The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Category: Task Management (page 1 of 3)

Does having ADHD mean I can’t succeed?

People often ask me about getting organized with ADHD. I like chatting about organizing at home, too. Recently, my husband said something interesting.

He told me, “But these [strategies] don’t work for me — that’s what ADHD is.”

But is it?

There are scores of apps and organizational systems out there. Does having ADHD mean we’re doomed to fail with all of them?

I’m doomed, but not hopeless

My answer: yes and no. Yes, we’re doomed to fail. No, ADHD doesn’t consign us to a hopeless and chaotic existence. Everyone fails sometimes, perhaps people with ADHD more than the average. Whether that makes us feel “doomed” is a matter of resilience, as long as our symptoms are under control.

For all my praise of David Allen’s Getting Things Done — my ultimate organizing go-to — I’ve failed with GTD many times. But that’s the key: many times. I’ve had to train myself to start over, and over, and over. In order to succeed, I’ve had to make peace with failure.

Of course, sometimes I do feel like having ADHD means I can’t succeed, or I’ll never be as successful as someone without ADHD. I think anyone with any disability feels this way sometimes. It can feel like I work twice as hard because I need to keep my ADHD under control. That’s it’s own project, and it only gets me to the starting line.

Symptom management: always the first step

However, there are ways to make life with ADHD easier.

First and foremost is symptom management. As I’ve said before, I know GTD works for me. It feels right. My project/task management app, Toodledo, feels right. Neither feel easy, but they feel right. And when both became impossible — that is, I truly felt doomed to fail, and became increasingly ineffective — I knew something else was broken.

As it turned out, the medication that worked well for me before I had a kid was no longer effective (this isn’t uncommon — changing estrogen levels can have massive impacts on women’s ADHD symptoms). I went through a brief trial and error process to find a new medication that worked for me. Maintaining my organizational systems became possible again.

I think of this like eyeglasses for my brain. For most of my life, I lived with severe nearsightedness — the “I need my glasses to find my glasses” variety. While I still had limitations with my glasses, I could see well enough to function in the regular world. ADHD meds don’t magically turn me into a “normal” person, but they approximate it well enough, just like strong eyeglasses.

Even if a system like GTD or Bullet Journal or an app like Toodledo is perfect for me, I can’t maintain it with out-of-control ADHD symptoms. In this way, my husband was right: effective symptom management is the first step to implementing an organizational system. Skipping it is like trying to read a tiny-print textbook without glasses.

The right tools for my brain (and no one else’s)

As highly as I value symptom management, I don’t believe meds make me a superstar at every organizational system. I still need to work with my brain, and I can’t impose my favorite tools on the rest of my household. While having ADHD doesn’t stop me from using a system like GTD or Bullet Journal, I’ve had to learn what works for me and what doesn’t. Even if a friend swears by a specific app, cleaning schedule, visual filing system, etc. — I have to know that if it doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to use it well.

And that may be the most critical point: many people can get by with a half-system. Many people can force themselves to get organized with a system they don’t love, or that doesn’t mesh with their thinking style. People with ADHD cannot.

We’ve had to think about this a lot in our home. I bristle at clutter and gravitate toward closed storage. My husband, a visual thinker, dislikes putting anything away if that means he can’t see it. To contain the amoebas of junk that push me over the edge, we use a lot of baskets.

Likewise, you might think Gmail’s Priority inbox, starred messages, auto sorting features, or new Inbox app would help people with ADHD. Maybe they do, but they don’t help me. They make me freak out because they don’t mesh with the way I need to manage my email. Rather than listen to the rest of the world tell me how great they are, I’ve disabled all of it, and I plan to keep it that way.

When you find what works, don’t let it go

That’s how I have to be if I want to succeed as an adult with ADHD. I have to defend and stick to what works. Having ADHD means my field of of stuff that will work is pretty narrow. It means what works for some people might not work for me, and what works for me might seem silly or weird to others.

My system isn’t perfect, and sometimes it fails despite my best efforts. But having ADHD doesn’t mean I have to label myself a failure. It just requires me to be ever-vigilant, making sure I’m using the right tools to control both my symptoms and my inboxes.

How about you? Have you found a system that works for you yet? How do you manage ADHD burnout, and the fear that you’ll never get it right?

