Planners: Putting it All Together

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The best planner for you is the planner you will use, so let’s really dig into that.

I’m going to guess that you’re reading this because you have never been able to find a planning system that really works quite right for you. You probably use a new system for a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months, but then you stop using it for some reason. The specific reason will probably be different for each person and each time, but basically it stops working because (a) it’s not new anymore so it’s less interesting, and (b) there are things about the system that are incompatible with your processing type and/or particular executive dysfunctions.

How do we figure out what we actually need? Trial and error. Which sucks.

I wish there was some nice, clear list of steps I could share to help you figure it all out, but there really isn’t. This isn’t something that has easy steps. So what I’m going to do instead is talk about the solutions I have found that are working for me, and the changes I’m intending to make come January.

A pinnable image of a road leading off into the distance with the title of the blog post in the bottom right corner.

Processing Type and Executive Functions I Struggle With

As I said earlier, I’m a Micro-Visual processor. I like categories and boxes but I like everything easy to see as well. As for Executive Functions, I have difficulty with almost all of them (benefits of having Combined type ADHD I guess). What I’ve recently realized is that my processing type means that not all of the things that help me will help everyone else, but also my particular issues with executive functioning mean that I’m in a good position to be able to figure out different things that will help others. Weird but true.

When I first found a planning system that worked, I followed the advice in Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out. I highly recommend her books if you are also a Micro-Visual processor. Her strategies are easy to understand and adjust for different processing types, so they may help you if you’re a different type of processor as well.

Anyway, I’d been trying to use paper planners for years, but I could never find a system that worked consistently. I wound up getting a Palm Z22 (it was 2005), colour-coding and categorizing all of my tasks, and that worked for several years. When the Palm bricked itself, I switched to a Moleskine weekly planner, pocket size. It was just an agenda, and when it ended I moved to the Moleskine daily planner, regular size.

I stuck with the daily planner for several years. I liked having the full day with hours down the side so I could keep track of what I did each day as well as my upcoming appointments. There wasn’t enough room for tracking the things I wanted to track, though, so I started adding stickers and then little booklets I created on the computer. That got ridiculous.

I kept a bullet journal for a year or so, but I had to stop because I got stuck on making it pretty (which I knew was likely to happen but I loved the idea of how customizable it is) and because my hand does not do well with having to write a lot. It cramps up, and I have tendinitis in both arms anyway. Bullet journaling requires a lot of writing, even if you’re keeping it as simple as possible. So I moved to printables… which weren’t quite what I needed.

Again.

What’s Working for Me Now

My current planning system draws from Julie Morgenstern’s book Time Management from the Inside Out, the general ideas inherent to bullet journaling, a system I came up with through trial and error several years ago, BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, and the book The Organized Child: An Effective Program to Maximize Your Kid’s Potential—in School and in Life, by Richard Gallagher, Elena G. Spira, & Jennifer L. Rosenblatt. Overall, it’s a good system that works really well for me. There are a few little things that I need to adjust, but that’s about it.

I need to see stuff and I need to do stuff, so writing things down by hand (rather than typing them) helps me remember them better since that’s a physical action. BUT I can’t be writing a bazillion things down every day, because that will kill my hand.

The Books

I use Blueline NotePro notebooks. They use the same hole punch as the Filofax reusable notebooks but take larger sizes of paper.

The cover of my Daily Planner notebook, decorated with stickers.

I use a regular MiracleBind NotePro for my monthly/daily pages. The paper size is non-standard—9.25”x7.25”—but I design my pages especially for these books and it’s working well for me so far. One bonus is that my monthly dividers are from a regular “Classic” Happy Planner I found at the thrift store, and while they don’t fit perfectly (a little narrow) they work for what I need them for.

The cover of my Weekly Planner notebook, decorated with stickers.

My weekly planner is not in a MiracleBind, but the binding is still useable, I just have to punch each page twice, with the second set of holes halfway between the first set. It’s a Steno book, meaning that its binding is across the top, and it is 6”x9”. The monthly dividers I use in this are cut from card stock. I’d link to this notebook on Blueline’s site, but I can’t find it. They may have discontinued it.

I have decorated the covers of both of these notebooks with stickers that I really like, which makes them more appealing to use.

The cover of my Project Planning notebook.

My side planners are Filofax refillable notebooks. These take A5 paper, which is a little wider but a little shorter than a half-letter sheet. They have really nice fake leather covers, so I don’t decorate or label them; I just use different colours for different things. I have three. My first one isn’t in use much at all anymore, but I often use it to write ideas in. The other two are used for social media planning and project planning.

The Pages

A filled out monthly calendar page.

My monthly pages have been in my daily planner this year, but I am going to be moving that to the wall for 2023 since my husband and son need a visual system. I will probably create the pages myself so that I can have them be more functional for us all. That will also let me make changes on the fly, if certain features I try turn out to not be useful for them or for me. I received a 2-year monthly planner in my Christmas stocking this year, so I will probably use that for my personal monthly planning and still create a monthly wall calendar.

A partially filled out weekly planning page.

My weekly pages were a basic schedule grid this year, and it worked okay but I found that I needed a bit more detail. As a result, I’m adding onto the pages and they will be fold-out for 2023. The main part of the page will continue to be the schedule grid with a section at the bottom for weekly priorities, but I’m adding a meal planning grid that will fold out.

The Issues Log.

