MeFites with ADHD experience: help me structure my life (if possible)
April 7, 2015 1:22 AM   Subscribe

I find it frustrating, and more than a little ironic, that some of the most common advice to adults with ADHD is to "find and stick to a routine," or "make a schedule and hold yourself to it." But that is exactly my problem; I CAN'T DO THOSE THINGS. Or am I still missing something?

I desperately want my life to be different, and have developed little habits that work very well against forgetfulness/clutter ("everything has a place," the 2-minute rule for cleaning up, etc.).

But routines/plans of a longer time frame, say, more than a few hours, are extremely difficult to maintain. External structure helps, but has limited effectiveness if I'm not very motivated, and is not always practical or available for some of my goals.

I've tried very sincerely for years now to change myself but nothing sticks. I truly marvel at people who have "morning/bedtime routines" and "weekly schedules." Keeping my naturally chaotic/impulsive nature under minimal control takes everything I've got (just getting myself to brush my teeth twice a day is a daily negotiation, even though I LIKE it!).

I've read here in the Green and elsewhere that being medicated can help with this stuff, but due to my current circumstances this is not an option for me (it may be in the future and I will be more than happy to try then). Therapy will begin in 5 months at earliest. In the meantime, I'm desperate!

Is there any hope for a financially strapped, recently diagnosed ADHD (combined type) 30-year old like me, unmedicated but very motivated to address this issue? What are your tips, tricks, anecdotes and experiences? Thanks for reading!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of things are you talking about? If you mean morning/evening routines, mine is set by my job, and falls apart completely when I have variable shift times. If your job is unpredictable, you could at least have fixed times for getting up and going to bed - that makes a disproportionately big difference to how much I get done in a day.
posted by tinkletown at 2:48 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I make to-do lists and allow my self to bounce from one thing to another as long as it is still on my list. I think of it as focusing my chaos towards a defined goal. When I find myself way off topic I'll look at my list and refocus. This lets my brain work as it wants to, but I still get things done.
posted by KMoney at 5:10 AM on April 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

Are you trying to structure TOO MUCH?
With my coaching clients, I always help them break things down to their smallest essence.
Are you taking too big of a bite, when you should be nibbling?

I agree with Tinkletown in that a few examples of what's working and what's not working and what you're trying to do would be MUCH more helpful and allow us to give better advice toward your particular issue.

I always recommend Google calendar for my clients that lean toward overwhelm and remind them that they can put something on the calendar instead of trying to remember it and keep it in their brain, and berating themselves for forgetting, when they can have the calendar and the reminder function on it do the heavy lifting.

Think about baby steps here and schedule some small things and work them into what's working for you now.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 5:50 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

You may already be onto this, but your focus needs to be simply getting things done, not overarching routines. I think I've said this about fifty times on Ask MeFi, but my biggest most powerful tool for getting things done is setting a timer. On a good day, I set timers for twenty minutes and work those 20 minutes, then take a break. On a bad day, it's ten or fifteen minutes.

There have also been periods of my life where I make a little chart for myself and give myself x's whenever I complete a block of time, whether it's 20 or 15 or just 10. That way, at the end of the day I can see how much time I managed to use for something besides staring into space. I've also done things like give myself different colored x's for work, school, and cleaning.

As for morning structure, it's really as simple as "I will have a cup of coffee as soon as I get downstairs." Or "I will get up at 6:30 and take a shower first thing." A morning or bedtime routine doesn't have to be a list of things to accomplish. Sometimes it's just one activity on which everything else hangs, which is basically how my morning and bedtime routines have taken shape over time. There was a definite point in my twenties where I went from my mornings being complete chaos to having what I'd call a "routine," and that hinged on me deciding to get up at the same time every day plus me getting a cheap coffee maker.

I am pretty ADHD, so I am not someone who has ever had it easy when it comes to this sort of thing. Most of what I describe here I was doing before I ever started medication, though I admit that medication helped a ton.

I kind of wonder if you're doing a thing that I also do, where I feel like it's pointless to do a thing unless all the things are in place. Does that make sense? It's easy to despair over the big picture without ever taking the five minutes to do a small thing, when the small things are what eventually make the big picture take shape. Honestly, I still struggle with this all the time (particularly right now, when I can't take meds because I'm nursing and in the balance don't need them enough to take while nursing).