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USPS strikes again, & why I over-prepare

Recently, someone asked why I wanted a passport for my three-year-old. My husband asked the question, too. We have no immediate plans to travel abroad. Why would I add to my already-full to-do list?

Here’s why: our household’s adults have ADHD. Bureaucratic processes take longer than I’d like to admit. Minor setbacks have a disproportionate effect on us. Sometimes, we answer the call to adventure with an impulsive, “yes!” Other times, we have time to plan in advance, but we don’t.

This isn’t my first time to the passport rodeo. I’ve been burned before. I’ve learned that adults with ADHD should err on the side of preparedness in these situations, not wait until we’re under the gun.

The passport that almost kept me home

My grade-school best friend spent a college semester in Ireland. Of course I went to visit him. After all, I had an opportunity to travel abroad for nothing but the cost of airfare.

Did I plan ahead on this, knowing he’d be studying abroad? Nope.

I had plenty of time to renew my expired passport, but I didn’t do it. I had misgivings about being able to afford my plane ticket. My ADHD brain settled into a rut and failed to consider possible solutions to this problem — like borrowing frequent flyer miles from a family member who flew a lot for work.

By the time my family learned of my plight and offered me the miles, I was in a bind. I barely had enough time to renew my passport with expedited processing. It was expensive and stressful. Even after paying extra, I bit my nails while I waited. I expected to receive it only days before my departure. Any hitch in the process could’ve cancelled my entire trip.

From that day on, I vowed never to let a passport expire again, even if I didn’t think I’d need it for a while. Impulsive, last-minute adventures have always been kind of my thing. This didn’t need to be one of those times, but it ended up being so because I didn’t plan ahead.

Government paperwork & ADHD

Fast-forward to 2016, when I renewed my husband’s and my passports. While I was at it, I applied for one for our son. First-time passports for minors require parents to fill out the application, take a picture of the kid, and show up together at the Post Office to take an oath. Easy, right?

Not if you have ADHD. Then, every step of the process feels like a roadblock: printing out the forms. Sitting down and filling them out correctly. Remembering to take a photo. Remembering to pick the photo up from Target. Picking up the phone to make the appointment at the Post Office. Finally, getting our entire family to the Post Office, together, at the correct time, during a work day.

It took us at least six months to execute all these steps.

A snag, but not a disaster

Once we successfully presented ourselves at the Post Office, guess what? The woman at the desk told me we a.) weren’t on the schedule, b.) had never been on the schedule, and c.) had called the incorrect number to make our appointment.

Only a.) ended up being correct, but can you imagine? Six months of fighting my ADHD, and someone tries to send me out the door at the last moment? I had a fresh dose of Concerta in my system, but I still fought mightily not to make a huge scene. I didn’t want to be rude to the woman, but I felt like she was trying to ruin my life.

It turned out someone else had called to cancel their appointment and ended up cancelling ours by accident. Who could’ve guessed? We ended up completing our application after all, and I didn’t have to apologize for too much bad behavior.

Low stakes? In ADHD-land?

Reflecting on the Post Office incident, I could only feel thankful that I didn’t have a vacation on my calendar. Unlike my trip to Ireland, I had nothing hanging in the balance. I could afford a SNAFU. Knowing our ADHD family, if we were applying for passports to prepare for actual travel, we’d be doing it last-minute. The stakes would be higher, and our little misunderstanding at the Post Office could’ve led to an epic meltdown. I may not have felt comfortable going to that Post Office ever again.

In other words, I was grateful I didn’t actually need the passport I was applying for. I almost pitched a fit, but I fought it off because I had no reason to panic. Being an adult with ADHD is hard. It’s not often I get to take my slow, ADHD time with no repercussions. If I have an opportunity to struggle through red tape when the stakes are low, why not take it?

What chores and processes tend to mesh poorly with your ADHD? How do you keep them from causing unnecessary stress? Feel free to share your own stories in the comments!

How I take productive breaks with #AdultADHD

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the value of breaks. On one hand, I’ve had to train myself to pay attention for long enough to make a dent in one task. Mindfulness meditation and stimulant medications have helped me do that. Then there’s the other side of ADHD: learning to pull away at the right time. Here are some of my favorite strategies.