The back of the weekly schedule is (and will continue to be) an “Issues Log” (as per a video by “How to ADHD”) that I call “Making Life Work”. The columns are for listing what was hard this week, why it was hard, and what I can do differently next week. On the left of this table is a blank spot that will be visible from the front when the weekly page is folded up, and I’ll be using it for Post-Its with tasks I need to do this week listed on them.

A blank daily page.

My daily pages have a couple of important features. First of all, they are undated. Given my struggles with consistency, it makes more sense to write the date on a page that I’m going to use rather than have a bunch of totally blank dated pages. This also saves paper. Second, I don’t write out all of my daily tasks every single day—I’ll explain how I handle that in a moment.

This past year, the daily pages had a time tracking grid on the left half of the page, where I can write in the time and then note what I’m doing, The right half of the page had Goals and gravy, a method I figured out years ago that helps with Bad Brain Days (I explained this in this post), a place for other To-Do items, a water tracker, a place to list calls, e-mails, and texts that I needed to send, and a box for me to do Sketch a Day. In 2023, I’m modifying the right side of the page to include a daily habit that I want to work on, and I’ve done away with the extra to-dos and water tracker, replacing them with a box for a Post-It (for easy task transfer from day to day) and a box for tracking whatever I feel like tracking that day. The Sketch a Day box is now called “Distraction Depot” and I’ll be using it for Sketch a Day most of the time, but it’s also going to be great for whatever I need to use it for.

The daily assessment page.

The back of the daily page is an assessment. It asks me to list one thing I missed, two things I did, and three good things about the day. Then I can rate my day out of 10, and the bottom third of the page is for writing notes and thoughts, like a journal entry.

Okay, let’s talk about my daily tasks.

One of the problems I have always had with productivity advice is the whole “choose five things for your list and stick to that”. That doesn’t work when eating, personal hygiene tasks, and laundry need to be on your list! Unfortunately, writing everything out every day is time-consuming and hard on my hand, and it results in a ridiculously long, overwhelming list of stuff to try and get through.

My fold-out dailies list in action!

To deal with this, I have created a fold-out Dailies list and tracker page. It sits at the back of the month and moves over each month. My daily tasks are listed in the right column, and those line up with the little boxes that run down the edge of the daily page. When I complete a task, I colour in the corresponding box on the daily page. I am really proud of this system, not least because the folded over page functions as a bookmark so it’s easy to find the current daily page.

The front of the project page.
The back of the project page.

My project pages are based on a design I came up with when I was a church secretary. The front of the page is for details like what the project is, when it needs to be done by, and what I’m going to need in order to complete it. The back of the page is where I can figure out all of the steps I need to follow in order to do it. The front of the page also has a place in the top right corner, against the edge of the page, so I can colour it to match the life category it belongs to, which makes it easier to locate quickly. I do fill out a project page for projects that happen regularly, just because then I have all the steps written down and I can check it if I forget something.

My social media pages are just a basic grid. I’ve found that I need to make a few changes to the design of this page for 2023, but basically it numbers the weeks across the top and then lists what type of post and which social media the post should go on down the left. The boxes are where I make notes about specific topics for each day and post. At the top of the page I can fill in the month, how many weeks there are, and what the month’s theme is. I need to add a row to the main grid where I can note what printable or other item I’ll be offering that week, and some rows don’t need to have room for me to write stuff in them because I want to just use a similar type of content every time (e.g., tell funny anecdotes on Thursdays).

The last thing I have so far is a homeschooling planning page, which is a basic grid with the weekdays across the top and a column on the left for the subjects. Then I can write in what I want to cover with my son in the boxes. I haven’t tried using it yet, so I’ll have to report back once I have.

The System

Now, I use my phone calendar for appointments because I can tell it to remind me when it’s time to leave for said appointments. I’ve experimented with a variety of ways to incorporate technology into my analog system, and I do use it where it makes sense for me. For example, I keep my grocery list in my phone.

So here’s what’s supposed to happen.

Appointments go into my phone, then onto the monthly calendar. I also record things like paydays and bill due dates that I haven’t automated on the monthly calendar.

On Sundays, I make sure the monthly calendar is up to date with my phone, and then I transfer the week’s schedule stuff over to my weekly page. I choose my week’s priorities from my current projects. Everything is colour-coded using highlighters and coloured pens (I use Pilot’s Frixion erasable pens).

Every morning (or the night before) I look at my daily page and my weekly page, and I make sure I align my daily Goals and gravy with my weekly priorities, choosing tasks from the applicable project pages.

Why This Suits Me

This system suits my Micro-Visual processing type because it lets me categorize everything while keeping things easy to understand at a glance because of the colour-coding.

Being able to see everything at once by laying out my various books and calendars helps with my Attentional Control.

Having a dedicated notebook for project planning helps me keep things simple, and having a place to write down ideas is great for dealing with issues with Cognitive Inhibition.

The assessments that I’ve included help with Self-Monitoring.

Having that constant Dailies list keeps my repetitive tasks in front of me, which makes it harder to forget them (Working Memory).

Something I would like to incorporate more is adapting my schedule to make Cognitive Flexibility easier and to allow me to indulge my impulses (Inhibitory Control). I also want to schedule my self-care tasks (Self-Monitoring).

Planning, Organizational Skills, and Goal-Directed Behaviour are not things I struggle with as much as I do these other things, but of course having a planning system is useful for all of these areas as well.

