Productivity Advice Sucks
Have you studied tons of productivity methods or time management tricks only to find that they don’t work for you at all, or only work for a little while, leaving you feeling like the failure? (Here’s a secret in advance: it’s okay if a method only works for a while.)
Adults with executive dysfunction (ExD) struggle with conventional ideas about time management, because our brains lack one or more of the skills needed for the advice to work. People diagnosed autistic or ADHD as children might have had some training to develop their executive functions. But if you were diagnosed as an adult, or are self-identified, you may have always just thought you were lazy - never even realizing that there are people out there who can just do a thing without it being a big deal.
Keep reading if you want to learn how to work with your brain and stop fighting against it, in order to do more of the things you actually want to do, start living your life, and just feel better about yourself.
Need to jump ahead?
Does this already feel like a lot?
It can be hard for someone with executive dysfunction to read through a long post like this.
Jump ahead to the quick wins for some things you can put into action immediately. You can read through the rest later.
Even better - join the mailing list to have these things broken down and sent to you in a less overwhelming fashion. I’ll send you this whole post (well, the gist), except broken down into small, actionable chunks, beginning with six quick wins you can start working on right away.
It never seems to work
I consider myself one of the very least productive productivity experts in the world. I’ve read, studied, practiced countless books, blogs, and courses on how to manage my time, only to realize many years later that most of these methods were never meant for me because they were missing at least one of two key ingredients: an understanding of executive dysfunction in adults, and the importance of examining our minds.
Even methods made by neurodivergent people are often missing these elements, treating the poor self-motivation that comes with ExD as something you just need to will your way through. In fact it’s the way your brain is wired. Not exactly something you can just ignore.
All it did was make me feel like shit because lacking willpower is treated in our society as a moral failing.
After many years of wondering what was wrong with me, I’ve decided I don’t like the word “productivity” because it sounds like an obligation to output at maximum efficiency. Great for robots, not ideal for humans. Instead I like “intentionality” because my method has nothing to do with producing enough to be considered a valuable member of society.
You’re already valuable just for the fact that you are a human being who exists.
And in case you need to hear it, sloth is not a sin.
One of my new year's resolutions was to make bad art and I'm committed!
What is Intentional Time Management?
Intentionality is about spending the time you have on this earth in a way that you consciously choose to, whether that’s working, playing, resting, or probably some combination of the three. People talk about being intentional a lot these days with the western world’s newfound fascination with mindfulness, but my method does not require meditation (unless you just happen to like meditating!) As long as you’re spending your time on a way that brings you joy, you’re doing it right. Like KonMari, but for time.
It only requires you to use your time to your benefit instead of just letting it happen to you.
And yes, that means planning.
I know, I know I used the p word, which is scary for a lot of people with ExD. But you surely knew it was coming since you clicked on a post with “Time Management” in the title, so just trust me and stick with me a minute while we cover some basics.
What the heck is executive dysfunction anyway?
The executive functions are somewhat ill defined, as they are interconnected so it depends on how exactly they are described and grouped. They are defined here by The Orchid Center for ADHD as:
- Working memory
- Time management
- Emotional regulation
You may already be able to see how every single one of these skills is needed to use your time intentionally. And given that so many adults struggle with these skills, Executive Dysfunction in adults is something that really needs to be talked about more. We’re talking a substantial chunk of our population who is probably struggling in some areas of executive function without even knowing these skills exist.
Have you ever seen an ADHD meme on Facebook and thought, “Well yeah but that’s how everyone’s brain is…”
Neurotypical children naturally develop executive function skills as they mature, and these functions are thought to be fully developed around 25 years of age. Neurodivergent children do also learn new executive function abilities, but the gap between them and their peers persists. When a child is diagnosed with ADHD or autism, they are assessed for executive dysfunction and then are ideally offered accommodation and support to help develop these skills.
But what happens when a child falls through the cracks, and is either not fully supported in developing these skills - or is not diagnosed at all?
Executive dysfunction in adults is a significant issue for millions of us and it’s up to us to learn these skills without the structure of the school environment.
And that’s exactly why I’m here.
I don't have a solution to executive dysfunction because there isn't one. I still struggle every day. But I am learning how to build up my executive function skills while loving my brain exactly the way it is, and you can do the same.
Just one more quick reminder before we get to it:
Executive dysfunction is not a character flaw
We’re so quick to judge ourselves when something goes wrong, like we forget a meeting or end up 20 minutes late because we can't find our car keys.
But we would never judge someone with any other kind of disability in the same way. If a wheelchair user was on their way to a meeting and their chair broke down, would you blame them for not having things together?
Of course not.
It’s a failure of their tools, not of their character.
It’s the same for you. When your executive dysfunction means you forget a meeting, or are late completing an assignment, or leads to a pile of dishes, it’s not a flaw in your character, it’s just a flaw in your tools.
This is wonderful because it means you don’t need to be fixed. Only your tools do.
ABCs of Intentional Time Management for Adults with Executive Dysfunction
- Assess your time and your life. (This is the most important step for intentionality so you cannot skip straight to scheduling!)
- Block time on your calendar to dedicate to intentional use.
- Carry through with the plan you’ve developed.
Another way to think of it is that you decide what you want to do, then when you want to do it, then you do it.
You may notice these things all require executive function!
