The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: Getting Things Done

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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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!

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Email sanity with #AdultADHD: collect those open loops!

Way back in the day, I often lost track of my progress on little projects and tasks. Email presented a particular challenge. I’d ask someone a question, hit send, and promptly forget about it.

No matter how out-of-control your inbox may be, I’m sure you sit down every once in a while to ‘take care of your email.’ This may include a flurry of sent messages to people in all corners of your life. It feels good to get a few things off your plate and onto someone else’s, doesn’t it?

email open loops

Send it and forget it…

The problem is, our responsibility doesn’t evaporate when we hit send. I learned this the hard way — several times. Problem coworkers mismanaged their email and used “I never got the email” as an excuse for missing deadlines. My boss expected on-demand status updates on my tasks. She wasn’t impressed when I answered, “oh, right, I had a question about that and I think I emailed you a week or so ago…”

Once I send an email, the whole thing goes out of my brain like sand through a sieve. I do, of course, consider it others’ responsibility to read and respond to my emails. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to follow up. But it’s not a perfect world. Others get busy and/or have ADHD, too. That’s why it’s critical to collect those open loops as I send each email. I need to be able to find them before they find me.

…unless you’re waiting for a response.

waiting on outgoingI can’t take credit for this strategy, as I learned it from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but many ADHD’ers struggle with GTD. If you haven’t been able to read the entire book or get the system up and running yet, start here. Collect the loose ends in your email. It’ll make you look 100 times more responsible to those around you.

The method is simple. It doesn’t require any fancy apps. It doesn’t even require anything more than the original Gmail inbox.

When you email someone requesting information or asking them to do something for you, stash it in a folder (or a label, if you’re using Gmail) titled “Waiting On.” As in, “I’m waiting on something from someone.”

Gmail’s web app allows you to apply labels to messages as you compose them, which is very convenient. The mobile app lacks this feature, but you can go to your sent mail and apply the label there. I recommend doing this immediately after sending the message. If I save it for later, I forget!

Where Gmail uses labels, many other email programs use folders. I used Outlook at a previous job. There, I’d bcc: myself on outgoing messages that required followup. When they arrived in my inbox, I moved them into my Waiting On folder.

No matter what email program you’re using, you may want to add an @ symbol to the beginning (e.g. @Waiting On) so it stays at the top of your alphabetical list of labels/folders.

Don’t forget to review.

In a week or so, you’ll have a folder or label with a collection of outstanding requests: an email asking a friend when she’d like to go out for dinner, a shipping notification from Amazon, maybe an email asking family and friends to donate to your upcoming charity bike ride.

Now you need to review them. Put a note on your calendar once a week to go through your Waiting On folder. Set an alarm on your phone. Tell Google Calendar to send you an email every Monday. Whatever works for you.

Then scan through the list and send a quick (and polite!) poke to anyone you think should’ve responded by now.

How do you manage the open loops created by email requests? How do you remind yourself to check back in when you’re expecting a response?

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Of course behavior therapy helps kids with ADHD…for now.

When I see ADHD trending on social media, I perk up my ears. Today, it’s the release of new study results supporting behavior therapy as a first-line treatment for children with ADHD.

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This raises important questions. It also fans the flames of controversy among those opposed to medicating ADHD in children.

I see this study as an incomplete answer to a complex question: what’s the best course of treatment for childhood ADHD?

Interpreting results: why start with behavior therapy?

Starting with behavior-based interventions may emphasize the importance of teaching coping mechanisms. I’ve long said that neither medication nor behavior therapy can do it alone. Medication balances our brain chemistry, making coping mechanisms easier — or possible — to implement.

Starting meds with no therapy or parent training may set the wrong expectation: that meds can do all the work. Starting with behavior therapy, then adding medication, allows families to compare and contrast the difference.

Taking an example from my personal life, I talk a lot about David Allen’s Getting Things DoneI swear by it. Did you know I’ve only been able to maintain it while taking medication? Without it, I can’t keep up.

However, medication in no way alleviates my need for such a rigid system.

We should teach children this symbiosis from the beginning. Offering medication alone is like offering eyeglasses to a near-sighted child and expecting those glasses to teach him to read.

Why I’m skeptical about behavior therapy’s long-term benefits

I’m not jumping on the behavior modification bandwagon just yet. I think we need a longitudinal study to evaluate the effects well into adulthood, when we’re expected to create our own structure and motivation.

Behavior modification therapies, as explained in Stephen P. Hinshaw and Katherine Ellison’s book ADHD: What Everyone Needs to Know, require “clear expectations and explicit, frequent rewards, as well as occasional, nonemotional discipline.” Think sticker charts to help kids earn a reward for improving target behaviors.

My own parents promised me a TV in my bedroom if I could produce a few second-grade report cards with no failing grades in the ‘behavior’ column. My burning desire for that television supported the herculean effort required to stay out of trouble. I got the TV.