What about You?

This system is personalized for me and my needs (and the needs of my family). That means it may not work for you, particularly if you have a different processing type or struggle with different areas of executive functioning. Has this breakdown helped you figure out why past attempts at planning haven’t worked for you? Do you have ideas for what might help you moving forward? Would you like help creating a planning system that will actually meet your needs? Please comment on this post or contact me via the contact form!

This week’s printable is a collection of some of the pages I’ve created for my own use over the years. If you are unable to print things or need to have it all done for you, you will be able purchase a few different types of planners over on Lulu soon (see sidebar link). If the cost is too high, please let me know! I will look into taking preorders and having planners printed locally, then sending them out once they’re all ready. Hopefully that will keep costs down, but I have no idea right now how much that might be.

Christmas has been a bit of time off for me. I’m rather proud of myself for sticking with weekly posts over the past three months!

Next month is January. New month, new year. New goals? Maybe. I keep learning more about how the ADHD brain works and how goal-setting can be simplified for us. I hope you’ll join me next month as I jump into some new ideas!

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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.

Planners: Your Processing Type

It’s December, and naturally we’re all thinking about the holidays (I hope last month helped you feel more prepared this year!) and about next year. What goals will we pursue? Should we even bother with New Year’s resolutions? Maybe this will be the year we finally get organized!

Well, this month I want to talk about planning and planners. Not so much goal setting and the like, though we may get into that at some point, but the actual processes of planning, choosing a planner, and creating systems that actually work for your particular challenges.

Pinnable image with four computer processor chips, each labelled with one of the four types described in this post.

Information Processing

The question of how your brain actually processes information can be described using a matrix:

 MacroMicro
Visual (also Audio)Everything Everywhere All At OnceColour-Coding
HiddenEverything in boxesBoxes within boxes

The planners you can buy tend to be for Micro-Hidden processors. They’re little books that you write in and carry with you, and everything is categorized and orderly, I don’t think it’s an accident that this is also the type of processor that most organizational systems are designed for. Somehow this Micro-Hidden style has become the expected “normal”, and I really don’t think it’s shocking that ADHDers tend to struggle to meet that expectation.

Most of us default to Macro-Visual, but if you think about the most functional part of your home or the type of planning you are actually good at, you’ll find which style is really “you”.

For example, I’m very much a Micro-Visual processor. I need auditory reminders, I like colour-coding my planner and my filing system, and even in the messiest parts of my home there are little pockets of organization where I have specific things in specific places.

You can also be a combination of types, just like with everything else. So as we go through strategies that may help with your executive dysfunction and planning-related issues, don’t worry too much about whether a given suggestion is meant for a specific type. More often than not, I’ll be describing the strategies as being good for either Macro or Micro processors, or as being good for either Visual or Hidden processors, rather than breaking it down into one of the four.

This idea isn’t mine. It’s from Clutterbug, a professional organizing company here in Canada. Cas (the owner) has done a show called “Hot Mess House” and she has a YouTube channel. She has ADHD, and her system for getting people’s homes organized is based on this concept. She calls each type of processor a different type of bug; I just distilled things into the base descriptors. Macro-Visual processors are “Butterflies”; Micro-Visual processors are “Bees”; Macro-Hidden processors are “Ladybugs”; and Micro-Hidden processors are “Crickets”. I highly recommend her web site and her quiz; doing the quiz is an easy way for you to figure out which type of processor you are!

The Best Planner for ADHD?

The axiom “the best planner for you is the planner you will use” is very true. I don’t think there’s one planner out there that will suit every single ADHDer, mostly because of the whole information processing thing. Couple that with our individual executive dysfunctions, and you have a lot of different planner needs. As a result, I think the most important thing is to identify the features that will help you the most and that suit your processing style, and look for a planning system that meets your needs in terms of both information processing and executive functioning. This system may end up being entirely digital, it may be entirely physical (written), or it may be a bit of both. What matters is that it works for you.

In general, though, a planning system needs to have the following features to make it truly useful:

  1. A calendar so you can keep track of the date, deadlines, schedules, appointments, etc.
  2. A way to keep track of your tasks, ideas, etc.

Everything else is dependent on your specific needs.

My Planner Needs

I’ve used a lot of different systems over the year, and now I make my own pages because I can’t find what I need in-store or even online.

As a Micro-Visual processor, I like to have things categorized and sorted, but I need everything in front of me at once. My husband and my child are both Macro-Visual processors, though my husband may be more of a Hidden processor in some ways and more of a Micro processor in other ways. But this means that a highly visual family calendar is most beneficial, and that keeping schedules and tasks visual for both of them—not to mention hard to miss—is essential.

You may have different needs, depending on which type of processor you are. This week’s printable is designed to help you assess your previous planning attempts, so you can start to really get a feel for what helps you and what doesn’t. Next week we’ll look at features that may help with the different executive functions. My hope is that by the end of December this year, you will better understand how you process information and what kinds of systems and strategies are most likely to help you with your specific executive dysfunctions.

Holiday Disruption & ADHD: Broken Routines

Something I don’t see discussed often enough is how much we ADHDers can get thrown off by a disruption to our routines, even when the disruption is fun or positive. Since the USA has Thanksgiving later this month (Canada had Thanksgiving in October) and Christmas will be a month after that, I thought this would be a great time to talk about strategies to deal with the many ways in which the holidays can screw us over.