As different people may be lacking more or less in specific areas, you might find that you’re pretty aware of how you spend your time right now. Or perhaps you’re clueless about where all your time is going but you’re an ace at planning things out. (O HAY!) Or maybe you’re terrible when it comes to breaking things down and scheduling them, but once you have a list, actually getting it done is easy Or maybe you’ve always been able to do any combination of two of these with ease and couldn’t understand why your time is still so disorganized.
Or maybe it seems like you don’t have a handle on any of them in which case it's no wonder you're overwhelmed!
Whoever you are, I’ve got you covered!
It’s crucial to note that these “steps” are actually a cycle. You will need to periodically reevaluate your baseline and refine your plan when you find your behavior is no longer what you want it to be. So it’s okay if a process only works for a while because that’s part of the plan. This method accommodates that. It’s not about one tool or method, but an overall process to help you develop the specific system you need when you need it.
Assess your life
Depending how familiar you are with productivity methods, you may already be expecting to have to do baseline time tracking for a few days here, and you’re correct. But you need to know more than just where your time has been going.
You also need to know:
- Where all your to-do items are coming from
- What your executive functioning skills are
- What your priorities are
- What your goals are
- How you want to be spending your time
Let’s start with the easy stuff first though, okay?
Track your time
To change how you’re managing your time, you need to know how you’re spending time right now.
And I don’t mean for you to guess. You need data.
As you get started, log everything that you do. This is hard to do manually if you’re already used to not paying attention to where your time is going.
A time tracking app could be a big help for this if you spend a lot of time on your computer or phone. Rescue Time is the simplest because it automatically tracks everything for you, or you could use Siri/Alexa if you have access to a voice assistant to keep track of your time for you.
If you’re already pretty analog, any notebook works fine. Do not pull out your phone just to track your time or set a timer if you’re prone to getting lost on it for hours.
I color code tasks so I can see at a glance how much time I spent on Family activities versus Work or Cleaning. At the end of the day I have a calendar that shows what I actually did. This is so helpful because it helps you see:
- When you’re most productive
- When you have the most available time
- How much time tasks actually take
- That despite how it may feel, you actually did do some things
Analyze your time
Once you have the data, ask yourself these questions:
- Where are you spending your time right now?
- What are your habits and/or routines, if any?
- When do you have a lot of distractions?
- When might you be able to get time to yourself?
- When is it easiest to focus?
If you’re a parent, also make a note of when the kids need attention so you know how long you can get away with focusing on a single task before being interrupted.
Maybe it’s an hour, but maybe it’s only 15 minutes. Or maybe it’s 15 minutes before nap time but an hour afterwards. Look for patterns because that will be crucial information once you actually go to the time blocking step. Make sure you keep reading because there’s a tip in the carry through section about how to stretch this out a little bit.
You can also sign up for my email list. I’ll break all this stuff down into easy to digest pieces, plus your first email will include a time tracking workbook to help you through these first steps!
What are your time sinks?
Time sinks include any activity where the time just gets sucked up as though it never even existed. And they are not inherently bad. In fact, some things you might intentionally choose to spend time on could be one of your time sinks. But they absolutely get in the way of using your time intentionally.
If you’re an artist of any kind, making art might be one place you could spend a lot of time. You could get into complete hyperfocus mode and spend hours creating. This might be a great thing for your goals! So maybe once you pull yourself away, you get onto Facebook to post pictures of your newest piece and interact with your friends, and the next time you see the clock it’s 4 AM and you forgot to eat dinner and you have to be up for your other job in two hours.
Facebook might be important to your business, and I know many people for whom Facebook is their only social outlet. Spending time on Facebook could be crucial to every part of your life.
But that doesn’t mean that your only choice is to use it without any limits.
Gaming is another great example. Lots of people love it and want to have it in their schedule (heck it’s in my goals of things to do more of!) but if you have a tendency to get lost in it, putting some boundaries around it will actually make it more enjoyable.
So note your time sinks. Both the things you would really rather not do at all, and the things that you want to do, but maybe on a smaller scale than you’re doing right now. Start thinking about what kind of limits would make you happier.
What are your executive function strengths and weaknesses?
Remember the executive functions are:
- Working memory - keeping words or ideas in your mind while you’re working on them
- Time management - experiencing and working within the passage of time
- Planning/prioritizing - breaking down tasks and judging importance
- Organization - of both items and ideas
- Initiation - ability to begin tasks
- Inhibition - ability to say no to temptation or distractions
- Flexibility - ability to change circumstances with little disruption
- Emotional regulation - having emotional responses commensurate with the situation
Which of these are easier for you and which are more difficult?
I’m great with planning and prioritizing, and I’m generally good at inhibition, but I’m extremely poor with time management, initiation and flexibility, which means that once I do begin a tempting task (hey there Facebook), it’s extremely difficult to switch to anything else.
Knowing these strengths means you know where you’ll need more work, or more help. A system can help with working memory, time management, and organization, while working on your mind with a therapist or mindset coach can help you develop mental flexibility and emotional regulation, and an accountability partner could be great help work on planning, initiation, and inhibition. Join my Discord server (link) if you’re looking for an accountability partner, because I’ve got a channel just for that.
List your inboxes
This part might seem familiar if you've also studied productivity methods because it's essentially straight from David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method (if you buy through this link I’ll get a small commission, but this book is almost certainly available at your library). You need to have an idea of every place you have tasks/chores/appointments coming in.
- Paper notebook or planner
- Texts (especially if you send texts to yourself to remember things)
- To-do list apps
- Note apps
- Appointment cards from the doctor
- Your actual mailbox
And so on…
For me, most of the stuff I have to do comes straight from my brain, so my Rocketbook planner is top of this list along with the text chain I use to send stuff to myself and my email.