Pomodoro(ish)

If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, here’s the gist: you set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes and dedicate those minutes to only one task. This unit of time is referred to as one Pomodoro.

I’m not strict about using the Pomodoro Technique all the time. I do find it especially helpful for my weekly review, when I get sidetracked easily. I use a timer to rotate between emptying my inboxes and completing other review steps every 10-25 minutes. The timer, which sits right beneath my computer monitor, provides some healthy anxiety. The prospect of a forced break keeps my eye on the prize and I’m more conscious of interruptions and tangents.

Boundaries

I’m useless in front of a screen after 9:00 p.m. I’d love to say I “moonlight” as a fiction writer, but I don’t work well that way. I never have. If I’m looking at a computer screen after nine, I’m wasting more time and getting less done than I would at 2:00 in the afternoon.

While it’d be great if I could change this, I don’t think that’s possible without a brain transplant. I now try to avoid screen time at night. Sometimes, this means leaving a project before I’ve reached a good stopping point. This can feel impossible for some people with ADHD. It takes a lot of practice, and it will always feel uncomfortable, but it’s a rote learning process.

Self-observation

If work is going poorly, it can be best to step away. Remember my physics teacher and his beanbags? Sacrificing a time block I intended for writing, bookkeeping, or email can pay huge returns later in the day.

Nowadays, when I feel myself floundering, wasting time, and failing to settle down, I get up. I do a quick office yoga podcast. I set a timer and work for 20 minutes on a physical task like sewing, washing dishes, or organizing my basement. Even when I worked in a more traditional office, I had opportunities to get up: I could check stock for my office supply order, or go to someone’s workstation to address an IT trouble ticket.

Obviously, there’s a risk of ADHD-fueled avoidance and procrastination. The key is timing these breaks and pushing myself back to my desk when they’re over. Not only that, I know there are some tasks I’ll never want to start. In those cases, another break won’t help at all.

Podcasts

When a break won’t help, I try to make an otherwise unpleasant chore seem like a treat or a break. Podcasts can work wonders to reduce dread and reluctance. If I’m dragging my feet on chores, I turn on a funny podcast, like Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids. For longer projects, I use the podcast as a makeshift Pomodoro timekeeper. I tell myself I only need to work for the length of the podcast, then I can take a break.

In a similar vein, I generally only watch television when I fold laundry. This limits my unscheduled television “breaks” and gives me a more positive attitude about laundry. Laundry day means I can sit down and treat myself to my favorite shows!

What about you? What strategies have you discovered to disengage for a healthy break?

ADHD brain: Accepting my need for breaks

Well-timed breaks can work magic. I first experienced this in high school. We had block scheduling, with four 90-minute class periods per day. My physics teacher, Mr. Plate, got it: how long 90 minutes can feel when you’re sitting at your desk and using your brain.

When Mr. Plate noticed our class wilting, he’d stop in the middle of his lesson — sometimes his sentence — and say, “go to the back of the room. We need beanbags.”

Then we’d stand in a circle and play beanbags. The game began with one bag. The first person tossed it across the circle to the second, who tossed it back across to a third, and so on, until everyone had gotten the beanbag and it came back to the start. We continued the tossing pattern, adding more and more beanbags, until we broke down in laughter. Beanbags collided in midair, one person would suddenly find themselves with an armful, etc.

It took less than five minutes to fill the classroom with life. We returned to our seats energized and ready to learn.

Mr. Plate understood his choice: lose us for five minutes while we threw beanbags, or lose us for 45 minutes while he plowed ahead with the presentation he’d planned.

time-for-a-break

Breaks earn back their costs

Bottom line: smart breaks give back more time than they take. Now that my work happens at home and I structure my own days, I need to recognize my own need for beanbags — or just a break from my computer screen.

I often resist breaks when I’m on a roll, especially with something like sewing, which offers endless small doses of instant gratification. I’ve tried to train my brain to disengage. When I’m writing, I now know I should break after 45 minutes, even if I don’t want to. I’m now more vigilant for that first small dip in productivity — a signal that my brain needs to switch gears. If I ignore it, I unknowingly slip into time-wasting activities.

