Planner Features to help with Executive Dysfunction

The best planner for you is the one you will use. All of the “best planner for ADHD” posts out there have testimonials from ADHDers who use this planner or that planner, and they explain why the planner is so great for them. Same with the various planning apps.

The thing is, the features that work great for some ADHDers are awful for others, because we’re all individuals. I’ve tried to simplify everything using four types of processing and nine executive functions, but I guarantee you there are people who don’t fit any neat boxes. Sometimes all you can do is find something that mostly works for you or design your own.

Pinnable image with an illustration of a woman pointing to a date on a huge calendar, with a large clock overlapping the calendar.

Attentional Control

Attentional Control is the ability to control what you pay attention to. It’s basically being able to concentrate. If you struggle with this, you may find it difficult to focus on the planning process and you might get confused if you have to flip pages a lot in order to see what’s going on.

A strategy that can help with this is taking an active break to reset your brain whenever you start losing focus. Walking around (or otherwise getting some kind of cardio activity in) for around 5 minutes can be great for your brain! Another strategy that could help is setting alarms to remind you what you’re supposed to be doing.

A really useful planner feature is being able to have everything visible at once during your planning. This will limit your page flipping and make it easier to see how things fit together. This may require multiple books, but a “traveler’s notebook” style of planner may work well for you, since it will hold 3-4 notebooks all together. You can then have a monthly book, a weekly book, and a daily book, and maybe even another for notes and project planning.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to change your behaviour and thought processes based on changes in your situation or gaining information. If you struggle with this, you may find yourself getting “stuck” when something doesn’t go the way you expected.

A strategy that can help with this problem is having contingency plans—something we talked about at the beginning of November. I find that having contingency plans lets me reduce my anxiety because I can just remind myself that if the bad thing happens, I already know what I will do so it’s not actually a problem.

Another strategy that is important for this is to make sure that you don’t over-schedule yourself. You don’t want to plan your day down to the second, because if something doesn’t work out or your schedule gets thrown off somehow, you’re going to get stuck and be unable to do anything else for the rest of the day.

The benefit of using a planner if this is one of your challenges is that you can have a section in your planner for contingency plans. You can also use the scheduling aspect to make sure that you allow for mishaps, traffic, and decompression time.

Cognitive Inhibition

Cognitive Inhibition is the ability to tune out unrelated stimuli and stay on task or follow a train of thought. There are a couple of ways difficulty with this can interfere with planning. First, you may get distracted by new ideas. Second, you probably end up making things more complicated than they need to be.

Again, setting reminders can help you remember what you’re supposed to be doing. Another great strategy is to keep a notebook with you so you can write down your ideas and plan out projects. Sometimes just writing an idea down can help you stay on task, since then the need to follow the new!shiny! isn’t as pressing: you aren’t going to forget to pursue it, it’s written down.

A planner can serve as the place you write your ideas down, the place you look when your reminder sounds, and even the place you plan out your projects. It can also help you keep things simple.

Goal-Directed Behaviour

Goal-Directed Behaviour is the ability to control your behaviour so that you’re working towards achieving goals. Problems with this include forgetting your goals, impulsively changing your goals, setting goals that are far too long-term, and impulsively doing things that either interfere with your goals or distract you from your goals.

Strategies that may help with problems in this area include visual timelines, signs to remind you of your goals (one of my uncles kept a sign on the wall in his room when he was growing up that said “WORK!” to keep him motivated to do what he needed to do to achieve his goals), and reminders.

A planner can help keep your goals front and centre. A lot of planners include goal-setting sections and instructions. A planner can also give you a reminder of what you need to do to achieve your goals, and it can help make that timeline visual.

Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory Control is the ability to stop before you act so you can choose the most appropriate way to behave in a given situation. It’s got a lot to do with self-control. The biggest problem you may experience in relation to this is ignoring your to-do list.

A strategy that can help keep you on task is setting reminders for your to-do list tasks.

A planner can help with this if you make a schedule of activities that includes time to follow your whims.

Organizational Skills

Organizational Skills encompass all that sorting, putting things away, etc. The more common problems with this (aside from chaos) include feeling overwhelmed by your tasks and struggling to prioritize tasks.

Strategies that can help with this area include using methods and systems that account for your processing type and learning a few different methods for prioritizing tasks.

A planner can help with this by providing instructions and materials for prioritization. You can also look for planners and planning systems that cater to your particular processing type.

Planning

Planning is the ability to think ahead and to break goals down into smaller steps. When we have trouble with planning, it’s often because we struggle to think far into the future. I like to say that we have trouble seeing the trees for the forest (in other words, we see the big picture but have difficulty understanding the details separately from the whole). And since time isn’t real, we often have trouble knowing how long things will take.

Strategies that can help with planning include keeping calendars visible, timing out tasks so you can better estimate how long something will take, and breaking big projects down into smaller steps.

A planner can help with this because it is, at its most basic level, a calendar. If there is a section where you can work out the steps to your projects, that will also be very useful. And it can provide a good place for you to record information about how long tasks actually take.

Self-Monitoring

Self-Monitoring is the ability to keep track of what you’re doing and how you’re coming across, as well as notice things like hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, the need to use the bathroom, etc. A common problem here is over-scheduling your day so that you don’t allow time for transitions, bodily functions, etc. It’s also a huge issue with hyperfocus, where you might get so into something that you completely forget that your body has needs. And, of course, there’s the whole emotional regulation thing, where inhibitory control gets involved: we may not realize how we feel about something until we’re already reacting, because self-monitoring is hard.

Useful strategies include setting reminders to engage in self-care, which in this case means taking a shower, brushing your teeth, using the toilet, and going to bed at a sensible hour.

One way a planner can be useful here is in making appointments with yourself to look after your needs. Basically, schedule your self-care and hygiene. You can also use a planner to keep track of things like your mood, your ADHD symptoms, and various things that happen throughout the day.

Working Memory

Working Memory is the ability to hold information in your mind so you can use it to make decisions and complete tasks. Difficulties in this area can be seen in a tendency to forget important appointments, deadlines, or tasks, and/or to forget instructions in the moment.

Strategies that can help with this include writing down instructions as they are given to you, making daily to-do lists, and putting events and deadlines onto your calendar right away.

A planner can be helpful by being the place you write down instructions, the place you keep your to-do lists and your schedule, and a great way to keep your tasks front and centre.

In lieu of a printable, this week I want to encourage you to add the strategies and features that apply to your particular executive dysfunctions to the list from last week. Next week we’re going to look at how I’ve put all of these needs together to create my personal planning system, as well as the changes I’m going to be making for 2023 to accommodate my family members. If you are also responsible for other people’s schedules, you might add their needs to your list as well.

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