ADHD Report: The Planner Problem

I have ADHD. I was diagnosed in middle school and in denial until last year, when I began to flip back and forth for a while. Hopefully, the denial is over. There were two big reasons why I couldn’t accept that I have ADHD. First, people said that when I was annoying them to try and get me to stop. Second, the ADHD online community is unhelpful for the kind of ADHD that I have.

So I’m going to start posting about my own coping mechanisms, starting with my planners.

A lot of Neurotypicals with good intentions suggest planners for ADHD. I get it. You see us struggling with task management and suggest a task management tool. However, the ADHD brain is wired different, so we need to use the tool for a different purpose and in a different way. So grabbing a planner and going at it with usual methods backfires, and many of us spend years trying to get this externalized task management to work.

Step 1: What is the planner for?

The planner is not here so you can turn into a mythical being who gets every single task done. The state of having zero tasks outstanding is a myth. There is always one more thing to clean, one more chore to do. The planner is here so that when someone hands you a task, you can make an accurate assessment of your ability to get it done and on what time frame. It also helps you prioritize so you can say no to tasks that you should not or can not do. It’s not a planner. It’s a filter. And yes, while you will write down things so you don’t forget them in your “planner”, the executive function you want to externalize is prioritization, not working memory.

Put differently, the goal of the planner is to become someone whose word is their bond, to become worthy of trust. This will also protect your time and peace of mind.

The secondary goal is to increase task capacity. Over the course of years, I have been able to get a little more done every day on average, but it’s been hard won. The planner is not actually a fulcrum for that particular issue. Rather, increasing task capacity lies in a topic for another day. So put a pin in that.

Step 2: Get the right materials

The right planner is one you like to look at and hold. It can be a clipboard, notebook, whiteboard, post its on a board, etc. Get creative. It’s one thing our brains do really well. Put stickers on it. Make a fun dustjacket. Anything to make the planner pleasant. It also needs to either be a permanent fixture in your working space or small enough to toss in your bag for the day.

But also get multicolor pens you like. Make sure you get the kind that gives you serotonin when you look at them. Get multiple sets. Get a cute pencil case or cases. Do not be ashamed. There is a method to the madness. Get post its if you like them. Get the fun ones that are animal shaped. You can always rehome the things you don’t use during an ADHD hyperfocus house purge. Lean into it.

The ADHD mind is designed to crave and create fun. People will be sore at you about that, but those people aren’t around for planner time.

Step 3: Don’t lose your planner

How not to lose things is a whole article in itself. For now, take note of when you wish you had your planner. That will tell you where it actually needs to be. If you are a “plan on the can” person, take it to the bathroom with you. If you stay awake tossing and turning at night with fear of tomorrow, put the planner on your bedside table and write down your fears to get them out of your head. Make the planner a comfort object. Put leaves in it for good luck. Whatever makes you want to have it around.

The reason for this is so that you can make it a muscle memory response to reach for your planner every time you say yes to a task. The answer to “Hey can you do x?” should eventually be “Let me get my planner and see” without you even having to think about it.

You will put your planner in strange places. You might plan on unorthodox objects. Accept that you are a charming and delightful oddball, like Gonzo from the Muppets or Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

Step 4: Remembering to use the dang thing

Do not make your planner into a Doom Pile. Start every list of tasks with the fun things you will reward yourself. with. Put rest and fun into the planner first. Then start listing chores and obligations. Once you have a list that will take longer than a day to do, stop listing and start filtering. It’s not that you won’t ever have to add something you forgot, its that those things you add when prompted will go to the next day.

Find a time of day where you have peak executive function to do it. Even if it’s 2am, follow your brain’s natural rhythm instead of fighting it. I happen to be the chronotype the industrialized world loves, so I get to planner time 20 minutes after my first sip of coffee, whenever that is.

Do not be above making up a cute jingle to sing before planner time. It creates dopamine. That’s why they use that trick for small children on kids shows.

Step 5: Using color and symbols to filter

Change colors often. You can color code if you want, but don’t get married to one particular code. Change it as needed. Change colors even if it’s chaotically. Just do not give yourself a giant blob of a single color to read. That makes your brain have to filter the tasks, and that’s what we most want to avoid.

Putting stars next to emergency tasks is fine, but to the ADHD mind sometimes everything feels like an emergency. Use stars and exclamation points sparingly or they won’t work. You have to filter. That’s the whole point.

Don’t filter like a NT. Filter like you. For me, high energy tasks are detail oriented, have many steps, and are boring. So cleaning the bathroom might as well be trying to fight a dragon with a butter knife. Painting a room all day is easy. Prioritize things that a gamer might call “quality of life updates”. Does taking a walk make serotonin happen? Does sweeping cause dopamine because you listen to your music on repeat? Will ripping the bandaid off paying a late bill ease your anxiety? That’s a priority.

What is not a priority are “so and so will get mad at me if…”. There is no dopamine in doing things for so-and-so. Some days I have to do things I said yes to because it’s nice for someone and I gave my word. But often I try to say yes to things that also benefit me. I add seeds to the birdfeeders because I also like to watch the birds. I take out the trash because I also don’t want to get sick. It also lessens resentment to take a “I am doing this because we are in it together” attitude instead of running away from the disappointment of others that ADHD folks can feel so strongly.

Step 6: A Process of forgiveness

Every planning session is a new day. Forgive yourself for tasks that don’t get done and also don’t migrate to the next day. If you let tasks haunt you, no matter how small, you will begin to fear the planner and stop using it. The planner is for you to filter and prioritize. If the task was a priority yesterday but today there’s bigger fish to fry, let it go.

Step 7: Learning to set expectations

Now to face the final boss: Rejection Sensitivity. For some of us with ADHD, irritation or anger from a loved one feels like getting kicked in the chest. I’d rather get kicked in the chest, honestly. So the process of learning what your priorities are is one battle. Making a habit of filtering the tasks and learning how time works well enough to make accurate guesses of how long something takes is another. The hardest battle is making a habit of setting reasonable expectations from the moment people hand you tasks.

You will never become good enough that you completely avoid people being irritated or frustrated with you. I’m sorry. I really am. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can build something even better for yourself: confidence that when you say yes you mean yes and when you say no you mean no. The goal is to be honest and accountable. People who get mad at that have their own problems. That’s not to say that you should never shoehorn something in at the last minute because you are trying to keep your word or because something came up. Rather, it is a sign of good planner use when you can just say no up front to a task you can’t do instead of saying yes and paying the pied piper later.

I still struggle with this one a lot.

Conclusion

When something doesn’t work, give yourself some time to feel sad. When you have fully felt your sadness, reflect on what happened. If you feel shame or guilt, that’s out of your control, but don’t enable those feelings. See them, feel them, but don’t let them drive the car of your life. Rather, listen for the whisper of love in your heart and ask “If I really cared for myself and my community, how would I try to do this different.” That love, that fun-seeking, that joy is what will let you fall 99 times and get up 100.

As always, this is just my advice based on what works for me. If nothing else, I hope this gives people ideas to try so they can find their own way. Maybe it will also be a nail in the coffin of current ADHD discourse, which is trash.

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