You need to know all your inboxes so that things don’t get lost through the cracks. And once you know where all these things are coming in from, you can start to think about where you might want to put any action items so you can keep track of them in one place instead of being spread out across inboxes. Some suggestions appear below in the tools section.
Make the to-do list
Make a giant, exhaustive “to-do list,” for lack of a better word. I call it my Master List and it’s best to keep a digital copy so you can update it daily.
Anything you want to get done, but are struggling to find time for, write it down on your list. Including housework, parenting tasks, self-care, and anything else you need. Also one-time tasks like getting an oil change or cleaning the garage. And repeating tasks that you want to become habits. If you work out of the home you might want to have a separate list or even a separate system for work vs. personal tasks.
This is not just appointments and projects with deadlines. Here’s a sample of some of the things on my list:
- Read to the kids
- Set my intention
- Manage my email
- Prepare my schedule (yep, your schedule needs to be on your schedule)
- Unpack my office
- Get to sleep by midnight/no screens after 11
The idea here is that any time you have an idea of something you want or need to do, you get it out of your head instead of trying to rely on your working memory. You're developing a system to store these ideas for you instead of putting all that weight on your brain. As soon as you start to trust this system, it will begin to feel like a literal weight off your shoulders.
P.S. It also makes starting tasks way easier when you don't feel weighed down just trying to remember all the things!
Define your focus and goals
First of all, let's define the difference between your focus and goals in the first place. A focus is a general category (health, finances, relationship, family, etc...) that you value highly and want to support in your life. Goals are actions you take toward supporting your focuses.
1. What are your top three areas of focus, in order?
Remember that priorities ebb and flow and will shift and change. Let’s leave out the should here and only focus on the three areas you actually most want to improve or strengthen.
Okay, what are some goals that would support those focuses?
Write them down.
Write all this stuff down!
2. Why do you want to focus on these things?
Motivation doesn't count unless we actually know what it is.
No matter how obvious the answer is, it’s an important one to cover. Many people with executive dysfunction are already pretty lousy with self-motivating, so we need to have a crystal clear "why" for every single goal we set. Write out all the reasons. Hang them over your bed or on your refrigerator. Don’t let it be obvious. You have to make it obvious, and make yourself understand to your bones why you want what you do.
3. Brainstorm at least 3 mini-goals for each focus.
I'm not talking about anything huge. You don’t need to publish a novel this month, but maybe you work on it for an hour every week? You don’t have to switch to all organic, made from scratch dinners, but maybe you replace one fast food meal with something quick at home.
These need to be the first small steps you take toward your goals. If you’re not sure, what works really well is to set a goal with a deadline, and work backwards. I’m a fan of NaNoWriMo - the project where we write 50,000 words in a novel in the month of November. We have a deadline and a quantifiable goal, so we can work backwards. 50,000 words divided by 30 days means we have to write about 1667 words every day.
For me, a goal might be to spend an hour of uninterrupted time with my kids every day by the end of 6 weeks. If I start with 10 minutes this week, and add another 10 minutes each week, we’ll have that full hour of quality time I chose to have.
If you still need help breaking down your goal, send me an email or catch up with me on Discord and I’ll brainstorm with you!
Start to think about 2-3 of the goals from your list above that really excite you to work on first. It doesn’t need to be one for each focus - if they’re all from your top focus that’s just fine!
But if none of them are from the top focus then ask if your brain is lying to you about your priorities, or about which goals it likes. Start over at A and really sit with yourself to look for these answers. Turn off the TV and put away your phone, if applicable, so you can actually hear yourself.
Not what you should care about most - what you do care about most.
Once you think you might know what goals you want to work on…
Make an ideal daily schedule
This is basically a daily agenda that is what your day would look like if you had plenty of energy and your kids were robots and nothing ever went wrong or surprised you!
Include time for your goals from the above list. Schedule your time in short bursts if that’s how you work best, or long blocks for things that you can hyperfocus on. This is a little bit of a fantasy so have fun! Consider it practice for the real thing.
Do be realistic about how long things take – and be wary of transitions.
Adults with executive dysfunction are likely to have a hard time working through transitions anyway, but throw kids into the mix and you can guarantee that moving from one task to another will take two to four times as long as it might take a neurotypical person without kids. Give yourself enough buffer time.
This schedule is not your calendar. That’s important to remember. This is a dream. A life goals schedule.
But it’s also important to make sure it’s not actually impossible. Like don’t schedule yourself for twenty-six hours in a day. Don’t plan on two hours of sleep. Make it something that you could realistically hope to strive for in the very long run.
Make your ideal weekly schedule
Instead of an hour-by-hour schedule, make this more of a task list for all the things you’d like to achieve every week - again - if the world were perfect and there was no executive dysfunction. This one is particularly helpful for things like household cleaning tasks or appointments that recur every week. Cross check it with your daily schedule to make sure there’s even time for everything, and cut back again if necessary.
You may well not have time for everything, so prioritize!
Maybe you want to sweep the floors in the whole house every day, but you don’t have time for that. Plan to do the kitchen and bathrooms one day, the living spaces the next, then alternate.
Separate out the needs from the shoulds
Society's pressures for all the things we "should" be doing are deeply engrained, and that goes doubly for women and people socialized as women. Make sure you're not equating societal pressure with your own needs.