Looking at this one academic year, anyone could conclude that behavior-based interventions improved my most problematic symptoms. However, as Hinshaw and Ellison point out in their book, “the difficulty for children is to maintain their progress once they’re out of the tightly managed environment.”

My third-grade reports reflect missed homework, inconsistent effort, and frequent run-ins with other students.

Should we expect parents to maintain a highly structured environment indefinitely? What happens when children grow too old for sticker charts? What happens when parents aren’t there to light a fire under a kid’s butt?

I’ll tell you what happened to me: my life spiraled out of control. My desk at work was covered 8-12 inches deep all around with papers, and I frequently lost important documents. I fought with my husband all the time. I suffered wild mood swings. Bills went unpaid. It took so long for me to take checks to the bank, they often expired before I could deposit them. My house was a mess. The list goes on.

Does behavior therapy prepare kids with ADHD for the future?

I’m not surprised to see a study confirming the effectiveness of behavior therapies — that is, rigid systems of externalized rewards and consequences — in the short term. We’re talking months, or even a few years.

I worry that we’re failing to teach kids true independence and long-term coping mechanisms. As Vicki Hoefle explains so effectively in her lovely book Duct Tape Parenting, parents should measure success not by how kids behave right now, but whether they’re ready to fledge at age 18. Childhood gives kids an opportunity to learn crucial skills in a safe, supportive environment.

Creating a system of made-up consequences robs them — and us — of that opportunity. Sure, I was able to control my outbursts to earn that TV. What did I learn about myself during that time? What tools did I put in my mental toolbox, to be carried into adulthood?

Yes, this study addresses an important issue. I hope it reinforces the symbiotic relationship between medication and other interventions. I hope fewer parents, teachers, and doctors see medication as a way to make ADHD an open-and-shut case.

Parents need to ask: what’s our goal here? Do we want the best of both worlds? To refuse medication for our kids while putting a stop to failing grades and uncomfortable parent-teacher conferences?

Or do we want to deepen our relationship with our kids while teaching them how to succeed as adults?

For that, we need to examine the effectiveness of behavior therapy once the subjects reach age 25, 30, and 35.

What do you think we’d find? I’m curious about others’ reactions. Did you read about this study? Have you had any first-hand experience with behavior modification? Please chime in with a comment below!

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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!

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How to remember everything (the power of writable surfaces)

Forgetting something important feels awful, doesn’t it? Most of our forgetting incidents don’t just frustrate us, they frustrate — or, even worse, hurt or disappoint — our family, friends, and coworkers.

These people’s opinions matter to us. We depend on our relationships with them. We don’t want to let them down, and yet we so often do. What’s worse, ADHD is a cruelly egalitarian disorder. It’s just as easy for us to forget our spouse’s birthday as our dry cleaning.

Maybe you’ve managed to insulate your inner circle from your ADHD’s hurtful effects, but do you ever think of the same idea over and over again, wishing you’d remember it when you could take action?

Don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, shorten the distance between yourself and a reliable container for those thoughts. If you’ve considered using your brain as such a container, don’t. Write everything down. Everything. Every time I catch myself thinking, “that’s too important, I know I won’t forget it,” it’s a huge red flag.

Nowadays, I rely on writable surfaces throughout 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 probably because I never let myself stray too far from my writing materials.

Be vigilant for ideas

There are some potty training methods that — bear with me here — require constant vigilance as you watch your naked toddler, ready to whisk him to the nearest potty when he begins to empty his bladder onto the floor. Imagine your brain is like this naked toddler. The moment it thinks of something — anything — you need to whisk it to a writable surface straightaway and deposit that idea into an appropriate container.

Of course, you’ll want to set up a trusted system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done to process all the notes you’re going to write, but the first step — and one you should take today — is writing it all down. Stop trusting your brain and start trusting anything you can write on.

Our home’s writable surfaces

Bathroom mirror

DSC_3367-001There’s a reason you have so many ideas in the shower, and the name should sound familiar: dopamine. When you’re 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, I left myself reminders to do early-morning server maintenance from home. Visitors have occasionally spotted our markers and joined the fun, too.

Pantry door chalkboard

Our home is on the small side, so mounting a big dry erase board in a common area just isn’t practical. 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 take on. I just sanded the finished wood lightly, added a couple coats of primer, then applied this Rust-Oleum chalkboard paint. My 18-month-old has taken over the bottom panel, and we use the larger top panel for grocery lists, reminders, fledgling Spotify playlists, and anything in between.

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 Small dry-erase board

I purchased this when I moved away to college. Somehow, I managed to keep it through a number of moves and years I’d rather not mention. When you’re decluttering, which I hope you are this October, keep an eye out for things like this. 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, and anywhere else I catch myself having to remember an idea for more than five steps in any direction.

Isn’t there an app for that?

You might wonder why I haven’t listed any electronic note-taking tools here. There are some great ones available — Evernote, Toodledo, 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 for me.

Have you had success using apps? How do you capture ideas, especially when you’re in a place where you can’t easily write something down (like in the car)?

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