Anyway, I wish you luck and success.

(I am aware that "setting a timer" sounds like the Pomodoro method, but I was setting timers before it was cool, man, well, and also I don't really think a whole method is helpful for anybody who struggles. Just set a freaking timer, do something until it stops, then try to get yourself to do it again soon without worrying about whether or not you're properly sticking to someone else's freaking method.)
posted by hought20 at 6:01 AM on April 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

I read this here and it really has helped me. I love it because it's a positive approach to something that usually causes me a lot of anxiety and shame.

When you do your tasks, think of it as doing a favor to your future self. On the other side of the coin, when you see that for example you did all your laundry yesterday and today you have a ton of clean clothes neatly folded and organized, thank your past self for begin so kind and considerate to you.

When you feel like not doing stuff because you are overwhelmed or don't know where to start, think of future you and who happy s/he will be when s/he finds the task done.

Also, realize that we tend to think organized people are the ones who do lists, and databases and use strategies to keep their shit together, but that is not exactly right. Most people are not organized, and that is why they need tools. They become organized because of them. Don't think of organization tools as "ooh, that is stuff organized people do, and I am not one of them". Think of them as "well, because I don't have the organizational skills and memory of a Russian spy, I need these tools." and master them.

Set reasonable goals. Start with little stuff: don't make a super complicated schedule and kick yourself when you don't comply. For example, set a bedtime and set an alarm 30 minutes before the bedtime. So you have 30 minutes to brush your teeth, prepare your lunch box or finish the tv show you were watching. After you are used to having a bedtime, it will be much easier for you to get up in the morning at the same time every day. Once you have that down you can move on to the next thing.

I have a little sign on my mirror that says "Do it anyway". We tend to overthink things and in the end the time you spend agonizing over how much you don't want to do X is enough to do X several times over. So really, just don't think and do it.

And be kind to yourself.
posted by Tarumba at 6:02 AM on April 7, 2015 [19 favorites]

I feel you. Oh, how I feel you.
The advice above is excellent. Setting timers and alarms is how I get through my day.
I'm also quite fond of HabitRPG for establishing new habits. If you're into video games at all, you might give it a peek.
And definitely, as Tarumba says, be kind to yourself. That will help you so so much.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 6:26 AM on April 7, 2015

Well, so you have successfully developed some little habits, right?

So instead of developing a big huge routine you might have to resort to developing some smaller habits.

I suggest you do only one at a time, and ignore the voices screaming "BUT THE 258 OTHER HABITS!!!!" You weren't managing those 258 other things before, so you're not any worse off for continuing not to manage them while you get the 1 thing under control.

Seriously, pick one thing. If you have a smartphone, get and set up a daily habit to do $THING. After 120 days of unbroken chain, you will be a $THING master and can add a second thing. After 120 days of unbroken $THING and $THING_2 you'll be yet further ahead.

You're deprecating the things you've already achieved - clearly, you were on the right lines about those things!

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
posted by tel3path at 8:13 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


I can access my lists from anywhere, on any device with my Google Drive app. I made a few general, common types, which can then be added onto or modified based on specific need. It seems a little complicated at first, but it has saved me so much time and ADHD spinning.

1. "Room by Room" List. My two most popular are "Packing for a Trip" and "Big Cleaning." They're pretty simple. Go room by room, find everything you need to pack or clean, and write it down. Even tiny details. You can then access this in the future, with minor adjustments. "Packing for a Trip" has the basics at the top, and then type of trip below it (Work, skiing, beach, etc), and everything I'll need. "Big Cleaning" typically stays the same, because I always need to clean the same things. But I've added a few things I don't normally do, like "Magic Erase the walls" for reference.

2. "Dinner" List. I'm super terrible at weekly meal planning, and thinking ahead even a few days. So I maintain a Google Doc list of recipes, each with a link to the recipe, and a bullet pointed list of ingredients needed. I can wander into the grocery store, open the app, pull up a ton of recipes, pick one or two that sound good, focus my attention on getting the ingredients, and I'm out. No pre-planning necessary!

3. "Planning a Thing" List. This can range from "Dinner Party" to "Going to the DMV." If it's "Dinner Party," then on that list is a "Clean Apartment" item, which you can then refer to your "Room-by-Room/Big Cleaning" list, etc. It also includes the names and email addresses of the people you normally invite to such a thing, for ease. For the actually dinner part, well, I just pull up my "Dinner" list. Get my drift?