Who is it that thinks the floors need sweeping every day anyway – you or society? Maybe you really only need to do each room once a week. No one is going to be doing a white glove test.
The app Tody is really useful for helping you set your priorities when it comes to housekeeping. It keeps track of how long it’s been since you last performed a task and also suggests when to do it next, based on how neat you actually tend to keep your home. Full disclosure: I picked the most slovenly setting.
Block (or Box) Your Time
Planning is a thing that adults with executive dysfunction tend to fall into one of two camps on: either you love to plan and spend hours upon hours making detailed and complicated plans you could never possibly stick to (it me), or you hate making any kind of plan or writing anything down or scheduling it too precisely, preferring to just do things when convenient (psst they're never convenient.)
We want to meet in the middle. Don't waste time imagining what the world would be like if you got a brain transplant tomorrow, but also don't let life pass you by while you wait to be overcome with motivation enough that you finally achieve your goals.
The science is on my side with this one. Motivation isn't sufficient for people to make real progress on their goals. Implementation intentions have been shown again and again over the past 20+ years to increase success rates in achieving goals, well beyond cognition and motivation alone. It is absolutely fundamental that you know not only why you want to do something but how you will do it.
An implementation intention just refers to the cue that will tell you to take an action. It's an if-then statement that tells you exactly when you will carry out your plans. One I'm using is that when I walk downstairs in the morning, the first thing I do is make coffee and check my planner while it's brewing.
Walking into the kitchen in the morning is the cue, coffee and then plan is the action.
If kitchen, then Coffee & Plan.
To make progress on your goals, you need implementation intentions.
Before we Begin: Planner - Digital or Paper?
To get started with actually getting your plan onto paper, you’re going to need, well, paper.
Or a digital planner, or a planning app. Whatever you like to use is fine, because this isn’t about the specific tools. Google Calendar is particularly good for time blocking, but personally Obsidian is my favorite for an app-based option right now.
I’m personally using my Hybrid Rocketbook Planner and using Trello as my Rocketbook destination, so at the end of the day my completed schedule is digitally archived in a visual format my brain loves, but I can use paper throughout the day.
If you're still not sure, check out the Tools section below for some specific options.
What is Time Blocking?
Time Blocking is a form of scheduling where you don’t assign each thing a specific minute, but instead aim for an overall time frame when you want to get something done. It gives more flexibility which is perfect for a parent at home with kids. It also doesn’t require detailed micromanagement of your schedule which is perfect for an adult with executive dysfunction.
Chunk your day into natural sections (mine are early morning, late morning, afternoon, evening, night) instead of worrying about breaking the day up evenly.
What is Time Boxing?
Time Boxing, on the other hand, is similar to time blocking in that you set aside a certain amount of time for focusing on one task, and when the time is up, you quit (with the option to wrap up loose ends or not depending on how you’ve defined your boundaries.) The Pomodoro method where you traditionally set a kitchen timer for 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break, is a version of time boxing.
You can use time boxing and time blocking separately or together. I have personally not done well with methods that require me to stop after a certain time (there’s that mental inflexibility!) but I know ADHDers who love the Pomodoro method so it definitely depends on your personality. If you’re not sure, try them both! And keep reading because we’ll go deeper into this idea in the Carry-through section. Here I will focus primarily on time blocking.
You may have already heard of habit stacking. It’s a specific type of implementation intention where you develop more robust routines by adding a new task to an already established routine. Habits are most easily formed when they are associated with a strong cue that won’t be missed. That’s why your current habits are such a perfect foundation.
Here's a few from my planner.
Whatever your routine is, write it down (even the easy parts) as you build it so you can keep the newer steps in mind as they’re getting written onto your brain. Also write down how long the routine will take. If you already have an idea based on data from time tracking, that's great. Otherwise pull out a stopwatch and go through the routine. Because the ExD brain is notoriously bad at estimating time.
Ideally, tape a copy of the routine to the relevant area. Your morning preparation routine could go on your bathroom mirror, while your dinner routine might go on the refrigerator.
Block Your Week
The point of planning is that we allow our responsible future-thinking mind make decisions for our inertial, unmotivated mind in the present. If we just let ourselves decide in the moment: “Should I get up and wash the dishes?” our brains are likely to say “lol no” but when we already made the decision beforehand, motivation doesn’t matter so much.
And when the decision is already made, we won’t get stuck in the loop of “But should I do dishes or laundry…?” because your decision was already made in advance. We allow our implementation intention to take some of the load off.
- Using a planner page with hourly breakdowns of the whole week, draw boxes around your time blocks. You could also use a planning app like Trello.
- Write in scheduled tasks, like school or work hours and appointments.
- Add routines and goal tasks.
- Take your list of ideal weekly tasks and break it into categories: working, cleaning, family time, personal time, etc… It’s okay if things don’t fit perfectly, or could go in two categories, just pick one.
- Put these tasks in your weekly blocks. I like to do themes, like a family block or a cleaning block, because it doesn’t require a full mental transition, but we’re not going for perfection.
- Take out items until your schedule looks like something you could actually keep. To begin with, I wouldn’t try to do more than one task each block, even if your blocks are four hours long.
(you could also do day by day, but I find weekly gives a little more flexibility, especially if your schedule changes day-to-day)
Does it look reasonable? Are you over scheduled?
Compare it to your current time tracked schedule. You don’t have to do everything right away, and trying to do so will make it more likely that you give up on yourself again.
