The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Category: Planning & Goal-Setting

Applying the ADHD brakes during a huge project

Life at the ADHD Homestead is about to get crazy: we’re renovating our kitchen.

This is our biggest, baddest project since we did in vitro fertilization almost five years ago. Like IVF, the payoffs will be fantastic — we got a kid last time, and this time we’ll get a kitchen larger than a closet — but getting there might be rough.

A major renovation, like purchasing an expensive science baby, requires us to keep a lot of balls in the air. We need to pay attention to multiple angles at once, meet a bunch of deadlines (big and small), and play a massive game of Don’t Mess It Up.

To pull it off, I have to allow some moderate hyperfocus and forget most of my regular projects.

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An uneasy truce with hyperfocus.

I complain about hyperfocus a lot, both because I find it annoying and because my ADHD falls at the other end of the spectrum. However, now’s the time to channel my inner hyperfocuser and say no to everything else.

My ADHD makes it hard to prioritize. When it’s not driving someone crazy, this can be an asset. My many responsibilities to our home and family require comfort with a lot of irons in the fire. I’m the point person for planning an annual reunion of our college friends, I care for our lawn and garden, and I help my dad’s side of the family maintain a house at the beach. I pay our bills and clean our house and RSVP for our social events.

Now, it’s time to shut all that out. It’s going to be hard. The other night, I sat down and told myself, “there are two important things: finishing my novel by August, and renovating this kitchen.” That’s it. There will be no planning of friend reunions, no playgroup outings to the zoo, no impromptu dinner parties. No reconfiguration of our retirement accounts, weekends at the beach, or sewing myself a new dress. No progress on other projects. Just fiction and a kitchen, that’s all.

Saying goodbye to all the things.

Less than two hours after making this decision, it already felt uncomfortable. Every time I notice something that can be done, I want to do it. I want to make sure we’re not overpaying on our car insurance. I want to plan a writing retreat,  research stand up paddleboards, and have lunch with a friend. I want to do all the things.

Of course, if I do all the things, I’ll enter June feeling despondent about my lack of progress on my novel manuscript.

“It’s okay,” friends will tell me. “You were renovating your kitchen!”

Well, sure. A huge project always feels like a fair excuse for stalling on other things. But it’s not a fair excuse for failing to prioritize.

It doesn’t come naturally, but I’m going to try. I just have to remember: Writing and kitchen, writing and kitchen, writing and kitchen.

And when a new project or task crosses my path, I need to force my first reaction to be, “no.”

Has a big project ever redefined your priorities? How did you deal?

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Personal organizing case study: Bullet Journal

Organizing my daily life: it feels like both the starting point and the impossible dream with adult ADHD. It’s also a basic expectation of adulthood.

Most ADHD’ers know we need an organizational system, but feel like nothing works. We struggle to find answers to the all-important question, “but how?”

A naturally organized person with a manageable schedule might answer, “you just do it.” Adults with ADHD rarely “just do” anything.

Today, I’ll share a simple, low-tech, flexible way to stay organized. It’s called Bullet Journal. First I’ll provide a look inside my notebook, then I’d love to answer questions in the comments. Personal organizing has been a pet project of mine for many years. If you want to talk about the nitty gritty, I’m your girl.

bullet journal ADHD

What is Bullet Journal?

Bullet Journal isn’t an app or a product. It’s an idea, best explained in this short, engaging little video:


I use apps to stay organized, but I appreciate a tactile element. Screens can feel too abstract. I’ve carried a notebook everywhere since the seventh grade. I’ve dallied with day planners, but fallen away from them since the advent of smart phones. Nowadays, I use my notebook for everything: Grocery lists. jotting down ideas, drafts, or outlines for writing projects. Taking notes at meetings. On-the-fly to-do lists. Goal-setting exercises. Everything imaginable.

Bullet Journal helps me organize those elements and keep me from losing track of what I write down. Because I have ADHD and a very poor memory, I write nearly everything down.

Adults with ADHD are individuals — Bullet Journal is flexible.

I love Bullet Journaling’s infinite flexibility. I chose the size, feel, and contents of my notebook to make it something that works for me. This is especially important for adults with ADHD. If a system or tool isn’t easy, comfortable, and even fun to use, it won’t last long.

I keep my Bullet Journal in Moleskine’s extra-large ruled notebook. In the spirit of Marie Kondo’s KonMari methodI use postcards — mostly collected from art shows — to make the notebooks special and joyful to use.

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I always add an entry to the index or add a page number to an existing entry before adding the content. Otherwise, I can get distracted and forget to update the index.