4. "Shit I'm Doing in 2015" List. This is literally everything that is going to happen in the next year, like a calendar. But easier to input. Weddings, root canals, ballet classes, mom visits, work trips, everything goes on this list. How detailed/granular is up to you. But when I have a super crazy week coming up that I know will make my ADHD freak out, I get really detailed. Like "Go to bank," "Transfer $300 to savings," "Call Mom about visit," "Dinner with Liz," etc. After each activity accomplished, I change the text from black to hot pink! Very satisfying to tick things off! This does require checking in a lot, but it gets things done.

I know this sounds like a lot of upfront work, but it's really not. You don't have to do it all at once, just when the need arises and BOOM! You have a hackable list for life.

TL;DR Google Drive is my boss.
posted by functionequalsform at 8:16 AM on April 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

Seconding HabitRPG. Some days it is the only thing that keeps me taking meds/flossing/doing the general piddly shit involved in maintaining a reasonable daily routine.
posted by Vervain at 8:26 AM on April 7, 2015

Second everything Functionequalsform said, but I use a few iOS apps instead of google docs: Timeful, Reminders, and Calendar.
posted by awesomelyglorious at 9:00 AM on April 7, 2015

Followup from the anon OP:
MeFites, thank you, I LOVE all of the advice so far, and am feeling so much more optimistic already! Will print it out for myself. To those mentioning self-kindness, another thank you. It is very easy to forget this after decades of beating oneself up for being a mess.

tinkletown, Major Dixon, I'm sorry I wasn't too specific. My original post got extremely long because I couldn't decide at all what was the most important to mention, and in what order, and what context was important to include, and and and... maybe you all understand. So I just scrapped the original, gave myself 30 minutes to re-write it "generally," and sent it (yay timers! I use them for tasks I get stuck on like writing, but maybe I'll just go all out with them from now on).

(now giving myself 10 minutes to finish up) I'll just say that I'm living with a partner and in university, so home and schoolwork are my priorities. All I can manage is scraping by in my schoolwork and a tiny, tiny bit of housework/personal care (partner is loving and awesome which helps immensely).

Schoolwork is mostly independent study, which is fantastic for me due to flexibility/hyperfocus but very difficult when the workload increases and requires prioritzation (so glad to have a way to describe that problem now). Thanks to aforementioned tricks and progress, and loving my topics, procrastination is no problem. But since I usually need longer to learn/organize than my fellow students, things pile up and I can't decide the best way to spend my time. I also now recognize that I'm very impulsive, which is exhausting to constantly fight against, so I have phases of burn-out fairly regularly (but I take these into account and start studying veeeery early in the semester).

Thanks for the recommendations of Google products, HabitRPG, etc. Despite loving computers I've found electronic organization stuff just doesn't work for me, after years of trying. I get focused on some feature it doesn't have and get annoyed or the desktop/mobile versions are slightly different and I forget (and get annoyed), or obsess about capturing everything there and burn out, etc.etc.etc.. Now I just do everything on pieces of scrap paper. But I love the idea of adapting those recommendations for paper use (HabitRPG with 20-sided dice maybe?), so will check them out and work on that soon.

Sorry a bit long and rambly, no editing. Thanks again everyone!
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hmm, my best organization advice is to not be fooled by or sucked into overly ambitious organization plans and systems. Sometimes the ADHDest of us can get carried away designing a beautifully intricate organization system that never gets implemented day to day because it's too much.

Commit to baby steps and the least ambitious plans possible which you force yourself to do. Commit to cleaning however many dishes you can clean within two minutes every day. If you want to clean the rest of them while you are at it, go right ahead, but just make sure that come hell or high water that two minutes of dish cleaning happens every day. That tends to be the part of staying organized that's difficult - Doing it consistently over time.
posted by mermily at 12:30 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also, if you're living with a partner, is there anything they can do to help you? My little brother has really severe ADHD (as does my dad; I got lucky and only have some symptoms, but not enough for a full diagnosis), and I help him keep on track with his diet, exercise, and schoolwork. It's a fairly minor time expenditure on my part; we're friends on MyFitnessPal, we text a few times a day, exchange Snapchat selfies when we're at the gym or out running, and we have a weekly phone call where we go over what he's done for the week and what's coming up. We also keep a Google Doc with his goals written up in it. It helps me keep on track with my own diet/exercise/work goals and it's tremendously helpful for him. I think medication is a really good idea - from my family's experience, I think ADHD meds are a godsend - but if that's not a possibility right now, a system like what my brother and I have works pretty well for him.
posted by protocoach at 12:44 PM on April 7, 2015