The most important thing here is to build trust with yourself and show yourself that you can do this. If that means you don’t schedule anything new for the first month, then that’s fine. Go as slow as you need to.
If you’re using a calendar app for your time blocking, consider disabling almost all of the reminders on your calendar events. Yes, calendaring is important, but I don’t use reminders and here’s why: when you ignore reminders for things like “wash the dishes” or “brush your teeth” every day for three weeks, it only makes you feel lousy.
When you put things on your calendar and then ignore them – especially if they come with reminders – you’ll end up losing integrity with yourself. Each time you ignore an “event” it gets easier (Ask me how I know) until you don’t even see them anymore.
Ignoring reminders actually makes you more likely to ignore them in the future because shame is completely demotivating.
It also desensitizes you to the big important notifications like “doctor appointment.” Save your attention for the big things like this instead of the minutiae.
Generally time management advice cuts off before this part, you know - right when you need the most help! If the time block you designed is still too much for you (being honest, I would have planned something too big as well), here are some tips and tricks you can use to slowly build up to that point.
Build trust in yourself
I just mentioned that this is the most important part as you’re beginning to follow a schedule. You probably have a narrative that you've been repeating for years that you can’t follow a schedule, and if you set out to prove yourself right you definitely will.
If you’re like me, you’ve been breaking yourself down in your internal monolog for a long time and proving to yourself that you can do it won’t happen overnight either. Add to your to-do list slowly. My recommendation, and the system I’m currently using, requires me to only add 10 minutes per day of highly focused time each month.
It’s hard to imagine going any slower, but by the end of the year at that consistent pace you would have two full hours of intentional time every single day to do whatever you wanted. (Math nerds will notice that if you bump that up to 15 minutes, you’ll have 3 hours of intentional time by the end of the year.)
Below are some more tips for building trust with yourself:
1. Turn off notifications
I recommended it for daily calendar events, but even more so for other notifications.
For most of us, the phone is the absolute biggest distraction we have, and notifications draw our attention to where the phone wants it to go instead of where we have intentionally chosen to direct it.
I have notifications turned on for texts and calls, plus for my calendar app since I do get important reminders there. For calendars I don’t assign notifications in the event in the first place. I don’t even get notifications for email as I have a scheduled time I check each evening and don’t need my attention drawn that way otherwise.
For computer notifications, turn them off altogether! (Unless, of course, you have a specific use for computer notifications or if you don’t have a phone at all - remember that I’m just offering advice, and offers can always be refused.)
2. Use a timer
Another way to help build up that trust a little bit at a time is to use a visual timer. If you’re setting small, 10 minute goals, you can turn on the timer, and focus on that one task until it goes off. Here’s a trick if you really need to build that integrity with yourself: when the timer stops, you stop. That’s right, it’s a time box.
Some people have to prove to their brain that they are truly allowed to stop when they get to the end of the time without guilt or judgment. Perhaps they’ve tried the timer method before and pressured themselves into continuing until the task is done, or maybe they did quit but then beating themselves up for quitting when the timer went off, even though they’d already finished what they agreed to.
If this sounds like you, try using a time box as an implementation intention. Set it for 10-15 minutes and then force yourself to stop. Write it out before that you’re only allowed to work until the timer rings. You intentionally chose ahead of time that you would stop. Can’t blame yourself, you’re just following the instructions and living your intentional life.
And you cannot imagine how proud you’ll feel once you start getting used to it.
You have some choices for timers. Ideally you would not use your phone, since that requires dealing with the temptation for distraction. Voice assistants are a great option for timers, but my absolute favorite are visual kitchen timers.
My daughter's timer
I just bought a kitchen timer for myself, my husband, and my six year old daughter. These timers allow you to visualize how much time is left, which is great not only for adults with executive dysfunction, but kids too. I highly recommend one of these timers. You can find links in the Tools section.
3. Pick a single focus
This time I’m challenging you to pick one task from your list to be the one you want to focus on developing as a part of your routine right now.
You probably want to do most of them, if not all.
You’re probably thinking, “Okay, but in my case I have to pick six things at the very minimum because I absolutely have to do them every day.”
Are you doing them all now? Have you been doing them for a long time already? If so, then it sounds they’re already part of your routine. Since you already have a handle on those things, pick one more.
Oh, what’s that? You aren’t already doing them? So it’s not actually imperative that you start doing them every day as of right now with no margin for error, right? Because you’re surviving so far.
I have things on my list like washing the dishes, reading to the kids, and even some basic personal care. Those things all need to be done every day (at least according to my values.) The problem is that if I insist that they must all be done every day, they’ll never actually get done. Does that sound counterintuitive? If you also struggle with everyday tasks, I bet it actually sounds pretty familiar.
Remember that I honestly understand. I may have some things under control in my life. I’m following my routines. But I also don’t brush my teeth every day. I know I should. I know I "have to." But I don’t. Here's why:
I know that if I make it my absolute hill to die on that I have to do all of the things that I "have to" do each day that it won't help me do those things. My whole system will fall apart and I will just end up dead on a hill.
Instead, I trust that I will get to those things. Adding to my morning routine is on the list, but right now it's not the top of the list. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have my life together. It means I have it together enough to know what I need in order to build my day up sustainably.
So add one new routine to track at a time.
Okay so which one?
I recommend choosing one that is foundational – not the one that is the most important, but the one that is most likely to make your life easier. Because once you’ve got that established it’ll make it easier to add more.
