(originally published August 22, 2014, updated November 13, 2020)
Do your days often seem like a struggle with time — feeling the stress of falling behind, wanting more hours in the day, experiencing the overwhelm of the minutes ticking by? Even on those days when you start with a plan. And then, when you don’t feel you accomplished enough, do you work long past the time you wanted to stop?
And at the end of those long days you think to yourself, “If I only managed my time better, I wouldn’t feel like this and would get more done.” And then you may wonder, “Why can’t I get my stuff done just like everyone else.” Then this thinking might lead you into a shame spiral, further hindering your productivity.
So, instead of doing your work, you start googling some variation of “ADHD and time management.” You just want to know how to get all your stuff done! You convince yourself it’s a good use of your time. Because, if you could figure this out, you would stay on top of your work once and for all, right?
You can’t get all your stuff done. At least right now. Wait! Don’t stop reading just yet. I know that’s not what you want to hear. But, if you’re willing to stick with me, I’ll guide you on a journey to learn how you can combine task management and time management to be productive and less stressed.
Curious? Let’s get on with it.
Why Time Management May Be the Preferred Strategy for ADHD Adults
If you tend to use time management as your primary strategy, you likely start each day by enumerating the tasks you want to complete. You may or may not look at your calendar to see how much time you have available. But you likely do make your list from memory, guided by your sense of urgency.
Then you play a game of beat the clock, hoping you’ll get through at least most of the list. But not really confident about what you can get done. Of course, you know, as a former client often said, “Hope is not a strategy.” But it may be the only strategy you have in your toolbox right now to get your stuff done.
Some of the reasons you may use time management as your go-to tactic right now are:
- you don’t know of any alternative way of operating, yet.
- the skills — estimating time, sequencing tasks, prioritizing, etc. — involved in making decisions about how to strategically execute on your tasks are difficult for you because of your ADHD.
- filling up your calendar is just easier to do.
- looking at a long list, if you have one, just reminds you of all your open loops, and contributes to your stress and overwhelm. So, you resist engaging in your task list in a strategic way.
- you like the transient reward you feel — dopamine hit — from completing a lot of tasks, regardless of whether they’re the most important ones or not. Think of trying to achieve Inbox Zero.
So, you go through each day jumping from one task to the next, filling up your time with as many tasks as you can complete.
Why Time Management Alone Doesn’t Work for ADHD Adults
And, when you try to be more efficient with your time, you might get more done. Yet, you won’t be any more content. In fact, you’ll probably be more overwhelmed as you attempt to cram more and more into every minute of the day. It might feel like you’re on a hamster wheel, running faster and faster, shifting from task to task until the clock runs out for the day. But not reaching your goals.
Because, not only will you feel even more stressed and overwhelmed, but you may also not get your essential — important — work done. Even though you’re striving to get stuff done so you can tick off the boxes of your long to-do list. But are you getting what’s most important to you done?
After all, you’re reading this because you need to get more done than you’re able to right now. But I also know you don’t just want to get random stuff done. You want to be productive. And being productive is doing what’s important — essential — to you based on your values.
Because eventually, the temporary sense of reward you get from ticking off boxes will subside. Then, when you don’t get done as much as you hoped, regardless of how much you did, you might decide you wasted your day. You may even think to yourself, “I didn’t get anything done!” And feel like you’re not enough when you don’t get enough done.
So how about if you stop hoping and be more strategic? Ready to see how you can get more of what’s important to you done?
Step 1 – Decide What’s Essential
To do this you first need to decide where you want to focus your time and attention. As Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, suggested, decide where you want to excel — go big. This decision will inform how you decide to spend your time and energy. At least it should if you want to be productive.
Because remember being productive is doing what’s important to you. For example, scouring the internet to learn the most popular baby names for the last 20 years might be procrastination. Unless being a trivia master is important to you, as is true of a client of mine. After all, her interest and trivia did allow her to secure a spot on Jeopardy, a lifelong dream of hers.
Whether you want to excel in games of trivia, parenting, your profession, being a partner, etc., the next step is to decide what actions you need to take to make this happen. Then, of course, you’ll need to execute on these actions to achieve your goal(s).