I'm a scrap paper junkie and the best habit I've found to develop there is one task or reminder (i have a habit of writing down songs I hear and want to look into more) per bit of paper adn when the task is done (or thing downloaded and put in your library or whatever, throw out that piece. I carry my scraps in my purse or pocket, sometiles paperclipped.

The only tool i use in addition to that is a calendar at my work desk (so its in my face every day for too many hours) where I write appointments.

So for example, I've been carrying a scrap that says DENTIST and has my dentists phone number. Today i called and made an appointment, and wrote it on my calendar, then threw out that scrap. a few days before the actual appointment I will likely make a scrap that says DENTIST WEDNESDAY 12:45 and carry that around until I've gone to teh appointment, then throw it out.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:34 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yep, totally understand, just wasn't sure if you wanted "help I'm always late to work" advice, or "my dissertation's due in six months, help me not write it all the night before" advice. Both of which I've tackled. My main problem is procrastination, so well done on getting over that.

For prioritisation, I keep a few to do lists on my phone which contain everything I need to do or want to do in life (errands, writing, emails I need to send, things I need to chase up at work, etc). I also have a "this week" to do list, which I put urgent things into, along with the time I have blocked out to do it. I set arbitrary deadlines for thesis chapters, but tell my supervisor so it becomes an external deadline.

This works for me because 1) I can do an email or paper-reading blitz and completely clear a whole to do list at once, which feels great, 2) I review my "this week" list pretty often, and so stuff on there does tend to get done. If I look at something on a different list and think "oops I haven't done X yet" I can quickly move it onto the "this week" list and it doesn't get forgotten, c) if something never moves onto the "this week" list even after months, I don't really care about it enough to do it so I feel no guilt about deleting it. I include phone numbers and things like that in the list so I can just get on and make the call / send the email without having to search through all my deleted emails and random notes.

If something has been languishing on the "this week" list for a while I feel terrible and make a concerted effort to get it done (I have trouble prioritising writing my thesis over household chores and quick easy work admin, but seeing something stuck at the top of the list seems to help me see that I really do need to do it). The things are all "getting things done" style small tasks (like "re-draw figures", not whole thesis chapters.

I also use google calendars so I know what I'm meant to do every day - I put room numbers on there if I have to go somewhere, so no more turning up to the wrong place. I put everything on there - sometimes I have things like "pick up dry cleaning" in my calendar so I don't forget to stop off on my way home. I can then be realistic about planning work - I knew I'd be home late tonight so didn't expect to have time to do any work. So I don't feel guilty about that. Going to the gym goes in the calendar - I go to gym classes so I can't not go, and they are in there as a recurring event so nothing gets booked over them. Same with social events.

I really need that external structure - I manage to do far more at work than I do at home, and do even less when I just get up late on a day off with no plans. I'm lucky if I brush my teeth on those days. Getting up and out of the house and going to the library to write helps a lot. I still waste time, but eventually I do start working. Hope some of this helps.
posted by tinkletown at 3:54 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Please feel free to memail me. I'm an ADHDer with a lot of thoughts/tips/tricks on this (potentially too rambling to get into here at this time) and would be happy to correspond with you regularly about hacking life with ADHD. Sometimes you just need an accountability partner, or another person with whom to share ideas about what works and what doesn't work.
posted by nightrecordings at 8:27 PM on April 7, 2015

I'm doing my senior thesis right now, and my brain is melting from trying to get work done. I love you ADHD-brain for being brilliant, but y u so hard to wrangle?!?!

I think for me, the only surefire thing is that once you think of something, put it down on a list. Because you have ADHD, it will end up being 15 things. That's okay, write it all down. Now look at the list (don't leave and go somewhere else PLEEEASE) and choose the top three priorities. Find one that you can do for the next 15-30 minutes uninterrupted. Do it, and then cry afterwards because that was a sheer feat of godliness. Do it again.