I narrowed it down to either getting to sleep before midnight or preparing my schedule. Both are laying the groundwork for me to make forward progress on everything else. If you’ve read other posts you can probably guess I really didn’t want to pick the former.
I went with the latter. I committed to putting aside time every day to process my inboxes and make a daily schedule. You can do this even if that’s the only thing you're working on right now so there’s nothing else on the schedule to process.
None of this means that you can’t also do other things on your list. It just means that you only pick one to be the “I’m going to start doing this thing (most) every day” focus. Anything else you get done is a bonus. After a few weeks go by and your new habit starts to feel like second nature, start thinking about adding a second one.
But don’t overdo it. Be someone you can count on.
4. Be flexible
Easier said than done, eh?
Try not to overschedule yourself in the first place, but expect that the calendar you start the day with won’t be the same as the one you finish with. We’ve got kids who don’t understand how calendars work and have no respect for them. Luckily, digital calendars are excellent for letting you drag and drop to change times. Change them around based on your needs.
Try to commit a minute here or there through the day to keep your time blocks updated with what you’re actually doing. Delete the things you won’t get done today, reschedule the things that actually need it.
Remember to forget your all-or-nothing thinking. Don’t expect perfection. Moving events and rescheduling is responsible. Ignoring them or overloading yourself is what will make you stop trusting yourself.
You won’t lose trust with yourself if you have unloading the dishwasher scheduled for 9 AM but the baby needs to eat and you move it to noon. Or even if you reschedule it for tomorrow. It’s if a notification pops up and you swipe to dismiss it because you don’t want it staring you down that you’ll stop trusting yourself and your calendar.
If you're still struggling
Head down to the tools section where there are some other variations on these ideas you can try.
Find Someone Who Needs an Accountability Partner
I’m presenting this a little bit backwards, and here’s why: normal advice for you to get an accountability buddy makes it seem like you should find someone else who will keep you on track. It sets you up for disappointment by leading you to believe (if unconsciously) that you can offload this responsibility to another person. In fact, even if the other person were willing to completely micromanage your life, you can’t offload your mindset or emotional load.
Functionally it’s the same, but your mindset going in is critically important. You’re looking for someone with struggles too. Someone you can help. Helping someone else see another perspective is one of the best ways for you to work on your own perspective. Brainstorming ways for your accountability partner to get the dishes done could help you see new ways that you can get your laundry done. When you come in with a mindset of giving, you’ll actually get way more out of it as well.
If you don’t know anyone in your circle who needs this help, or if you’re afraid to ask, no problem! Head over to the Chaotic Organized Discord! We’ve got a whole channel devoted to accountability groups and finding an accountability partner for you.
Yes, you started planning and time blocking in step 2, but now in step 3 you have to keep doing it consistently. Unfortunately we can’t just make a great plan once that sticks forever.
Another way to keep yourself accountable is to take active steps to establish planning as an integrated part of your life. There should be an item in your time blocks every single day to go over your planner. I do it with a cup of coffee as soon as I come downstairs in the morning (implementation intention!) and last thing before going upstairs each night. My morning review is really quick because I already reviewed my plans the night before.
If you add absolutely nothing else to your routine, practice planning and over time you will see there is space for the rest of your intentional life to happen as well.
As part of this process, I like to write down my workflow in a kind of flowchart style. I include my inboxes at the top, then the processes that I need to get all of my actionable inbox contents into my workbox in Trello. That way I know I have everything in one single place, and from there I can actually plan and take action. For more information on the Workbox, check out this episode from Taking Control: the ADHD Podcast (actual contents of the episode starts around 13:45 if you want to skip to it) hosted by Pete Wright, a real-life diagnosed-as-an-adult ADHDer.
There are app and tool suggestions below in the Tools section.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve seen me mention mindset a few times. This isn’t about the law of attraction (eww) and it doesn’t require meditation, but noticing, and shaping your mindset will be tremendous in helping you carry through with your intentions.
I added a mindset practice to my morning routine, as one of my very first mini-goals, and it’s really straight forward. Every morning I set a timer for 10 minutes and spend that time setting intentions for the day (hey I’m all about intentions right?), but I do it a little differently from what I’ve seen from most people. I don’t just repeat a single sentence in my head, or read over a list of affirmations that I might not even believe.
I pick one sentence from a list of things that I do believe intellectually, but I would like to internalize more fully. As I’m writing this, the one I chose this morning was “Awkward is my brand” because it’s hard to put yourself out into the public eye when you’ve been told all your life how weird you are. But I’m betting on having readers who are awesomely weird just like me. Being awkward doesn’t have to hold me back - it can be something I embrace.
But that’s hard. Just passively reading that sentence for ten minutes every day would probably help eventually, but actively engaging with it works much faster. I start by writing the sentence, and then continue to do a complete brain dump on the thought until I’ve written a full page of support for it.
“Awkward is my brand because my readers relate to awkward. It’s okay for me to wear my headphones in photos because it’s authentic and people will recognize that and understand. Headphones and blue hair are a part of my look.” Etc…
Once I fill up the page, I read over it once or twice, until my time is up.
It is meditative in a way, but because you’re meditating on a concept instead of just trying to clear your mind of ideas, it’s a much more approachable form of meditation for most people with executive dysfunction.
Others starting thoughts I’ve used are “I can help one person” and “I can form routines (and that’s enough).” What are some thoughts you’d like to intentionally choose and support? Try them out when you have 10 minutes of quiet. Or do what I do and put on headphones with some chill music.