Step 2 – Consistently Capture All Your Tasks on The Same List
You’ll first need to “remember to remember,” by consistently putting all your essential tasks on the same master list. It just doesn’t work to have tasks in your email, some on stickies, a few on a notepad, others in your head, etc. You already know what happens when you do this. You forget some tasks and are often worried about what you might be forgetting.
It’s fine to have more than one master task list, as long as you’re consistent about what you put on each one. For example, if you have clients, you may use a customer relationship management (CRM) tool for prospects and client-related tasks and another task manager for non-client related tasks.
Whatever you choose to use, I know having a long to-do list can be scary. One reason is, as I noted above, it reminds you of all your open loops — all the tasks you need to do and are not doing right now. And for the ADHD adult there is now and not now.
This contributes to the second reason a long to-do list may fill you with fear. And that is when you look at your list, if you have one, you may think, “I can’t do this all!” Underlying this fear is the thought, while, perhaps, not conscious, you have to do it all right now. To alleviate this thinking and accompanying fear, you’ll want to remind yourself, “I’ll need to strategize how to accomplish this over time and reach out for help figuring it out if I need it.”
But the thought of strategizing may feed the third reason you resist managing a task list. You’re just not sure how to do this! After all these skills don’t come easy for adults with ADHD. But you can start upgrading these skills by taking the steps below.
Step 3 – Update Your Task List on A Weekly Basis
You may initially get excited to use a new tool. But, if you don’t update your list every week, you won’t trust it’s up to date. Because, well, it’s probably not. And, if you don’t trust it’s up to date, you’ll be less likely to use it. Because you won’t trust that it’s useful. And then, when you stop using it, you won’t trust it’s up to date.
I think you’re getting how cyclical this is, right?
But it’s not a good use of your time, nor do you have the time, to update your task list every day. If you are doing this daily, you are spending too much time in planning mode and not enough in doing mode. Instead you want do this deep dive during your weekly review and planning session. This is the time when you will:
- Review the status of your projects, and make sure you have at least one action step for each. Also, add new tasks and mark off completed tasks.
- If you are stuck, consider what you need to do to move forward, including asking for help.
- If you are waiting for someone to do their part, make sure you are tracking these along with due dates to check in with the person. As with your own tasks, if you’re stuck because you don’t have what you need from someone else, decide how to navigate this so you can get what you need.
- Review your Maybe/Someday List. Decide whether you want to take action, leave them on the list or delete them.
Next, I want to focus on my favorite part of my to-do list. And, hopefully, will be part of your task list, too.
Step 4 – Make Sure You Have a Maybe/Someday List
First, let me start by making sure you know what a maybe/someday list is. I’ve had clients put tasks on their maybe/someday list when they didn’t want to do them. I’ve also had clients make commitments to do a task and then put it on this list because they didn’t know when or how they would do it.
I get the inclination to do this. Because for adults with ADHD, as I pointed out above, either you’re doing a task right now because it feels urgent or you’re not doing it now. And it’s uncomfortable not knowing when you’re going to do something, right? But, if you intending to do a task, it doesn’t belong on your maybe/someday list.
So here is the key to using maybe/someday list.
As an adult with ADHD, you have lots of great ideas. And I know you don’t want to forget them, right? So, you may be tempted to put it on your task list as a reminder. But then, even if you have no bandwidth or intention to do it, having it on your active list just adds to your overwhelm.
The alternative is to add all those tasks you have no bandwidth or intention of doing right now to your maybe/someday list. When you do this, you are making the decision that “I have no intention of doing these.” And then during your weekly review, you can review this list to see if you want to keep them on the list, delete them or make them actionable.
You might find your maybe/someday list is longer than your active list. At least that’s true of mine. And that’s OK. at least you have more clarity on your active list — tasks you’re intending to do so you can achieve what is essential to you.
Next Steps – ADHD Time Management = What + When
Once you’ve done all the above, then you’ll want to include time management into the mix. Because a list, even if it includes all the right tasks, without an execution plan will not help you do what’s important to you. You already know that, though. So, when you’ve done the hard work of making the above decisions, you’ll want to figure out the best way to execute on those tasks.
There are several factors you’ll need to take into consideration. And that will be the topic up my next post. So please stay tuned…