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Bullet Journal’s flexibility extends inside the notebook, too, allowing me to integrate new concepts while ditching what doesn’t work. For example, I never look at my Future Log. I’d love to examine my six-month view more often, but I’ve come to accept — with compassion and objectivity, of course — that it’s not going to happen with this life and this brain. My next Bullet Journal won’t have a Future Log. Instead, I may beef up the Monthly Log, which I include in my weekly review.

I also added pages to the front of my Bullet Journal to remind me of my many responsibilities and spheres of influence. Stephen Covey calls these “roles and goals” in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In Getting Things DoneDavid Allen refers to them as “areas of focus and accountabilities.” Either way, I maintain a space in my notebook to reflect on my roles in the world and my goals for each. I skim over these pages at my weekly review.

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Using my Daily Log with Google Calendar

I use Google Calendar to track all events, meetings, and time-sensitive tasks. I copy entries from my Google Calendar to the Daily Log as part of my weekly review. I never add directly to the Daily Log, always Google Calendar. It’s critical for me to respect my primary resource/repository for a specific kind of information.

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You might be wondering why I recopy rather than print my calendar and paste it into the notebook (or look at the widget on my phone’s home screen). The tactile experience of writing helps me encode/process information. I also never take notes on a laptop or tablet, only with pen and paper, because I remember conversations more clearly that way.

Taking time to write down my schedule, deadlines, and obligations for the week helps me think it through. I wouldn’t get this from skimming my Google Calendar.

Notice the lack of to-do items under each day? My to-do list is long, and nowhere near my Daily Log. I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, which discourages “daily to-do lists.” I only tie a task to a day if it really must happen then: in other words, it becomes irrelevant or incurs a late fee.

Let’s chat in the comments.

When I say I use my notebook for everything, I mean everything, from grocery lists to a race bib from a recent 5k run. The Daily Log and Monthly Log pages keep everything in a rough chronological order, and the index lets me return and add to previous entries.

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Have you tried something like this before? How did it go? Are you hesitant to try it because you think it won’t work? Please share your questions and experiences in the comments. I’d love to chat!

When ADHD makes it hard to keep trying…try smaller

Sometimes it’s hard to keep trying.

January should be all about resolutions and new beginnings, but it doesn’t always sparkle for ADHD’ers. Something I read on Penny Williams’ Keeping It Real Parenting ADHD & Autism hit the nail on the head: Penny lamented “experiencing the same crap, year after year.”

try smaller.

New Years resolutions, support systems, a new way of organizing our lives — all can remind us of failure, past or still to come.

Some ADHD’ers dread sitting down to talk about goal-setting. Some of us get all jazzed about a new to-do list app, but hesitate to use it.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep trying.

Many adults with ADHD are dealing with years of accumulated failures. Even if a new idea seems great, we may say, why bother?

Obviously, this is no way to live. How do we keep going, keep trying, keep believing in our own capacity to succeed? We can start by rethinking our idea of progress.

Scale back

2015 was one of my most successful years yet. I solved more problems than I created around the house, moved forward on a major redecorating project, got rid of a ton of clutter, facilitated a monthly fiction critique group, and maintained a regular blogging schedule (among other things).

I did it all by lowering my expectations.

ADHD brains think big. When we bother to set goals, we want them to be ambitious, exciting, sparkly.

At the same time, we struggle to estimate how long tasks will take, and we often forget steps when we’re thinking through a process. Our brains don’t connect past outcomes with future ones. Wasn’t it Einstein who described insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? That’s us.

If we set the bar too high, we’re destined to fail. When I read Stephen Guise‘s Mini Habits last year, I adopted his too-small-to-fail philosophy. I started setting embarrassingly low goals. I wouldn’t commit to working on my novel every day, I’d just open the file. I wouldn’t do a full yoga practice every day, I’d just get into downward facing dog. I didn’t need to prep the whole dining room for painting, I just needed to touch my sandpaper to one spot of spackle.

And things started getting done like magic. Once I got a taste of success, I gained confidence, and I started retraining my overambitious brain.

Accept small progress

When I set the bar lower, I took on a whole new challenge: I had to become okay with the mundane. People with ADHD don’t like this. We like to bite off more than we can chew (when we bite off anything at all). As I get older, the binge-then-neglect style of working on home improvement projects — or any projects, really — isn’t working. I’m convinced our 30s exist to teach us the art of juggling more responsibilities with less energy and idealism.

I not only had to [force myself to] set lower goals, I had to make peace with this new idea of success. Yes, I can open my manuscript, close it, and feel okay. Yes, I can run only one mile and feel okay. I can paint a room over the course of four days instead of in one day.

A thousand small steps will get us to the finish line. One or two giant steps, followed by burnout and complete inactivity, will not.