Breaks can shake off hyperfocus

Breaks also forcibly disengage our hyperfocus. When I push my writing muscles too hard, I slow down, make mistakes, and end up meandering the internet. This doesn’t happen when I’m sewing, but I may regret spending a whole afternoon in the basement when I had more pressing things to do. Hyperfocus clouds our view of what constitutes a good stopping point. We’re often blind to one-more-thing-itis until it’s too late.

If we break away from time to time, it gives us a chance to reevaluate. I’ve had a terrible time prying my husband away from a task, where no amount of “we’re going to be late” or “you promised you’d help me with X today” will budge him. Yet if I can trick him into walking away for five minutes under the pretense that he can come right back to it, it’s like he’s waking up from a trance. He might even say out loud, “I don’t need to work on that right now.”  A break frees us to ask ourselves, “is this how I want to spend the next X minutes/hours of my time?”

Breaks don’t always feel good

The adults in our household also struggle with a common ADHD fear: “if I don’t finish this now, when will I ever get back to it?” Also: “I wasted some time today, but I still want to feel proud of my progress.” My husband has told me he’s more likely to stay at work all night if he feels he’s used time unwisely, or if he spends too long helping coworkers with their issues. For my part, I have a bad habit of viewing projects in a strict binary: Done or Not Done. If I’ve spent hours, days, or weeks on a project and it’s still Not Done, then I feel discouraged, like it will never be Done. Sometimes this frustration leads to a backbreaking marathon because I can’t bear to keep looking at Not Done.

These are all legitimate feelings, but pushing ourselves too hard won’t solve the underlying problem. We’d do better to build confidence in our ability to come back to an incomplete project and finish it later. We’d do better to learn to manage our productivity during the day so we feel okay about leaving work before bedtime. We’d do better to learn to see the products of our hard work, even if a project isn’t finished yet.

All of this is hard. ADHD is hard. What I really want, more than anything, is a break from ADHD. Failing that, I’m trying to prioritize giving my brain the breaks it needs to keep going. I’m trying to accept breaks when I need them — to recognize when I need them — and not feel resentful, fearful, or guilty about it. It’s a work in progress. Next week, I’ll share some of my break-taking techniques.

Do you struggle to take breaks when you need them? How do you know when it’s time to change gears?

I’ve accomplished nothing…or maybe I’ve just forgotten.

I end a lot of days feeling like I got nothing done. Like my efforts were not enough.

Moms with (or without, let’s be honest) ADHD: I bet some of you can relate.

I push back against this feeling all the time. It’s important to me to feel like I’m enough, but my sense of industriousness and my mood are so closely intertwined. This is why I rarely relax: it doesn’t feel good unless it comes at the end of a long, productive day.

The other day, a thought flashed through my mind as I pulled up to a stop sign: What if it’s not me, but my memory?

I can’t celebrate what I can’t remember.

Of course, sometimes a day is justifiably disappointing. My allergies have been driving me crazy and messing up my sleep. I’ll admit to spending more time on Facebook and snacks as a result. I know what overtired brains do, and mine’s doing it. But why, on a day when I put in a solid effort and cross several things off my list, do I still sit down to dinner feeling disappointed with myself?

During my AmeriCorps service, I submitted weekly reports tracking my progress and my daily activities. I filled them with meticulous detail, and they were never late. I never made time to fill them out at the end of the week, either. I wrote them every hour of every day. Others found this tedious, but the process had tremendous benefits for me. By the afternoon, I don’t remember what I did that morning. By dinnertime, I can’t tell you what I did with my day at all.

Many adults with ADHD struggle with memory. Not only that, I bounce from task to task, even if I intend to spend all day on one project. I do a lot on any given day, but it rarely makes it into long-term memory. If I can’t remember what I do, how must that affect my sense of accomplishment and worth?

memory-and-adult-adhd

As with everything: write it down.

In my current life, no one’s collecting weekly progress reports. I don’t have a performance review or a regular check-in. It’s easy to lose track of how I spend my time. For a few days, I decided to write down what I accomplished.

The results were surprising. I didn’t include base-level responsibilities like child care, cooking meals, or washing dishes, even though these things take a great deal of attention. Even so, I amassed quite a list on Monday: I changed the sheets on the beds, went for a run, did my weekly review, emptied all my inboxes, made sandwich bread, cleaned the downstairs (that includes tidying, dusting, polishing furniture, and vacuuming), folded a load of laundry, made our weekly menu and grocery list, and began to draw a sewing pattern.