Let’s start with routines.

Pinnable image for this post. A picture of a checklist on a clipboard with a cracked egg on it.

yes, you have routines!

Routines seem like the impossible dream a lot of the time, but I’m here to tell you that you have some, even if you think you don’t.

Do you always brush your teeth after you shower in the morning? That’s a really simple routine.

Do you always have spaghetti for supper on Wednesdays? Also a basic routine.

What typically happens is that we fall into routines almost by accident. Most people talk about routines as being these intentional things, but for us they’re more like magic, and they can poof really easily.

The easiest way I know to find out what your routines are is to actually write down what you do, in order, every day for a while. You don’t need to keep track of the time or anything, just the stuff you do. When you have at least three weekdays, you can compare the days and see what things you do in the same order every day.

Those are your routines.

Because a real routine is a collection of habits that are chained together, it’s not something we think about when we do it. It’s just what we do. The thing is, routines give us structure, which is something we struggle with. (See last month’s posts for why that’s hard. Executive dysfunction sucks.)

So when holidays come–or anything that disrupts our usual lives–those routines get disrupted, and it can be really hard to recover from that disruption. And the resulting lack of structure is stressful, which can make our ADHD symptoms harder to manage.

routine disruption

Routines can be disrupted in a lot of different ways during the holidays. Work and school are often cancelled, or if you work in retail you have extra hours. You might have houseguests. You may travel to visit family or friends. In some instances, your routines can continue as usual. In others, things are so out of the ordinary that you can’t maintain them at all.

So how do you mitigate this disruption?

figure out a minimal version

Try looking at your established routine and pull out the activities that feel most important to complete. That’s your minimal version of your routine. It can function as your alternate routine when time is short.

pick a different time

Maybe you can’t do your routine at its usual time, but maybe you can do it at a different time of day. Figure out whether that routine needs to be done when you currently complete it or if it can be moved.

do something else to get the same result

What is the point of the routine in question? Is there another way you can get that result? For example, if your morning routine isn’t going to work in full when you’re visiting your family because you can’t shower due to how many people are competing for the bathroom at that time, maybe you can break up the routine and move showering to a different time of day (see previous heading), or maybe you can clean yourself using wipes or a washcloth instead.

Do you have any other suggestions for ways to manage when your routines are disrupted? Please share in the comments!

This week’s printable is meant to help you figure out what your routines are, get an idea of what kinds of things might disrupt those routines, and come up with contingency plans for said disruption. As a bonus, I’ve included a worksheet to help you add new habits to your established routines.

Next week we’ll start looking at planning for the holidays. Disruption is easier to handle if you know what to expect, and that’s what planning is good for.

Back to Basics II – Types of ADHD

There are three types of ADHD: Inattentive Type (ADHD-I), Hyperactive/Impulsive Type (ADHD-HI), and Combined Type (ADHD-C). Is it really as simple as this, though? Well, sort of. Let’s talk about it.

Pinnable image for this post, featuring a person running up a flight of stairs towards a light bulb.

The first thing to remember is that ADHD is diagnosed based on observed behaviours. The second thing to remember is that the division between the types is really kind of arbitrary. The third thing to remember is that which kind you’re diagnosed with has nothing to do with what treatments will or will not be helpful for you, because regardless of what type you have, it’s still all caused by a problem with your executive functioning.

ADHD-I Symptoms

  • Makes careless mistakes/lacks attention to detail
  • Difficulty sustaining attention
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Fails to follow through on tasks and instructions
  • Exhibits poor organization
  • Avoids/dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effort
  • Loses things necessary for tasks/activities
  • Easily distracted (including unrelated thoughts)
  • Is forgetful in daily activities

ADHD-HI Symptoms

  • Fidgets with or taps hands or feet, squirms in seat
  • Leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected
  • Experiences feelings of restlessness
  • Has difficulty engaging in quiet, leisurely activities
  • Is “on-the-go” or acts as if “driven by a motor”
  • Talks excessively
  • Blurts out answers
  • Has difficulty waiting their turn

If you are a child, you need to show at least six of the symptoms of a given type for at least six months, in multiple settings; if you are an adult, you need five. They also need to be evident prior to age 12. For ADHD-C, you need to meet the criteria for both ADHD-I and ADHD-HI.

But what if we look at these again, through the lens of executive dysfunction?

ADHD-I is then characterized by difficulties with:

  • Attentional Control;
  • Cognitive Flexibility;
  • Cognitive Inhibition;
  • Goal-Directed Behaviour;
  • Organizational Skills;
  • Planning;
  • Self-Monitoring; and
  • Working Memory.

Meanwhile, ADHD-HI is characterized by difficulties with:

  • Cognitive Flexibility;
  • Goal-Directed Behaviour;
  • Inhibitory Control; and
  • Self-Monitoring.

ADHD-C, then, is characterized by difficulties with everything.

But, well, I don’t know about you, but I see an awful lot of overlap on the executive functioning issues. In fact, what I see is that the thing that distinguishes ADHD-I from ADHD-HI is that ADHD-I has trouble with Attentional Control, Cognitive Inhibition, Organizational Skills, Planning, and Working Memory, while ADHD-HI has trouble with Inhibitory Control. Both types have difficulty with Cognitive Flexibility, Goal-Directed Behaviour, and Self-Monitoring.