I did that once, and it was one of the most productive things I did all day. I am trying very hard to have quality time that is compressed, so it give me room to goof off or daydream. Also, your willpower dies towards the end of the day after trying to do to a lot, so sleep early and wake up in the morning and see how you feel. Impulse control could be a lot easier.
posted by yueliang at 11:22 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I never considered that I might be AHDH but so much of your post resonates with me. While I am really good keeping my commitments to other people, I am so, so bad at staying in integrity with myself and keeping habits that I know will improve my life. Like you, I find structure helps to set me up for success.

I understand preferring paper to online tools, but one of the things I like best about online tools is that things can be moved around so easily. That said, I want my online tools to be as simple as possible — without gaming aspects, unneeded features, social aspects or any other bells and whistles. So here are some tools I love:

Google Calendar — my entire life is scheduled here. Even things like walking the dog and reading books, work, working out, etc. Everything. If I want it to happen, I schedule time for it in my day. I have also had to get REALLY realistic about how long certain tasks take. For example, if I'm going for an hour run, I also know I'll need to add half an hour onto the end of that for showering and changing clothes.

Habit List — this is an app based on the "don't break the chain" concept. What I like best about this is that you can set tasks for any frequency, such as "every Monday and Wednesday" or "every three days" or "two days a week". You can also set time-based reminders. The app tracks how often you do what you say you're going to do, with charts and other reporting. An example of one of my habits is "take vitamins" and I have a reminder set for 8 am so I can grab them with my breakfast.

Workflowy — I used to keep all my to-do lists in the notes section of Google Calendar's events (like, my grocery list in the event "go grocery shopping") but I switched to Workflowy because it operates exactly like my brain operates. Workflowy allows you to quickly capture thoughts, and then organize them into infinitely expanding lists, like an outline. So it;s super easy to break down large projects into their various individual components. My entire life lives in Workflowy now, from my grocery list to the work I need to complete on my website, to vacation planning. You can also make notes on tasks, mark them off (to see how much you've accomplished that day) and use hastags to organize projects.

In addition to things like shopping lists, I have my Workflowy set up like an overall to-do list based loosely on the principles of GTD — there's a list for Today, This Week, and Future. It's easy to drag and drop items from one list to another in order to organize my day.

When I complete ANY task, I either move/mark it off on Workflowy and move/delete it from Google Calendar. This avoids me having to spend an hour at the end of each day or an hour each morning organizing my to do list.

Words can not express how much I love Workflowy. I'll sometimes use it as a capture device and them move/refile those ideas into the appropriate spot later. I also keep a tiny notebook* in my purse for capture, and will sometimes use iPhone's notes*, but Workflowy is what I prefer because the rest of my life is already in there.

(*I also have a reminder set up to regularly review these notes so I don't forget I made them.)

Strict Workflow — is a Chrome add-on that combines the Pomodoro work technique with website blacklisting. You set a custom Pomodoro time and the sites you want to blacklist during your work phase. I find this super helpful because Internet is my number one procrastination tool (hello, Metafilter). My breaks are five minutes, which is just enough time to check Facebook and Twitter for a brain break. If the idea of blacklisting annoys you you can also try a workpace break software like Time Out, which allows you to set custom break times so you can get up away from your desk and walk around for a few minutes before getting back to work.

Finally, a few words of advice; I had a friend recently tell me I was too hard on myself. I'd never even considered that before. I look at other people and see how productive they seem and then look at myself and just feel lazy. One of the stories my ego tells me is "I don't wanna" and I have to remember that's not true, because I DO wanna. I do want to be healthy, I do want to complete the story I'm working on, I do what to go for a run. What helps me most here when I get off track is just completing the Next Right Action. In other words, looking at the small picture. What needs to be done RIGHT NOW. That's why I like Workflowy for breaking tasks down into small components.

I've also recently realized that progress might look differently than how I picture it. It might look more like tiny adjustments than a huge transformation. Take it easy on yourself and make sure you schedule time for breaks, play and fun.

I mentioned this on another question recently and it bears repeating — willpower is actually a muscle, one that can get fatigued, and also that can be made stronger. There is a such a thing as willpower fatigue/decision fatigue. The more hard or complicated decisions you have to make in a day, the harder it is to maintain your willpower as the day progresses. That's why setting up systems and structure to automate a lot of your life is so valuable.
posted by Brittanie at 8:53 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

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