It’s a relatively modest list, with no glory, nothing worthy of celebration — unless you have ADHD and remember your previous life, when your ADHD was out of control and none of those things felt possible. For anyone, anywhere, it’s quite enough to fill a day. With my poor memory, I now understand how I can end a day feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing. I work in small bites, and this means I’m often surrounded by works-in-progress. I now (occasionally) finish them at some point, but very few days contain anything to brag about.

Forgetting is no excuse for self-criticism.

Glory or no, it’s important to give ourselves credit where it’s due. Failing to remember what we’ve done for ourselves, our families, and the world is no excuse. My lesson for this week: if I get down on myself for slow progress, I need to start writing notes. I need to pretend I’ll be asked for a report at the end of the week. I need to find some way to remember, because I have plenty to show for myself. I just can’t remember what it is.

Do you feel you have a clear picture of your productivity? Your accomplishments? Do you struggle with feelings of ineffectiveness? How much of this do you think is rooted in reality vs. perspective?

Canaries in the coal mine

Sometimes, I don’t know if I’m managing my ADHD effectively. After all, the right type and dose of stimulant medication should feel pretty unobtrusive. It doesn’t make ADHD’ers feel drugged, hyped up, or otherwise not ourselves. Once the novelty wears off, we don’t sit around and say, “wow, things seem awfully normal around here!”

Those of us with supportive, ADHD-literate spouses can benefit from their outside perspective. Sometimes only they can tell us when our ADHD is out of control.

As medications, hormones, and life have evolved over the years, I’ve also improved my self-observation skills. It’s an advanced-level ability. Pre-diagnosis and treatment, I had zero self-awareness.

Now I’ve identified what I call my canaries in the coal mine: little indicators that reflect the overall success of my ADHD treatment.

canaries coal mine ADHD

Observe with detachment, not judgement.

Objectivity is key to spotting canaries: observing my own behavior with equanimity and pragmatism, and not getting carried away by emotion and judgement. This has required a lot of work. We late-diagnosis ADHD’ers reach adulthood without positive language to describe our struggles. It takes time, effort, and compassion to eliminate negative self-talk and start believing in ourselves. My default reaction to falling off the wagon used to be, “this was inevitable. I can’t sustain anything good. I’ll always fail eventually.”

Now, I try to approach my life like a scientist. I observe, I keep detailed notes (ADHD and motherhood have wrecked my memory), and I try to keep my own biases at bay. When a system begins to break down, that’s a clue. I’m becoming a detective in my own life — a problem-solver, not a basket case.

My canaries: more than a stressful week.

One of my canaries is my weekly review, an every-Monday ritual that keeps me on top of active projects and open loops. I once noticed myself skipping it for weeks in a row. I eventually ended up talking to my doctor about switching medications.

Likewise, when I haven’t even opened my to-do list for over a week, something isn’t right. When I keep looking at my list, but never find anything I feel like I can do, something isn’t right.

While some of life’s details can slide during a high-stress time, others indicate a bigger problem.

Staying organized is possible — if ADHD symptoms are under control.

Staying organized is possible with ADHD — when it’s well-managed. When something slips out of balance, my previously-airtight systems begin to collapse. ADHD makes it hard to notice it happening before it’s too late. I may not feel different right away, or I may wave off red flags with excuses about sleep or a busy week.

The key, for me, has been to disconnect my emotional reaction from the content of my observation. Put-downs and criticism, directed inward or outward, stop problem-solving before it begins. Rather than figuring out how to fix the problem, our brains fixate on the problem itself, and how big and awful it feels.

When a system malfunctions, I ask why, and figure out what adjustments will fix it. Sort of like a car: what’s going to keep it safe, running smoothly, and doing what I need it to do? I once had a car that sputtered out right after starting unless I gave it a very specific amount of gas. Once it settled into a good idle, it was fine. The next owner couldn’t figure this out and thought the car wouldn’t run at all. I probably could’ve gotten several more years out of it.

Now I apply this approach to my entire life. It’s how I knew my medication changed effectiveness after having a child, and I wasn’t just suffering from so-called “mommy brain.”