Quantify

My ADHD gives me a poor sense of time and an even worse memory. If I feel like I got nothing accomplished at the end of the week, it says more about my mood at that moment than my actual productivity.

I’ve started keeping track of small victories: writing a list in my notebook, or even on a sticky note. I want to remember, moments of low confidence, that I checked off an overdue task today, put my kid to bed on time, or invited a writer friend to attend a conference with me.

My husband, a software engineer, set up a ticket tracking server for our house. It sounds weird and nerdy, and maybe it is, but I love logging in and seeing a visual reminder that I’ve resolved more problems than the house has thrown at me. When my husband gets discouraged about the number of things still left to do, I point to it and remind him that we’re making progress.

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You could accomplish the same thing with a piece of loose leaf on the fridge or, if you’re feeling fancy, a spreadsheet.

The point is, in addition to scaling back expectations, it’s important to keep track of your progress — however small. It’s so easy to lose touch and, in a moment of weakness, assume you haven’t accomplished anything.

Once you free yourself from your expectations to dream big, you may find yourself recording a flood of tiny achievements.

Stop waiting for a good time to fix it

I’ve been looking forward to preschool.

First and foremost, I feel compelled to point out, because R. will love it. He’s smart and extroverted and he recently asked me to read Maisy Goes to Preschool four times in a row.

I’ve also been counting the days for my own sake. I feel totally scattered, behind on everything, and exhausted by the needs of an ADHD household. Surviving until preschool became my primary goal.

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I put all my eggs in that basket: soon, I’d gain four hours per week in a cafe with my laptop. Alone.

Of course, ADHD never gives me a good basket to put my eggs in. The bottom fell out last week, when I received a welcome letter from R.’s preschool listing his first day a full two and a half weeks later than I’d anticipated.

This wasn’t my first time at the “I just have to keep my head above water until _________” rodeo. Still, my reaction wasn’t great.

It stings, when you’ve switched into a time-bound survival mode, to watch the rescue boat disappear back over the horizon.

This experience reminded me why survival mode is a bad idea.

My approach: if you’re struggling and something isn’t working for you, change it.

Now.

If you don't like your fate AIDA

Sure, extenuating circumstances happen. But more often than not, we ADHD’ers create a perpetual state of extenuating circumstances. We erect barriers to productivity like it’s our job. The challenge is to figure out what we can do right now.

If you’ve been wallowing in a pit of chaos and discouragement, ask yourself: how can I make my current situation work for me? What small thing can I do right now? How can I take matters into my own hands instead of waiting for external factors to change?

In other words, if you don’t like your life, change it. Even if you can only manage tiny, tiny stepsDon’t wait for change to come to you, and don’t leave your own happiness and productivity in the hands of fate.

Prevent your next unfinished home improvement project

Whether it’s large or small — new living room furniture or an addition on your house — nothing beats the rush of a new project taking shape in your head.

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but before you jump in, stop and take an inventory of the unfinished projects already surrounding you. Then read on for some tips to make sure your new project doesn’t end up among them.

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Sketch out a road map

Sometimes, the first, best reality check is to sketch your new idea into your existing plans — or create those plans if you don’t have them already.

Our family recently created a set of home improvement road maps. We decided on priority projects and set deadlines for accomplishing specific benchmarks. For example, we’re repainting our dining room, and we set goals for getting rid of old furniture, spackling holes, and picking a color.

A big, overall road map provides hierarchy for our projects: paint the dining room before the living room, replace the basement door before considering a kitchen remodel.

When the excitement of a new project catches you in its grip, sit down and write a road map. Write out all the steps: planning, prep work, execution, and cleanup. Will you need to hire a contractor? What will you need to do before you break ground, literally or figuratively?

Sketch out a rough timeline. Fit it in projects already in your queue and consider other obligations in the months ahead. Will you be traveling? Busy at work? Hosting a holiday dinner? Volunteering at your kids’ school? If this project stresses you out in light of those pre-existing commitments, don’t do it.

If making a concrete plan or road map sounds intimidating, check out David Allen’s Getting Things DoneStephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Peopleor even Vicki Hoefle’s Duct Tape Parentingwhich inspired our family’s road maps.

Consider how it fits in

Our road maps inspired me to abandon a longed-for bathroom rehab project. When we listed our home improvement goals and values, I finally considered the why: what value would a new bathroom add to our family life? How did that stack up against other projects on the list?

Despite previously swearing I wouldn’t remodel our kitchen, which is the size of a small walk-in closet, I ended up choosing it over the bathroom. The kitchen is the heart of family life. I can picture our son doing homework at a breakfast bar while I make dinner, giving us time to talk or to pass the time in amiable silence. A bathroom is, well, just a bathroom.

