Time Management with ADHD: Planning Your Day

For something entirely different today, I want to share with you how I plan my days.

I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 48. Naturally, for nearly five decades, I was unmedicated and unaware that my unreliable motivation and focus had a medical reason. Shame and deadline anxiety were my primary coping mechanisms. And I became reasonably successful despite many setbacks.

But it all came crashing down at the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly, my painstakingly compartmentalized, externally structured work, family, and community commitments all got smashed into one messy pile with no boundaries.

For the first time in my life, I saw my ADHD for what it was — a disability. Shame and anxiety were no longer even remotely effective and instead were making things worse. Much worse!

I needed a new system. A system that would support me where I required support and get out of my way everywhere else. So, I set out to create one.

But first, to better understand the requirements for such a system, I’ve researched the neurobiology of ADHD. I found that ADHD:

  1. disables working memory, makes it challenging to keep things in memory

  2. creates time blindness, a difficulty to estimate time

  3. decreases motivation for boring, repetitive, or non-urgent tasks, leading to procrastination until the last moment

  4. makes it difficult to plan ahead

With all that in mind, I decided that my new system had to meet the following requirements:

  • MUST be embarrassingly simple to understand and use — no revolutionary new ideas, no complicated concepts, just a straightforward boring system that works. I knew it had to be effortless if I wanted to use it, even on days I was completely unmotivated.

  • MUST make time more visible. I often imagine I can do more than what’s realistic in a single day. The system must make it painfully obvious what I can fit in a day and help me make better choices.

  • MUST support both meticulous planning and sketching out rough ideas. Some days, I have specific goals and know exactly what needs to happen. On other days, I’m okay with playing it by ear, like when the kids don’t have school, and my plans become vague.

  • SHOULD be possible to use the system with or without any special tools, digitally or on a napkin. I love my iPad, but I also appreciate the clarity of thought I get away from digital distractions.

  • SHOULD allow me to plan for the entire family.

  • COULD integrate into existing productivity systems without additional steps. (But I spent a couple of decades trying to pull this off and knew it would be difficult, so I was okay with letting it go.)

  • COULD allow me to share my plans with other family members.

Here’s what I came up with. The image below shows a plan for my fairly typical Friday with some annotations in red:

Here’s how I use the system, step by step:

  1. Write everything I want to accomplish in the right column.

  2. Add any commitments I already have on my calendar to the left column.

  3. For each task in the right column, estimate how long it will take and find a spot for it in the left column. Schedule the most important tasks during the most productive hours for extra points.

  4. Cross any tasks I couldn’t fit in my day.

  5. Create reminders if desired (Siri on my Apple Watch makes this step trivial).

Typically, I either print out this template or create a new page in GoodNotes on my iPad. But I could just as quickly sketch this out on a napkin. All I need is two columns, one with a list of tasks I want to accomplish and another with a rough representation of the day’s timeline.

It’s decidedly a two-step process, which forces me to think about my priorities first and not fill my day with productive-looking procrastination.

This system doesn’t rely on keeping things in memory. It creates a visual representation of how much time I require for each task (and occasionally, I don’t allocate enough time for a task and get to learn from that). Furthermore, it gives me a little hit of dopamine every time I cross an item off the list, helping me stay motivated throughout the day. And finally, writing things down makes it much easier to plan multiple competing priorities!