When I spot one of those canaries, the early warnings that tip me off before my entire life derails, I don’t make excuses. I recognize them as canaries, not black swans. The earlier I recognize a problem, the better my chance of minimizing the damage and getting back on track.

What are your canaries in the coal mine? Have you discovered any early warning signs of poorly-managed ADHD? What do you do when you spot one?

Taking a u-turn away from the Big Adventure

Something amazing happened the other day. I turned my car around.

Not as in a three-point turn, which I’ve known how to do since I was 16. I turned around after I’d gone out for a Big Adventure. Unlike a three-point turn, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.

U-TURNSwept away by Big Adventures

A little background: this week contained four writing deadlines, three of which I’d underprepared for. My husband was home and had taken our son for the day. I had a few hours of unencumbered productive time.

As I write this, I now see the obvious ‘and’: “and I didn’t think twice about using that time to write!” If you have ADHD, or if you live with someone does, you already know the story isn’t going there.

I seized the moment and thought, “now is my chance to buy dirt for the garden!” I filled my water bottle, threw some snacks in my bag, and prepared for a Big Adventure. Of course I’d decided there was only one place I could buy dirt. It was a solid 45-minute drive from home (hence why a kid-free day seemed perfect for the errand). I was pleased that I had all the time in the world and could finally stop at the gas station. My fuel light had been on for a day or two. I looked forward to a full gas tank and a dirt-filled car, and I hoped I wouldn’t be home too late for lunch.

As I started the car and scrolled through my Pandora stations, seeking the perfect soundtrack for my Big Adventure, I started to feel uneasy. I used to love the sparkly excitement that preceded Big Adventures. They broke up the drudgery and made the whole world seem like a brighter place. For an afternoon, I could leave my messes behind, roll down my car window, turn up the music, and get something done. Maybe it’d even be useful, like when I framed those pretty lithographs to hang over the couch. But then I got older. As I got older, I started getting tired.

Need to do vs. need to do now

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s these new meds, maybe it’s my daily yoga practice. Something’s different. I’ve stopped falling in love with life on Big Adventures and I’ve started getting tired. Tired of throwing caution to the wind and returning to tighter deadlines or a messy house. Tired of starting yet another project I’ll have trouble finishing. Tired of being swept away on a wave of excitement.

I pulled away from the curb, keenly aware of an unfamiliar feeling in my gut: something was saying, “no.” Thanks to age, meds, yoga, or all three, I did something crazy. I listened, even though it meant aborting a mission in progress. It meant breaking the ADHD Code and unlatching my hyperfocus.

Yet once I thought it, I couldn’t unthink it: yes, the garden needed more dirt, but today? Now? At the cost of 90-plus minutes in the car? When I could be working on my four(!) writing deadlines? Surely, I could purchase dirt somewhere else if I needed to. Maybe over the weekend, once I’d completed my work. I decided to put gas in the car and return home to write.

In our household, we sometimes use the fact that something “needed to be done” as an excuse. An excuse for doing it the long way, at the wrong time, and/or instead of being there for one another. That’s because ADHD impairs our ability to direct our attention. There’s no deficit of attention in our home, we just have trouble taming it. We fail to differentiate between what needs to be done Right Now and what simply needs to be done. There is a difference.

Sometimes the u-turn is the biggest victory

My u-turn was almost sabotaged by the gas station around the corner, which displayed a huge sign reading “pumps out of order” when I arrived. Again, if you have ADHD, or if you live with someone who does, you may know what comes next.

I was out to get gas, right? A vision flashed through my mind: I was driving toward the next-nearest gas station when I thought, what if another station has cheaper gas? Maybe I’ll go to the one with a car wash. No, I don’t like that car wash, maybe I’ll head over to Remington and hit the Wash Works. I wonder what gas stations are over there?

I turned around and drove home. With my fuel light still on. Five minutes after pulling away from the curb, I walked back into my house. I made myself an iced coffee and walked upstairs to my office. Then I sat down to write.

These were uncharted waters. I’d never said no after reaching out and touching the Big Adventure. And yet, I felt a deeper, more satisfying thrill this time. It was the thrill of the u-turn.