If you find that you’re struggling to find support, here’s a trick. Try writing your opening sentence as a question: Why is awkward my brand? How can I help one person? What can I do to form routines? Because our brains hate an unknown, they will desperately try to answer. If we ask ourselves the right questions, our brains will happily guide themselves toward our intentional mindset.
This is just a single technique that I use. There’s a ton of other options out there. Look into a thought ladder if you have specific thoughts you’d like to turn into something more beneficial.
When your mind is in a more intentional place, you will actually see it’s much easier for your time to fall into that intentional place as well. Working on strengthening your mind is the absolute best way to work on your executive dysfunction.
If you read through every bit of this post to get here, most of these will sound familiar, but here I pulled them all together into one easily accessible place. Here's some quick wins you can get started on right away!
1. Turn off your phone notifications:
About a year ago I took a serious look at my notifications. I disabled the normal spammy things: marketing, mobile games, social media, etc… But I went way beyond that. I disabled notifications from email, and other forms of contact that I wanted to be able to respond to on my own time. I get phone calls and text messages, but nothing else.
How many of your notifications would you actually miss?
2. Turn your phone to do not disturb:
If turning your notifications all the way off is too extreme, that's okay. Instead, try turning on do not disturb any time you want to focus on something. Managing your distractions is crucial for adults with executive dysfunction.
3. Set a timer:
A) Set it for ten minutes and run around to work on a task you’ve been putting off. Hop up and unload the dishwasher. Go throw a load of clothes in the washing machine. Write a paragraph for that blog post about Mindful Time Management. When the timer is done, give yourself permission to be done as well, even if you didn’t finish the job.
B) When you’re using up a lot of time on social media or TV or mobile games, or something else you might enjoy doing but you don’t actually want to spend all day on, set a timer for ten minutes (or until your show is over) and when it rings, again, give yourself permission to be done. If you aren’t ready to quit immediately, set the timer again until you stop.
4. Become an accountability partner
If you don’t know anyone in your circle who needs this help, or if you’re afraid to ask, no problem! Head over to the Chaotic Organized Discord! We’ve got a whole channel devoted to accountability groups and finding an accountability partner for you.
5. Use that notebook/journal:
This is for my writer friends in particular. Don’t play with me. You know the one I mean. Or perhaps it’s a whole stack that I’m talking about. Get out the planner/journal/notebook/whatever that is way too good to actually write in. And write in it. Do it now, before you overthink it.
Write “Fuck Chaotic Organized and fuck Raine. They can’t tell me what to do!” if you have to. That (stack of) notebook(s) is a symbol of your perfectionism, and writing anything is a symbol of ending it. And once you’ve started, you can use it to help make a plan of action. Because you need a planner.
A simple bullet journal doesn’t require any fancy lettering or art - although if you’re really worried about having bad art in your journal you could draw on a separate note and stick it in (making bad art was one of my new year’s resolutions).
Just write “Index” at the top of the first page, then turn to page 2. Write today’s date, then write 1-2 things you want to do today. Pro-tip: write things that you’ve already done and cross them off. Feels nice, eh?
6. Establish your focus
Now that you’ve got your journal out, let’s use it! Write your top three areas of focus. Think general categories like health (or mental health), family, finances, social life, etc… What are the three things that are most important to you and that you want to strengthen?
Next you’re going to put them in order - for this moment. Your top focuses will shift around and that’s okay. If you are looking for a job, that might be your top priority until you find one. It’s a lie moms are fed that our children must be our top priority at every minute.
Finally, brainstorm things you could do to support your focus, but - this is important - include the things you’re already doing. Hint: focus on things that would be enjoyable and achievable - I wouldn’t put “run a marathon” under health because I hate running and haven’t even run a mile in 20 years, but I like vegetables and yoga. Take credit where it’s due!
Don't have time to get started right now? Join the mailing list and the first email you get will be the six quick wins above. (Plus one bonus you might want to check out first!)
Apps I use
Tiimo - a visual daily planner designed by members of the neurodiversity community specifically for ND people. ($4.49/month paid to ND developers or about $3/month if paid annually!) They also have apps for Android and Apple smartwatches (none for Fitbit sadly!)
These rest of these are free apps: (some of the following will be affiliate links which means if you do make an account or sign up for a paid upgraded version I may receive a commission at no cost to you. Thanks!)
- Obsidian - in 2023, I use Obsidian for all my digital note-taking, task management, project organization, and even writing and publishing this website.
- Trello - A kanban app - a system with organized cards laid out in a visual manner (this is my go-to app for everything because I love being able to see everything)
- Todoist - a to-do app with natural language input. Supports several different views, recurring tasks, reminders, etc…
- Tody - for household cleaning management
- RescueTime - an automatic time tracking app that logs activity on your phone or computer.
- Toggl - a manual tracking app that allows you to quickly start and stop tasks and saves completed tasks to be restarted when needed
- Google Calendar - can be a great option for setting up your time blocks and adding the tasks you want to complete in that time within the description.
- Gmail - very robust search and the option to snooze makes Gmail a decent option for a place to gather all your to-dos, especially if many of them are coming through email in the first place.
- Timo - (not a typo, this is a different app) this is a routine building app that is meant for kids, but is really cool because it guides you through through each task step by step. (You finished brushing your teeth? Okay now get dressed for the day) Plus you earn stars to dress up your avatar. The only things it's missing are multi-user support, and the ability to add more than 3 routines.
