes it was as simple as catching someone by the coffee maker and talking through what felt to them like an impersonal, tedious process. For myself, sometimes it’s as simple as putting a pad of sticky notes in my glove box so I quit forgetting important things between the car and the front door.

Whatever you do, don’t write yourself off. You still have to work with yourself tomorrow. You’d be smart to make the best of it.

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7 ADHD-friendly purchases we actually use

We’re two ADHD adults with an Amazon Prime subscription. I don’t have to tell you how challenging it can be to reign in impulse purchases.

That said, among the duds we’ve made some indispensable ADHD-friendly purchases over the years.

Every individual and every household has different needs, so your list may look different. I’d love to hear your success stories in the comments!

P-Touch labeler

David Allen recommends automatic labelmakers for more successful filingI balked at this when my husband first bought it. A fancy label maker felt extravagant when we already owned perfectly functional pens and pencils. However, I’m now sold on the benefits — espoused by organizing guru David Allen — of printing labels for file folders as opposed to hand-writing. The labeler makes this quick and easy, which makes us more likely to file documents in a timely manner.

Not only that, I’ve started labeling every storage container in our home. Remember, your ADHD spouse may not intuit where something goes, even if it seems obvious. You may not even remember your system a month later. Creating a clear system encourages everyone to put things away in their proper homes.

Pill case

I’m paranoid about forgetting my meds. I’m also paranoid about forgetting I’ve taken them, then accidentally double-dosing. We have seven-day pill cases (different colors for each of us!) that hold our meds and vitamins. I’m diligent about taking pills only from the case. This makes it very clear whether or not I’ve taken my stimulant meds for the day. It also helps me track how often I’m remembering to take my vitamins.

Electric razor

My husband has used an electric razor for years, but I only recently discovered the ladies’ models. I take short, irregular showers, especially in the winter when my skin is dry. Shaving in the shower was not working  at all because I needed to remember to leave time for a longer shower. The wet/dry electric razor allows me to take care of this pesky task whenever (and wherever) I think of it and have a few minutes.

Spray bottles

I keep spray bottles of homemade multi-purpose cleaner spray bottles(a 2:1 water:vinegar solution with a little squirt of dish soap) hidden all over the house, most notably under the bathroom sink. Like the electric razor, this allows me to clean whenever I notice something and have a minute. It’s cheap, easy, and convenient — all good news for ADHD homemakers.

Post-it notes

I use a lot of post-it notes. I keep them in almost every room of the house, in my glove compartment, and in my purse. People have asked me why I’m obsessed with post-its when I have a smartphone with multiple list-making and task management apps.

It’s simple: sticky notes let me write things down distraction-free. The moment I unlock my phone, a whole pile of shiny apps scatter my focus. Almost invariably, I forget what I wanted to write down in a matter of seconds. Post-its save my sanity. I toss them in my inbox and record them on my to-do list later.

Time Timer

time timer

This timer provides a visual representation of time that many ADHD’ers find immensely helpful. I use it almost daily to curtail my social media use. The disappearing red segment forces me to ask myself, “is this how I want to be spending this time?”

Christmas is right around the corner. This is a great gift for all your loved ones with ADHD, and there’s an app for Android and iOS if you don’t want to invest in the physical timer.

Document scanner

I rolled my eyes when my husband ordered this one because we already own a nice flatbed scanner. However, I now use the document scanner almost daily. It’s fast, easy, and has allowed me to eliminate so much paper filing from our lives. Do you have a big stack of papers “to file” somewhere in your home or office? Thought so. Make sure you have a backup service like Dropbox or Crashplan set up, then give one of these a whirl.

A document scanner is a fast, easy way to reduce paper clutter

 

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5 tips for meal planning success

DSC_3677Maybe this has happened to you: you’re getting hungry, it’s almost dinner time, and you wonder what you should eat.

It’s the worst.

Afternoons aren’t my best time. My meds are wearing off, I’ve been on the go all day, and my energy and blood sugar are dropping. Before I started meal planning, we ate a lot of packaged food and takeout.

Until I decided I wouldn’t settle for frustration and a substandard diet at the end of every day.

Now I sit down every Sunday and plan our menu for the week. It can be a chore, but it liberates me from thinking about our dinners at all during the Monday-Friday circus.

If you aren’t meal planning, jump in and give it a try. It minimizes trips to the grocery store, reduces food waste, and — most important — saves our sanity.

Here are a few strategies that have helped us over the years. We’ve never subscribed to a meal planning service like Fresh20, but it may be worth a try if you’re having trouble getting started.

1.      Look at your calendar.

What nights will you be rushing in the door late (and hungry)? Do you have a stressful day coming up when you know you won’t feel like cooking? What about after-dinner activities that leave no time for cleanup?

Give yourself some slack on these nights. Plan leftovers, a meal from your freezer stash, or something you can prep the day before.

2.      Family dinner isn’t working? Make it breakfast instead.

We’ve all been hearing the “families need to eat dinner together” mantra since childhood. Well, that doesn’t work for our family. We’re on toddler time, which means dinner needs to happen before 5:45, and my husband is a chronic hyperfocuser.

Rather than banking on him getting home for dinner, I made breakfast our family meal. We’re sitting together around the table by 7:15 a.m., seven days a week. At night, R. and I eat at our usual time and I keep a plate warm in the toaster oven for my husband.

Family dinner is a nice goal, but if it’s not working, forcing it may not be the answer. As long as you’re sitting down together for one meal almost every day, you’re doing great.

3.      Use free time wherever you have it.

IMG_4713A friend of mine uses his Sunday afternoons to prep an entire week of family dinners: he precooks pasta, grills chicken, chops veggies, and packages everything up so he just has to heat and serve on weeknights.

If you’re dragging by the end of the day, are short on time in the evenings, have impatient children, or all of the above, you may want to find a low-pressure time to do your prep work in bulk.

If you have young children, consider cooking during nap time. I learned this technique from Debbie Koenig’s fabulous cookbook Parents Need to Eat Too, which I now buy for every expectant mother I know.

4.      Buy a slow cooker

Slow cookers allow you to prepare dinner ahead of time — before work or during nap time — so you have little (if anything) to do in the chaotic moments before dinner. I rely on our slow cooker for at least one meal a week. Large batches of curries, stews, and sauces usually freeze well in containers for easy meals in the future.

Not sure where to start with your slow cooker? Koenig’s book has a nice slow cooker section, and I’m in love with Anupy Singla’s The Indian Slow Cooker. I’m also happy to share my slow cooking Pinterest board.

5.      Keep track of what works.

Confession: even if I loved it, I usually won’t remember anything I ate the previous week when I sit down to make my meal plan. Find a way to keep track of successes so you can repeat them: keep a running list of favorite meals in Google Keep, take a photo of your shopping list or meal plan each week, or mark pages of your cookbooks with sticky notes.

Have you tried meal planning before? Were you able to stick with it? Please share your story!

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