It’s taken me nearly three decades to get here. Maybe the u-turn is a skill that comes with practice. Maybe I’ll be more choosy about my Big Adventures in the future. Who knows. Only one thing is certain: that u-turn felt like a huge victory, and I hope it’s not the last.

For a better to-do list, just add context.

I hate knowing I have tons to do, yet blanking when I try to think of specific tasks. This feeling defined my mid-20s, just before I started learning about and treating my ADHD.

I existed in a constant state of stress and anxiety, but I couldn’t articulate — even to myself — what exactly I needed to do.

Medication helped settle my thoughts. Next, I needed a system to organize them.

My salvation came in the form of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If you haven’t tried GTD or if you find the whole system too rigid, allow me to share one of the most important concepts:

Context is everything.

Why traditional lists and planners failed me

To-do lists never worked for me until I sorted them by context — that is, the location or resources they require. This was a major paradigm shift. I spent years struggling with calendar-based personal planners and daily to-do lists, recopying incomplete tasks from one day to the next.

Of course, some tasks need to happen on a specific day, like paying rent or turning in kids’ summer camp registrations. I still write those on my calendar. Others just require the right environment: a phone, a quiet room, a computer, or a specific person. For those, I keep context-based to-do lists in an app called Toodledo. Toodledo’s web and mobile apps keep my lists at my fingertips everywhere I go. Here are my contexts:

I also generate contexts as needed for my mom, husband, grandmother, and anyone else I converse with regularly.

If you dislike apps, try a sheet of loose leaf paper or a page in a notebook for each context. Anything that keeps your lists separate will do just fine.

Still wondering how this beats one neat, centralized list?

Allen claims, and I agree, that a single list would make it “too difficult to see what you need to see; each time you got any window of time to do something, you’d have to do unproductive re-sorting.”

Consider this alongside ADHD’s inherent working memory weaknesses. As Russell Barkley explains in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, we use working memory to organize and prioritize tasks, hold multiple things in mind, and figure out what to do next.

For someone with unreliable working memory, a poorly-organized to-do list isn’t just “unproductive,” it’s paralyzing.

to-do list context graphic“It’s not that you’re incapable of logical analysis or you lack intelligence…” Barkley writes, “it’s just that you need to make the process tangible and external…so your emotions don’t erupt with the frustration of trying to do it all in your head.”

Externalizing tasks into contextual ‘buckets’ takes a huge load off your working memory. This makes it easier to get into your productivity groove (sometimes known as hyperfocus).

Hyperfocus for good

Hyperfocus has a bad reputation in our household. It makes it hard for ADHD’ers to change gears and switch tasks. However, with context-based to-do lists, we can use hyperfocus to our advantage.

I may put phone calls off as long as possible, but by the time I force myself to do it (usually a deadline is looming), I settle in and finish them all at once. My husband calls this “task inertia.”

Here’s the thing: I’d freak out if I tried to comb through my to-do list (usually 60+ items long) for the three phone calls I need to make. A separate, ready-to-roll, phone-calls-only list enables me to make more than one of the dreaded calls. It removes obstacles to task inertia.

Reclaiming lost time

In Getting Things Done, Allen stresses the importance of capturing “weird little windows” of time. Most of us use 10 minutes in a waiting room to cruise our smart phone. What if you check two small items off your to-do list instead? My “any computer” (a definition that includes my phone) list contains tasks like “make dinner reservations” (easy with the OpenTable app), “look at calendar for game night dates,” and “use quilt tutorial to make a list for the fabric store.”

These are the baby steps that move me from Point A to Point B, from “we should get together soon” to “see you on Friday night for dinner and board games.” They’re also the details that can slip through my fingers and make me feel like a major flake. ADHD doesn’t change society’s expectations, but it sure makes it tough to keep up.

Experience has taught me, when I receive one of those “weird little windows,” I need to be ready. I need to know what one tiny thing I can get done with the resources at hand. Organizing my to-do list by context has been the key to making that happen — and to tricking people into thinking I have it together.

How do you organize your to-do list? Does it work for you? Please share in the comments!

What does ADHD cost you?

cost of ADHDWhen we think about New Year’s resolutions, we imagine ways we’d like to improve. Things we promise ourselves we’ll do better this year than last.

But why?

Really, why do we want to change? Specifically?

