The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Tag: Bullet Journal

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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Organizing & ADHD: what’s in my library?

A reader recently asked: do you have any resources for decluttering or journaling with ADHD?

What a wonderful question to be asked! I write often about organizing because I find cluttered, messy spaces stressful and overstimulating. A chaotic environment begets a chaotic mind, and vice versa. I suspect I’m in good company among people with ADHD.

Along the way, I’ve written about everything from note-taking on my bathroom mirror to reducing my junk mail, from participating in an online decluttering challenge to getting my visual-thinker husband to put his stuff away.

Of course, I’m a writer, and I’ve kept a notebook since the seventh grade. I’ve shared a peek inside my Bullet Journal once, and I’ll probably do it again.

What I’m reading now & what I’ve read along the way

My journey has been populated with life-changing writing from other people — that’s the reason I have so much to write about! I’ve read a few books about organizing and ADHD, and a few books about organizing in general. I also check in with some favorite minimalism-focused blogs when I need to re-center.

ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life was my first ADHD-specific organizing book. I read it years ago, and I recall it being especially useful for visual thinkers. I’m not a highly visual thinker, but I’m married to one, and I’ve had to learn a whole new world of organizing strategies to combat “out of sight, out of mind” anxiety. Many people with ADHD share this problem. There’s also a book called Organizing Solutions for People With Attention Deficit Disorder, which I know I got from the library several years ago but can’t remember much about. Rather than breaking strategies out by category, it has a section for each room in the house. It’s written by a professional organizer who works with ADHD clients, while ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life is co-written by a professional organizer and a renowned ADHD expert. If you can only get one, I’d recommend ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.

As for general organizing books, I got a lot out of Unclutter Your Life in One Week. I received the author’s follow-up, Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter, for Christmas, and I’m psyched to read it. If you can’t snag the book, the accompanying Unclutterer website has lots of tips, too.

Speaking of blogs, I keep a few in my list to catch up on from time to time. My favorites are Becoming Minimalist and Be More With Less.

If you struggle with emotional attachments to things, or if typical organizing literature feels cold and unapproachable, I recommend Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up . Some of Kondo’s advice feels like a stretch, especially for adults with ADHD, but it’s definitely worth a read. It helped me navigate my own feelings of guilt and attachment around stuff I don’t use or enjoy anymore.

And now, for what I consider the bookends of my ADHD journey. Many years ago, I read a book called It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys. It changed my life. It doesn’t focus on ADHD, though the author does mention it. The writing exercises spoke to me through my love of journaling and writing things down. As I progressed through the book, the text guided me through an inventory of everything my disorganization was costing me — emotionally, physically, and financially. It was a sobering moment, and the beginning of my realization that I needed help. Later, when I sought diagnosis and medication for my ADHD, this quantification of how it affected my life proved invaluable. It’s Hard to Make a Difference also taught me, then a recent BFA graduate, that extreme disorganization wasn’t an indicator of creativity. I could be a creative person without living in chaos, and I could be happier and more productive.

Finally, I owe the biggest debt to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If It’s Hard to Make a Difference turned on the lights, Getting Things Done showed me the way out.

Enough from my library. What are your top life-changing reads about getting organized with ADHD?

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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.

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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!

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Link roundup: Bullet Journal, brain training, winter reading

  1. Bullet Journal
    Art Director/Interaction Designer Ryder Carroll’s masterpiece of a life management system. No purchase necessary, just grab your trusty notebook, watch the intro video, and prepare to be inspired. Bonus points for a gorgeous website.

  2. ADHD is Different for Women via The Atlantic
    Though I don’t agree with everything in this essay — read my response here — it provides some valuable insights from a recent college graduate with ADHD.
  3. Gina Pera’s reading list for partners of ADHD adults
    I was searching for my next audiobook last week and Gina was kind enough to share this list with me. My own growing collection of book reviews provides a resource for ADHD adults themselves, but it’s still a work in progress. Don’t let the name fool you — Gina lists plenty of great reads for us, too.
  4. Spoiler: I’m a Mom with ADHD via The Homemaking Scientist
    I’m always looking for other bloggers talking about adult ADHD, and I was pleased to stumble upon Jackie’s story. Kudos to her for sharing! We need more voices like hers.
  5. brainHQ
    You’ve probably heard of Lumosity, thanks to a killer marketing campaign, but they aren’t the only brain training game in town. I learned about brainHQ from my husband, who decided to give it a whirl this week after reading The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories Of Personal Triumph From The Frontiers Of Brain SciencebrainHQ’s exercise programs aren’t just based on brain science, either: they boast over 70 published papers proving their benefits.

Have a link to share for next time? Leave it in the comments!

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