Other tools I use
The following are tools I have tried, paid full price for, and fully endorse. This section does include affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase, I may make a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
I’m 100% a Rocketbook enthusiast. I watched the company for like a year before buying my first Rocketbook, and since then, I’ve bought (a whole lot) more of them.
If you’re not familiar, it’s a notebook that wipes clean when you use the included pen (Pilot Frixion pens which come in an assortment of styles), but also includes an app that allows you to quickly scan the page and upload it to a cloud destination of your choice. Most of the popular cloud storage options are available, as well as Evernote, OneNote, and Trello, which you may have noticed is my favorite.
Visual timers are particularly cool because you can actually get a visual representation for how much time is left. Great for kids and for adults with executive dysfunction alike.
I use this cute blue timer, and I got this yellow timer for my six year old. She carries it around like a stuffed animal, but mine is small enough to fit into my pocket. They're both magnetic but hers can also hang on a wall or sit upright on the table.
A smartwatch has a timer, plus it gives you a way to receive reminders and check notifications without pulling your phone out and send yourself way into distraction territory.
I wear a Fitbit Versa 2 and I love it. I chose Fitbit over other options because the battery lasts for several days, as opposed to Android and Apple watch options that barely last a day. But keep in mind that you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars for a smart watch! Amazon also has a ton of options in the $30 range. I particularly like the look of this one (note I haven't actually tried it!) which is compatible with iOS and Android and claims a long battery life.
Not actually one I use myself, but my husband started playing after I told him about preliminary studies which showed that playing chess can improve control of attention in people with ADHD. He has been playing for about a month and anecdotally says it helps him.
Might be worth downloading the Chess.com app if you like to play games anyway, because the worst case scenario is that you’re still easily distracted, but you’re also good at chess. And given the popularity these days thanks to Netflix, it’s always easy to find a partner.
Just make sure you set your timer!
This is a to-do system invented by Ryder Carroll (who has ADHD himself) and I’m sure you’ve already heard of it. But if you haven’t dug deeper into it, there’s a good chance you’re confused about what it is.
Bullet journaling is an extremely plain, simple, quick way to get your daily tasks and appointments down onto paper. Actually the foundation of bullet journaling is Carroll's system of "rapid logging" to get the ideas out of your head and onto paper as fast as possible. But as they do, the journaling community has turned it up to 22 with the art, detailed collections and goal trackers, hand lettering, etc…
What I like about it is that bullet journaling allows you to make literally any notebook into a customized planner. It has a lot to like for people with executive dysfunction because it doesn’t actually require much forethought. That’s what the index is for.
Just leave yourself some space for an index at the very front (although TBF you could do the same at the end) and record your new pages in the index. Then you can really put whatever you want wherever you want it, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly how many pages your habit tracker will take, because whatever pages it does take, it will be in the index.
Pinterest and Youtube will have tons of suggestions for how to bullet journal if you’re curious to get started. The Little Coffee Fox is my favorite bullet journal guru, but Shelby is an artist so if you’re looking for something a little more chill, this guide from the Art of Simple shows how laid back you can be.
I remember in college that a friend used to say that if you made a list of 10 things you had to do and ordered them by importance, that you’d do everything you could from the bottom of the list to avoid working on the top. It always stuck with me, because it was such a mood. The autofocus list uses a similar psychology.
If traditional methods of prioritizing have been overwhelming to you, or if you find in the moment that you just can’t bring yourself to the thing you’re “supposed” to be doing, then absolutely read the article below and give the Autofocus method a try.
This is a method from Mark Forster that suggests we shouldn’t try to prioritize our to-dos by importance because we’re not actually very good at it and it wastes time and mental energy. (Hmm sound like anyone you know?) Like the bullet journal, it requires essentially no start-up materials. Just a notebook and a pen or pencil.
In an approximate breakdown:
- List your to-do items in a notebook (or Obsidian).
- Scan quickly over each item
- Look over the list again, more carefully, and watch for what jumps out at you.
- Work on that as long as you can then cross it off the list
- If the task isn’t fully completed, add it to the end of the list
The idea is that your conscious mind will worry about picking the “right” task, which leads to a brain that is exhausted before it even starts working. But if you allow your subconscious mind some say, you’ll get a lot more done because you’ll always be working on the thing that motivates you in the moment.
It’s important to draw the distinction here between what the autofocus list actually asks you to do and traditional advice of picking the most important thing off a list of 100 and doing that. Doing the latter is in general very difficult for anyone, but especially adults with executive dysfunction because it leads to decision fatigue. You are NOT looking for the most important task, just the one you're driven to work on in the moment.
I use a modified version of the autofocus list for my work tasks. Each week I write out the list of all the work-related tasks to do that week. It’s only like 10 items which makes it very manageable, and so far I’ve been able to get most everything done on the list. (Granted I’ve only been using it three weeks.) But it has felt so nice that I would like to experiment with it on a larger scale as well.
Wow, that was a lot. For anyone keeping track, this post is over 10,000 words! It’s almost into novella territory.
And the really wild thing is that I cut a ton out. Some things will be repurposed into full posts of their own, and some I will use in the email breakdown of this post.
Don’t forget to sign up for the email list so I can get the condensed, more actionable version of this post to you, along with a bunch of bonus content to make it easier to take action on these tools. My newsletter is full of that kind of exclusive content, along with offers and tips, and you don’t even need to use your working memory because I send it straight to you.