Because it’s a good idea? Because we know we’re not perfect? Because our spouse asked us to?

Not good enough.

In my experience, change doesn’t happen when motivation to do so is abstract.

One of the most powerful agents of change for me — and the beginning of my journey toward proper ADHD treatment — was an exercise from Marilyn Paul’s It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys. Paul (no relation to me) challenged readers to inventory the real costs of disorganization and personal ineffectiveness.

My list looked a little like this:

  • Money
    • Late fees on bills I forgot to pay (despite having enough money in the bank)
    • Lost interest on checks I forgot to deposit (or lost money entirely if the check was so old the bank wouldn’t take it)
  • Health (medical appointments I forgot to schedule)
  • Hobbies (never have/make time for them)
  • Piece of mind in relationships (anxiety, guilt, feeling others’ trust is misplaced)
  • Serenity (no calm, orderly place to retreat to in my home or office)
  • Social outlets (never have/make time for friends)
  • Personal and professional skill development
  • Long-distance friends and family (didn’t keep on top of correspondence)

When I took stock like this, my heart felt heavy. I feared I’d never reach my potential. Worse, others would see me as aloof, uncaring, disorganized, and irresponsible.

But it was kind of like the time I multiplied the cost of my daily latte habit over the course of a year: the process necessitated an “oh, s&$#” moment.

There’s a famous Maya Angelou quote, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

It’s easy to brush off an overdraft fee here or lost check there. One failed friendship might have any number of explanations. But taken together, I couldn’t deny the pattern. My ADHD — though that’s not what I called it at the time — was costing me a fortune, in more ways than one.

And once I really knew better, I resolved to do better.

It’s been a long road, fraught with switchbacks and wrong turns, but I think I’m getting somewhere.

Have you ever tried to quantify the costs of ADHD? Has it helped keep you motivated, or just demoralized you? (I definitely experience both on a regular basis!)

You vs. the world: lets discuss ADHD for at-home parents

“Our family needs a homemaker.”

I love to be needed, but those words stung.

I was trying to convince my husband to keep our twice-monthly cleaning service, but he wouldn’t budge. It was a temporary arrangement for a tough time: during the first nine months of our son’s life, my husband finished a master’s degree and broke his collarbone.

I needed help.

The problem was, once things returned to normal, I viewed this extra help as a small price to pay to get my writing business off the ground. My husband reminded me of our agreement that one of us would be a stay-at-home parent. It didn’t seem fair for me to claim I “didn’t have time” to clean the house.

Maybe it wasn’t, but providing sanity and order to an ADHD household, day in and day out, is exhausting.

Because it’s true: our ADHD family does need a homemaker. We need one adult holding down the fort full-time to keep everything from exploding (or imploding) into chaos.We need someone cleaning, coordinating home repairs, paying bills, opening the mail, and making sure everyone eats — among many, many other things.

But I have ADHD, too, and I have big plans for my life. Specifically, I want to do all the things, and I want to do them yesterday.

In the two years post-cleaning lady, I’ve found a better groove. I’ve forced myself to keep trying. I figured out a way to keep writing while (usually) keeping the house (relatively) clean. R. grew up into a little boy and stopped nursing, which meant I could resume taking my ADHD meds. I’ve mapped out a longer-term plan for my writing that allows me to feel like I’m making daily progress. I’ve learned to accept incremental progress, even if I want instant gratification.

Being the homemaker is still hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way, for more reasons than I can count. My husband has unbeatable job security, and my salary wouldn’t have supported us. I prefer to be in charge. I’m better at structuring my own projects and time.

Our family doesn’t just need a homemaker, we need me. And to be there for our family, I need to be there for myself, too. That means making time for my writing, but also taking care of our home and family. Taking time for myself, but not leaving everyone else to pick up my slack.

It’s a lifelong pursuit, finding balance. I’ll never quite get there. I’ll never perfect the art of slowing down, of accepting imperfection, of resting, of moderating — in any of my roles. All I can do is try.

Lately, I’m trying to be honest with myself about what it means to be a workaholic homemaker with ADHD.

And what does that mean, exactly? If you have ADHD and you’re a stay-at-home parent, I’d love to hear about your experience. How do you make it work? Have you struggled to reconcile your partner’s expectations with your own? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?

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