This means that it would be incredibly strange for someone to have “pure” ADHD-I; some of the criteria for ADHD-HI are likely to show up at least some of the time (and more often than they would for someone who doesn’t have ADHD) since they’re caused by issues with the same executive functions. Same goes for “pure” ADHD-HI.

Okay, this post is getting a touch maudlin, so I’m going to take us in a new direction.

Last week’s printable was about identifying areas where you need supports. That’s important to know as you’re looking to develop systems and materials to help you manage your symptoms and your life; the thing is, nobody is made up of only deficits. We all have some strengths, and it’s really important to know what yours are.

For example, I was diagnosed with severe ADHD-C, and I honestly do struggle with an awful lot of things I “should” be good at as a stay-at-home-mother. At the same time, I have some strengths that help me get by, and I’m hoping I can find ways to harness them moving forward.

Executive FunctionDefinitionExample of Strengths
Attentional ControlThe ability to control what you pay attention to. It’s basically being able to concentrate.Hyperfocusing on important projects or topics.
Cognitive FlexibilityThe ability to change your behaviour and thought processes based on changes in your situation or gaining information.Understanding different points of view.
Cognitive InhibitionThe ability to tune out unrelated stimuli and stay on task or follow a train of thought.Hyperfocusing on a special interest to the exclusion of all else.
Goal-Directed BehaviourThe ability to control your behaviour so that you’re working towards achieving goals.Hyperfixating on a topic or activity such that you become an expert in a short amount of time.
Inhibitory ControlThe 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.Recognizing which fidgets or stims are inappropriate in certain settings, and choosing alternatives that are more appropriate.
Organizational SkillsAll that sorting, putting things away, etc.Setting up solid organizational systems.
PlanningThe ability to think ahead and to break goals down into smaller steps.Breaking down large tasks or projects into small steps.
Self-MonitoringThe 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.Realizing that you always get hungry or thirsty at a particular time of day, and making sure you have a water bottle and snacks on hand.
Working MemoryThe ability to hold information in your mind so you can use it to make decisions and complete tasks.Keeping a notebook and pen on hand so you can write stuff down instead of having to remember it.

Note that these examples of strengths aren’t necessarily strengths in executive functioning; often we develop solid coping mechanisms in response to our struggles, and we should absolutely consider those mechanisms strengths that we have in those areas.

This week’s printable is a reproduction of this chart, with the example column blank. This is your opportunity to think about what you’re good at in each area of executive functioning, including ways you’re dealing effectively with your deficits.

You’re good at stuff, it’s just hard to see sometimes.

Back to Basics I – What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that primarily affects executive functioning. In simpler terms, the brain of a person with ADHD develops differently from that of a typically-developing brain, and those differences make it harder to control our attention and our behaviour. I recently had a bit of hyperfocus on ADHD-related stuff, so this post is going to explain why, as a result of what I learned, I’m more convinced than ever that ADHD is primarily a disorder of executive functions, just like Russell Barkley says.

A pinnable image of a cartoon therapist talking to a child. Text in the bottom right corner reads “Back to Basics: What is ADHD?”

 * Most of this information came from Wikipedia or the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.

The diagnostic criteria for ADHD in the DSM-5 are categorized as either inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity.

INATTENTION AND EXECUTIVE DYSFUNCTION

Inattentive SymptomsRelated Executive FunctionsExamples
Makes careless mistakes/lacks attention to detailAttentional Control Self-MonitoringUncorrected typos in essays and reports
Difficulty sustaining attentionAttentional Control Cognitive InhibitionDaydreaming during meetings or class
Does not seem to listen when spoken to directlyCognitive Inhibition Cognitive FlexibilitySpacing out during conversations
Fails to follow through on tasks and instructionsWorking Memory Planning Goal-Directed BehaviourStarting a task and leaving it unfinished
Exhibits poor organizationOrganizational SkillsMaintaining a chaotic living space, desk, locker, etc.
Avoids/dislikes tasks requiring sustained mental effortAttentional Control Goal-Directed BehaviourPostponing homework as long as possible
Loses things necessary for tasks/activitiesOrganizational Skills Goal-Directed BehaviourSearching daily for shoes, toys, keys, etc., often multiple times a day
Easily distracted (including unrelated thoughts)Attentional Control Cognitive InhibitionGoing off on tangents during conversations and in written work
Is forgetful in daily activitiesWorking Memory Planning Goal-Directed BehaviourWalking into a room and not knowing why

Attentional Control is the ability to control what you pay attention to. It’s basically being able to concentrate.

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to change your behaviour and thought processes based on changes in your situation or gaining information.

Cognitive Inhibition is the ability to tune out unrelated stimuli and stay on task or follow a train of thought.

Goal-Directed Behaviour is about controlling your behaviour so that you’re working towards achieving goals.

Organizational Skills are all that sorting, putting things away, etc.

Planning is the ability to think ahead and to break goals down into smaller steps.

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.

Working Memory is the ability to hold information in your mind so you can use it to make decisions and complete tasks.