Left to my own devices, I would’ve started tearing apart the bathroom because it’s more fun. Given a chance to reflect on my values, I instead chose to create a special place for loved ones to gather.

Use road maps to think your project through. Make sure it’ll add significant value to your life, and make sure you can quantify that value. If your best defense is “because it would be nice to have” or “because I really want to” or “because I can’t stand my moldy pink bathroom,” hold off.

Wait a week

As you form a mental picture of the sweet reward — a new bathroom, a deck in the backyard, a playroom in the basement — the excitement will snowball until you feel compelled to begin right now.

Slow down. You’re high on life, and that’s no way to start a major project.

Write down all your ideas, create a Pinterest board, and let it go for at least a week. Hard as it may be to believe, this project isn’t an emergency. Nothing bad is going to happen if you wait until next week — or even next month — to start finishing your basement. Let the initial high fade, then assess whether or not you feel like putting in the (likely tedious) work required.

A waiting period also gives you time to talk the project over with your spouse. Don’t forget this step! Bonus points for doing it in a calm, controlled manner. Don’t push him for immediate answers or make it sound like an emergency. Give her time to get used to the idea and present any concerns.

How about you? Do you or your spouse struggle to look before you leap into projects around the house? How do you convince yourself to slow down?

3 ways to make good habits stick

Habits: you have plenty of bad ones. How many good habits have you sustained over the years?

For ADHD adults, the answer is often none — or at least very few.

I find this aspect of ADHD particularly demoralizing. Even fun habits that make me feel great — playing a musical instrument, practicing yoga, reading fiction for pleasure — eventually fall victim to entropy. I want to continue my daily habits, but I don’t.

Are you feeling similarly discouraged? Here are three tips that work wonders for our family:

Break it down…way down.

I know, I know — people harp on this all the time: just break it down into managable pieces! Everything will be easy! But what does that really mean for ADHD adults struggling to organize our time, behavior, and thoughts?

We need to break new habits down until they feel insulting.

I want to work on my manuscript every day. How am I doing it? By opening the document. That’s it. No page or word count goals, just open the document.

It feels obvious, but it’s not. We want goal-setting to feel exciting. Our stimulation-hungry brains crave the rush of saying “I’m going write 1,000 words per day, five days per week.” We want to stand at the base of the mountain, gaze up at the top, and say, “I’m going to climb that today.”

While this works well for hiking, it doesn’t work at all for life goals. Blogger and bestselling author Stephen Guise claims aiming high actually decreases your motivation and focus. “If you slip up and fall behind,” Guise says, “the pressure of catching up and meeting the goal is going to crush you. When a goal seems out of reach, it’s only natural to give up completely.”

Imagine your most unfocused, frantic, tired, and/or demotivated day. Now imagine you’ve forgotten your daily habit until you’ve already climbed into bed. Can you hop out of bed and do it quickly so you still have a confidence-boosting success? If not, you need to go smaller. (In the case of my manuscript, I can open the document from my Dropbox smart phone app.)

If you’re truly interested in lasting change, I recommend checking out Guise’s essays Take the One Push-Up Challenge and How to Change Your Life Permanently With Small Steps.

Stop short of the summit…for now.

I call this the “one more thing” cycle: when you keep striving for just one more thing before you move on. In ADHD terms, we call it ‘hyperfocus.’ Hyperfocus exhausts our cognitive resources and steals our focus from other things.

Blogger Leo Babuta of ZenHabits recommends that we always leave ourselves wanting more.

“When you’re on the computer, shut it down before you’re done with everything,” Babuta recommends. “You’ll never be done with everything, and shutting down early means you’ve reserved some of your mental energy for other pursuits offline. You’ll be raring to go tomorrow. You won’t be as spent.”

This is easier said than done for most ADHD’ers. Ask someone to help you shift your focus at a predetermined time, set a timer for your work, or set a goal with a defined end…and stick to it.

Get comfortable with imperfection.

Remember Monday’s post about moving forward little by little, even if you don’t have a perfect solution? Don’t let fear of failure trip you up.

ZenHabits’ Leo Babuta recommends embacing the “fail faster” mantra so beloved by the software development community: “you’ll only gather the real-world information you need to make the habit stick (exercise, diet, meditation, reading, creating, non-procrastinating, yoga, etc.) by actually doing the habit.”

Try your habit. Make mistakes. Fail. But don’t beat yourself up. Try to figure out what went wrong and work around those obstacles in the next iteration.

Perhaps that’s the most important habit-building advice of all: don’t let another failure convince you that you’re a failure. Set tiny goals to build your confidence. When you fall down, get back up again and keep walking. Dedicate yourself to modeling resilience and persistance, not perfection.

In short: never stop learning from mistakes, and never be afraid to start over.

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