You know planning is a good thing. But, if you’re like most adults with ADHD, when you think of planning the first thing that comes to mind might be, “Yeah, I know I should do more. But I don’t. It’s too hard.” You might also think of the adage, “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail.”
And I imagine the combination of these thoughts doesn’t motivate you to want to learn how to do better. So, you may be alternating between too much planning and not enough right now. Because you’re just not sure how to do it any other way.
The good news is there is a way to get out of this stuck place. Because it really is possible to figure out how to do just enough planning. So you are not avoiding it altogether or using it to procrastinate. Ready to see how you can do this?
Planning Helps ADHD Adults Reduce Stress and Overwhelm
You’re already familiar with the typical reasons for planning. You know it offers you a roadmap to help you reach your goals. And you also know it can help you anticipate potential roadblocks so you can address them in advance. All good stuff, for sure. But that’s old news for you.
Another reason to plan is to prevent the cognitive overload that can result from the deluge of thoughts ricocheting around in your brain. Because when you don’t do just enough planning the constant loop of questions, exhortations and self-recriminations running around in your head can cause you a great deal of stress and overwhelm. They may include:
- “I have to do…”
- “Did I remember to…?”
- “What about…?”
- “Oh, man, I forgot…, again!”
When this happens your working memory becomes overloaded with these worries. And then you don’t have enough room in your brain to do your most creative and best work.
But when you plan you can minimize this endless loop of worries and make room for more creative thinking. Also, when you quiet this noise, you will be better able to manage your stress and overwhelm. Nice, right?
Why Planning Is Hard for Adults with ADHD
Yet, planning is hard for adults with ADHD. I know you’ve tried…
When you first look into productivity methodologies, like David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you may think this is the ticket! You think, “A lot of people use it and it really seems to make sense.” Yet, you may struggle to implement it on your own.
Part of the reason for your challenges is that GTD, like many other methodologies, is founded on assumptions — seen in David Allen’s quote below — that do not hold true for adults with ADHD.
“…everything I propose is easy to do. It involves no new skills at all. You already know how to focus, how to write things down, how to decide on outcomes and actions, and how to review options and make choices.”
You already know from experience, you have a hard time using these skills. And that is because these are precisely the executive function impairments you have because of your ADHD and can interfere with your ability to plan. Of course, this doesn’t mean you are unable to plan. It simply means you will need support to adopt the necessary skills.
But it is helpful to know planning may be a challenge because of your ADHD so you can avoid spiraling into shame when you can’t do what everyone else seems to be able to do. Rather, this understanding, along with support, will hopefully allow you to persist in doing just enough planning.
Have a Plan to Plan
You know that starting on anything is often the hardest part for you. And this includes planning, of course. So, to set yourself up for success you need to answer the following questions:
- When am I going to plan?
- Where’s the best place to do my planning?
- How am I going to get the accountability I need to follow through?
- Who can support me in the process of planning?
- What am I going to do when I inevitably get stuck?
- Other questions?
Yes, that’s right, you need a plan to plan. It never ends, right? 😊
Never Do Your Planning in Your Head
You know if you try to create a plan in your head it can feel overwhelming as the thoughts bounce around — one thought colliding into another. And you often feel like you’re no further along in figuring out what you need to do. The key to avoiding this is to externalize your thinking.
One way to get out of your head initially is to write your ideas down randomly or use a more structured tool, like a mind map. Using a mind map can help you make connections between all the ideas. Then, when you are ready to execute, you can transfer the specific tasks to a task manager.
Another way to get out of your head is to have a thought partner you can think aloud with as you think through your plan. I often serve in this role for my clients. The advantage of using a thought partner is that, as you think aloud, you will be able to conceptualize your plan in a more organized way.
The role of your thought partner will vary depending on your needs. You may just need him or her to listen as you think aloud. Alternatively, you may want your thought partner to help you clarify your thinking by asking you questions, such as:
- What is the first step?