HYPERACTIVITY/IMPULSIVITY AND EXECUTIVE DYSFUNCTION

Hyperactive/Impulsive SymptomsRelated Executive FunctionsExamples
Fidgets with or taps hands or feet, squirms in seatInhibitory Control Self-MonitoringClicking a pen, chewing on a pencil, constantly adjusting sitting position
Leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expectedInhibitory Control Cognitive Flexibility Goal-Directed Behaviour Self-MonitoringPacing while thinking or talking through an idea
Experiences feelings of restlessnessSelf-MonitoringAlways wanting to be in motion or to move on to a new job or living situation
Has difficulty engaging in quiet, leisurely activitiesGoal-Directed Behaviour Self-MonitoringPlaying loud games, talking loudly when indoors
Is “on-the-go” or acts as if “driven by a motor”Inhibitory Control Self-MonitoringMoving constantly, particularly the whole body
Talks excessivelyInhibitory Control Self-MonitoringTalking more than others in a group
Blurts out answersInhibitory Control Cognitive Flexibility Self-MonitoringAnswering questions in class without raising hand first
Has difficulty waiting their turnCognitive Flexibility Goal-Directed Behaviour Self-MonitoringGoing straight to the head of the line without being invited
Interrupts or intrudes on othersInhibitory Control Cognitive Flexibility Goal-Directed Behaviour Self-MonitoringStarting to talk during a conversation before someone else is finished saying their piece

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to change your behaviour and thought processes based on changes in your situation or gaining information.

Goal-Directed Behaviour is about controlling your behaviour so that you’re working towards achieving goals.

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.

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.

Obviously some executive functions interact with each other more than others, and that is probably what makes the difference between what type and how impaired we are. Granted, this is just conjecture, but it makes logical sense to me.

Of course, to the general public, ADHD is still just hyperactive little boys, and all of these issues we have are just signs of poor parenting, laziness, etc.

The printable for this post can be found here. It’s a copy of the symptom/executive function charts with definitions and examples, plus a blank version you can use to write down examples of your own executive dysfunction. I hope it’s helpful for you in figuring out just where you’re struggling, since knowing that can help you figure out supports.

Long-Term Planning: Goals Revisited.

Let’s talk goals.

I know, I know, we spent all of January talking about goals. But April is about planning, and the best planning starts with goals.

One benefit of ADHD, when it comes to long-term planning, is the tendency towards big-picture thinking. We have big ideas and big ambitions.

Unfortunately, ADHD also gets in the way of our long-term planning. It doesn’t matter how awesome our ideas and ambitions are if we can’t work out the best way to make them happen.

In keeping with what I talked about in January, we’re going to look at our big-picture goals this week. We won’t break them down into steps, but we will be talking about goals and how to create good ones.

Pinnable image for this blog post.

Now, time isn’t real and we’re definitely prone to struggling with how long things are going to take (not to mention how long ago things happened). As such, our long-term goals aren’t going to be really detailed in terms of deadlines.

The first thing I want you to do is daydream about your ideal life. Think about your career, your home, your family and pets, and your health. Write down everything you can think of that would contribute to contentment and a great life.

Once you’ve got all of your ideas written down, group them by category. Mine are: Home, Personal, and Work. You can have more, but I wouldn’t go higher than 5 categories and 3 is definitely the lowest.

Next, you’re going to write 1-3 goals for each category, using these ideas as the basis for each of them. Rather than writing SMART goals, we’re going to drop the “T” and use the 4 “A”s to guide us. The 4 “A”s (synonyms for SMAR) are Accurate, Assessable, Attainable, and Applicable.

Accurate goals describe exactly what you want to achieve.

Assessable goals are written positively, and you can measure your progress.

Attainable goals are within your power to achieve, usually through hard work.

Applicable goals make sense for you and your individual desires, preferences, skills, etc.

These are your goals. They should be broad enough that you aren’t stuck in one route to achieve them, but detailed enough that you’ll know when you’re done.

I recommend keeping these somewhere that you’ll be able to find them easily. Revisit them every 3-6 months and assess whether they are still applicable or attainable. They aren’t written in stone, after all: goals need to be adaptable to life situations—we aren’t static, and our goals shouldn’t be either.

Also, you’re going to need your goals as we work through this month of planning, so there’s that.

Goal-Setting for ADHDers, Part 4

So you’ve done all the work, and you have a to-do list made of small steps/tasks. But that list is kinda long, and it’s hard to get through. Some days, you can’t even get started on the first thing, because the whole list is just too much.

I’ve got you, don’t worry! There are a few ways to cut down the overwhelm, and that’s what we’re going to get into today.

Pinnable image for this post. Illustration of a man holding a long sheet of paper, looking stressed out. The paper says "What should I do?" on it..

Method the First: Use Categories

Remember how I suggested categorizing your life into different areas? Well, apply those categories to your to-do list. I highly recommend colour-coding your categories and using highlighters on the list.

Once you have everything categorized, you can split the list into multiple smaller lists instead. These smaller lists will be less overwhelming. Then you can have set times each day when you work on tasks from specific categories.

If these category lists are still too much, fear not! We have more options to cover.

Method the Second: Prioritization

Prioritizing can be pretty hard, but here are a couple of ways you can assign priorities to your tasks.

  • Order by due date. The tasks that are due soonest are higher priority than things that are due later on.
  • Order by how much you want to do things. I recommend alternating between things you don’t want to do and things you do want to do, just to make sure you get the unfun stuff done.

Method the Third: Triplets

Start with categories and prioritization, then group everything by what you need or where you need to do the different tasks. Then do the tasks in what I call “triplets”: groups of three tasks with a break after the third task.

Method the Fourth: Goals & gravy

When I’m having a Bad Brain Day, it can really help to set myself “Goals & gravy.”

Goals are important things that I need to get done, and I choose three.

Meanwhile, gravy is made of three tasks that I would like to get done but that aren’t vital.

I like to do a Goal and then a gravy, so gravy is like a reward for doing Goals. The best part is that if I do any of the other things on my list, it’s extra!

So there you have it: four ways to manage to-do list overwhelm! And that concludes our month of goal-setting. I hope some of the information has been helpful for you this month. Join me next week as I introduce February’s focus!

Goal-Setting for ADHDers, Part 3

The last two parts of this series were probably daunting. Makes sense; all this stuff is hard! I mean, I enjoy doing all the planning part, but I have a tendency to over-complicate everything, which naturally makes it easier for it to break down, fall apart, explode in my face.

So how do we set goals, and how do we achieve them, or at least make decent progress on them?

That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

It’s all about simplicity and making things habits.

“But J!” I hear you say, “I have ADHD! I can’t be consistent enough to make something a habit! I chafe at the rigidity of routines! I need variety in my life!”

What if I told you that it’s possible for ADHDers to:

  • Create new habits and
  • Enjoy following routines, all while
  • Incorporating the novelty and variety that our brains crave?

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, it kind of is. Because doing all of this, getting a system in place and maintaining it, isn’t easy. It’s hard work. But it’s worth the effort.

Pinnable image for this post.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read both Tiny Habits (BJ Fogg) and Atomic Habits (James Clear). Neither book contained new information, but both provided a reframe on how we form habits and why stuff is hard.

First things first, let’s talk about behaviour. There’s a whole branch of psychology that studies behaviour and how people (and animals) learn to do or not do things. Behaviourism as a discipline isn’t awful, but some of the ways this knowledge is applied certainly are. Happily, what we’re going to discuss here is pretty neutral.

The basics of behaviour are pretty simple.

  1. Antecedent—The “trigger” for the behaviour.
  2. Behaviour—What you do in response to the antecedent.
  3. Consequence—What happens as a result of the behaviour.

When you’re trying to figure out how to change a behaviour, it helps a lot if you can figure out what’s going on when you do it and how you feel during or afterwards. That’s where your “why” is hiding.

The other part that’s most important to understand is how the interplay of motivation and ability affect your ability to change your behaviour. Here’s a really simple graph to illustrate.

Illustration of a graph where motivation is on the left vertical axis, with low at the bottom and high at the top; ability is on the bottom horizontal axis, with hard to do on the left and easy to do on the right. The line of the graph starts at the top left (high motivation) and moves toward the bottom right (easy to do), travelling mostly vertically for two-thirds of the height and then slowly curving so that it begins to travel almost horizontally for the right two-thirds of the graph. The space below this line is teal, and it contains the words "Prompts don't work"; the space above the line is white and contains the words "Prompts work."

Motivation is on the left, and ability is across the bottom. The curvy diagonal line is the “sweet spot” where the behaviour is most likely to occur. You’ll notice that when motivation is low, then it needs to be easy to do or it won’t happen. If you’re really motivated to do it, then it’s okay if it’s more difficult.

We’ll, that’s how it works for neurotypical people, at least. Executive dysfunction means our graph is way messier and not so straightforward. But! If we make things as easy as possible, then often we can sidestep our executive dysfunction and actually get stuff done.

In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg gives a really simple “recipe” for building a habit.

“After I [Antecedent] I will [Smallest first step possible] and I will celebrate by [something that makes you feel great when you do it].”

Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg

There are two things that are really important with the Tiny Habits method. First is the Antecedent, or trigger. Another way to think of this is as a prompt. That’s why the recipe begins with “after…”: the new behaviour is something you’re going to do after something you already do all the time. It’s important to note that if you have low motivation to do something and it is really difficult, then that prompt isn’t going to work.

The other important part of this method is to celebrate immediately after you complete the new behaviour. This ties the excited feeling and burst of dopamine to doing that thing, which will help you remember to do it again next time. Remember, the ADHD brain has trouble with dopamine; most of us either don’t have enough or we don’t use it effectively. That means we are always looking for more. So anything that gives us that surge is something we’re going to want to do more often.

James Clear talks a bit about this (he’s done some studying under Dr Fogg), but his book takes things further and smaller (hence “atomic”—he’s going smaller than tiny). I’ve incorporated both books into my current approach to life and seen some success. So I’m going to explain it now.

The first thing is to figure out what you already do. It doesn’t have to be precise, just make a list of what you do every day, in order. You can do this for several days in a row and then see where things repeat—for example, I get up every morning and use the bathroom, then I make the bed and get dressed, and then I do my hair.

Now that you know what you do, it’s time to decide what you’re going to add.

Just like last week, we begin by dividing our lives into 5 or 6 different categories. This is important because we don’t want to take on too much. The point here is to make stuff easier, not to make it all as complicated as possible!

Now you get to daydream a little. Think about the things you value about each life category, and think about people you know or characters from TV, movies, or books (etc.) who exhibit those values and qualities. The idea is to think about what kinds of things those people do that reflect their values, because that’s going to get you to the next step.

Write down the things those people do and the values and qualities they exhibit. Then write yourself a positive statement that attributes all of these things to you. Start this sentence with “I am the kind of person who…”

You’re probably feeling a bit weird about writing something like “I am the kind of person who puts things away and does the dishes every day” if your house is a perpetual disaster. The thing is, this isn’t lying, it’s stating your values in a positive way, to remind you what’s important to you and why you’re doing the things you’re doing. It’s an aspirational message: you aren’t there yet, but you’re working on it and you’re doing your best.