- Would it be helpful to do anything else before this first step?
- What kind of support do you need and who can provide this?
- Is there anything that might get in the way that you need to consider?
- Is there someone who can help hold you accountable?
- Other questions?
However you decide to externalize your thinking when planning the key is to get out of your head.
Do a Planning Deep Dive 1x a Week
Of course, there are many different types of planning. One type of planning that is a game changer for adults with ADHD is the practice of doing a deep dive of a weekly review.
A practice of weekly review:
- offsets the pull of immediate gratification many ADHD Adults experience.
- helps you to be more intentional because you have a clear overview of everything on your plate.
- reminds you of your priorities, intentions and best practices.
- minimizes the need to rely on your memory, which you know is notoriously unreliable.
- reduces your overwhelm because you will not need to process information running around in your head while you are on the go.
- provides you with the confidence that you are not forgetting about your commitments.
If you decide to incorporate this practice into your week, I’m sure you will experience several of these advantages. And, if you want to learn how to do this, check out The ADHD Adult’s Guide To The Weekly Review.
Plan Your Projects So You Can Close the Loop
Part of the process of the weekly review is planning out your projects. And I know planning is not your strong suit, right? That’s okay. You just need to plan well enough so you’re heading in the right direction.
One way to do this is to create a reverse timeline to ensure you’ll be able to deliver on time. In the example below, you can see how Bill, with the help of his colleague, created a timeline for the presentation he needed to deliver to a client.
- presentation due March 15th
- have Gabby do last minute edits – March 13th
- deliver to Sally, his boss, by March 11th for review.
- complete one section per week for the next 4 weeks.
- write the introduction this week.
As is true for most ADHD Adults, you probably resist and resent too much structure, as it feels suffocating for you. Yet, you know, if you do not have enough structure, you can stay stuck for a long time. The trick, of course, is to find the balance between too much structure and not enough.
When you have an idea of how to proceed you can both feel more confident you can deliver on time and have an easier time starting. Because the project will not feel so daunting and insurmountable.
Planning Your Day So You Know Where to Focus
You know that, when it comes to accomplishing what is important to you, it matters what you do each and every day. Yet, because of your ADHD challenges, the time may just slip away. So, even if you are working really hard, you may not do what you intend or what is most important.
Instead, you might start off your day by doing whatever first comes to mind. And, of course, that may be checking email. Then, as you go through your day, you may continue to do what seems most urgent or interesting. And, of course, you may also lose time to a distraction or two, right?
To avoid just meandering through your day have a plan that includes:
- your scheduled appointments
- the 2 to 3 tasks you must get done each day. I’m sure there’s more you’d like to get done though.
- time blocks to work on projects
- enough buffers and downtime
Then make your plan visible so you don’t forget it. You might want to write it on a whiteboard or just on a piece of paper next to you. And keep coming back to the 2 to 3 important tasks identified at the beginning
Above all, trust the plan! It will never be the perfect plan. Is there such a thing? But questioning the plan, and trying to make decisions midstream will only cause you more stress and overwhelm during the day
For a more in-depth look at how to plan each day check out The 7 Ways for ADHD Adults to Focus on What is Important Each Day.
Be Careful Not to Do Too Much Planning!
Yes, of course, planning is important. But it is also possible to get stuck in the planning mode because you:
- have a long list of little tasks and aren’t sure how to plan to do them.
- just can’t figure out how to start.
- are afraid you might make a mistake.
- want to create a perfect plan.
- don’t trust your instinct.
For workarounds to address the above challenges check out, When Planning Is Overrated for Adults with ADHD.
Have an Experimental Mindset
Of course, sometimes your plan will not work out. In part, this is because you are not in control of all the factors involved in a successful outcome. Having an experimental mindset can help you figure out how to address the inevitable challenges. So, you can bounce back and not get stuck when things don’t work out.
Where can you start experimenting with planning today?