Once you have a statement for each life category, you get to pick one thing in each that you’re going to start doing. Except you’re going to make that one thing the absolute smallest thing you can possibly think of.

Let’s say that you have a life category for physical health, and your statement is “I am the kind of person who eats well and exercises regularly.”

Thinking about people who eat well, you decide that you want to start eating more vegetables. But that’s pretty vague, and vegetables can be time-consuming to prepare, and they can be expensive.

So you decide to have fresh vegetables for an afternoon snack every day, and that you will get bags of baby carrots or snap peas, or a prepared veggie tray for this purpose every week when you get groceries.

You decide to keep these snacks on the top shelf of the fridge so you see them when you go looking for something to eat.

Your “recipe” reads as follows: “After I feel hungry in the afternoon, I will eat one fresh vegetable as a snack, and I will celebrate by clapping my hands.”

Most things you’re going to consider doing will require a bit of prep work, as with the example of eating more vegetables. The key is to keep the prep simple (e.g., by buying vegetables that are ready to eat and don’t need to be cut up or anything) and set yourself up for success by making whatever you need easily accessible (e.g., by putting the vegetables in a visible location in the fridge). Oh, and you definitely need to choose vegetables that you like and will want to eat!

So I think we’ve covered all of the important bits here. We’ve tied eating vegetables to afternoon hunger and made it easy to remember to eat the vegetables and to actually eat them. We want to be healthy, and we like the vegetables we’ve chosen. We’re celebrating as soon as we’ve eaten the vegetables. All of these things will help us turn eating vegetables into a habit.

What about consistency?

Well, James Clear likes to track his habits and he does regular data reviews and stuff. If you like tracking stuff and like data, go ahead. But it’s not necessary. In fact, BJ Fogg says that the common factoid of “it takes 28 days to form a habit” isn’t really true. And if you miss your habit one day, just do your best to do it again the next day.

That’s it. That’s how you do it. Be as consistent as you can, but don’t worry too much about a missed day here and there.

Obviously breaking things down can be hard. Same with figuring out how to set yourself up for success. But that is part of what Actually ADHD (and its sibling Tumblr, “How Do Thing?“) is for. So if you need help with any of that, don’t be afraid of the ask boxes!

Next week we’ll finish up this month of goal-setting by talking about a strategy I find helpful on Bad Brain Days, and we’ll talk about that all-important “immediacy factor.”

Goal-Setting for ADHDers, Part 2

Last week I wrote about neurotypical goal-setting strategies and SMART goals. This week, I’m going to delve into the concept of “objectives” and whether or not they’re really all that different from goals.

I am a strange person in that I really like breaking things down to make them easier to manage and to make it easier to know what to do. Granted, wanting it to be easier is probably normal, but I’m pretty sure that most ADHDers aren’t very interested in breaking projects or tasks down into their individual components or steps.

When I was working in early intervention, we had goals for the children that were quite broad. Within those goals were objectives: smaller goals that would support the child’s growth and development so they would ultimately achieve the big goal.

As I said last week, I don’t really like SMART goals. I prefer to keep my goals broad and to get more specific with my objectives, not long-term and short-term. Maybe that’s just semantics, but sometimes the words you use matter a lot.

Here’s how I do it.

  1. I divide my life into 5 or 6 areas that I want to keep in mind, and I assign each area a colour. The colours match up with some highlighters I have, and this makes it easy to mark things in my planner. My areas are:
    • Home (light blue)
    • Personal (green)
    • Work (pink)
    • Writing (orange)
    • School (purple)
  2. For each area, I think about what I really want things to be like. Some of them get broken down into sub-categories, like Personal (Physical Health, Spirituality, Emotional/Mental Health, Family, Friends) and Work (I have this and I’m a copy editor, among other things).
  3. I create my broad goals, which are really a picture of my ideal life if you put them all together.
  4. I break down each broad goal into its different components.
    • For example, if my broad goal is to have a clean, comfortable home where we can have people visit, the components will be cleaning the house, decorating the house, and having people over.
  5. Each component now gets its own goal, which is what I call a Long-Term Objective (LTO).
    • Sometimes different components for one area can be worked on at the same time, but usually there has to be some delay.
    • For example, I need to clean the house before I can decorate it or invite people over, but I probably don’t need to decorate before having a party.
    • I don’t give myself any deadlines.
  6. Now I break down the LTO’s into their component parts.
    • In the example of cleaning the house, each room will be a component.
  7. And now I write my Short-Term Objectives (STO’s), which are the smaller goals that I want to accomplish and that will help me achieve my ultimate goal.
    • I still don’t give myself any deadlines. Don’t worry, I’ll explain why next week.

Yes, that’s a lot of work. But doing it this way is actually less intensive if you do it every year, because those ultimate goals don’t tend to change in huge ways, and the steps you need to take also don’t change much. You’ll always need to study physics to be an engineer, and you’ll always need to exercise if you want to build muscle.

What do you think of this so far? Does it make sense to you? Do you think I’m being completely ridiculous here, or do you find yourself liking the idea?

Next week I’ll tell you why I don’t give myself deadlines. Hint: it’s related to a book that was really popular last year.