Making organizational systems work
June 8, 2022 12:51 PM   Subscribe

ADHD filter. I am aware of tools. I use them, to moderate effect. I am sure that I could use them all much better but I'm not sure where to get that information. ADHD filter. I use (or try to use) Outlook, One Note, Trello, and a Rocketbook. I am still embarrassing myself too often with organizational lapses. Please help me improve my implementation of one or more of these systems.

Outlook is designed to help me with time management and remembering to do stuff later, but there are so many reminders that my flags for follow up become useless. I could have probably fixed that months ago by not having every single meeting generate a reminder flag, but at this point I am so saturated I don't think I can un-break that functionality for my brain.

One Note helps by having a different tab for large categories and pages within the tab to easily find the info I want. But, it doesn't help me with prompts and reminders (because it interfaces with the Outlook system that has me saturated). It's useful to just have a list of tasks or notes, or other info, but less helpful for linking to time, deadlines, etc. I'll realize I missed a deadline and see in my narrative where I wrote that I need to do that thing. But it doesn't get brought into my present attention when I need it to be.

I have a lot of project management duties so I'm trying to make Trello work by having a card for each project, but I've not used Trello this way before so I am not sure of the ideal way to set it up. There's too many moving parts to each project to envision another method of tracking than this even if it remains separate from my general work tracking system.

My goal is to have time-sensitive project step reminders triggered in a way that I will actually see them.

And generally to be sure I write things down I need to act on in a way that I will actually integrate that into my organizational system. VS saying I need to ask so and so about this and that, but then I don't because I didn't have it integrated into my master list in a way that I could act on it.

I have ADHD but this is the first time it's really impaired my work, because my job is basically 50-80% administrative. I've struggled with how to structure my time also. I try to batch tasks but if that batch doesn't match my mental state/mood when it's time, I don't do it (because my work is structured in a way that I have that kind of freedom).

Example: oh it's the block of time to make all those outward facing phone calls. Meh. I don't feel like doing that. (But what I probably need to do in that moment is play some music, or turn on the desk treadmill, to get my motivation working better, right? I am new to needing to hack my symptoms this much and not real sure how to remember to do that sort of thing having not needed to before.)

I am considering hiring an ADHD coach but I feel like I should be able to figure this out on my own so I am resistant.
posted by crunchy potato to Work & Money (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Don't try to make your system motivate you. You cannot make yourself check it, or do work, any more than you're up for that day. Just make sure your system describes the state of the work and then go to that state to make decisions as often as your energy or focus or medication allows.

To that end, I would make the system simpler until you feel like it's all in front of you. for example, maybe you should be putting everything in Microsoft To-Do.

If you're using Trello, can you share the board with someone so both can shape it together? Maybe also try using a few cards per project so it's more lively. Project A: complete designs, Project A: send to press, and then you can search for Project A to see only cards for those projects. Learn the keyboard shortcuts.
posted by michaelh at 1:47 PM on June 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

One thing I've concluded as an adult is that "mood" can be a saboteur. I'm not going to read between the lines too much, but a lot of strategy and advice can easily be undermined by mood.

That said, it sounds like you might be in a "snooze" loop? I've had periods where I've snoozed reminders for hours and hours, and if you're managing several projects those can pile up, I'm sure. Anyway, regardless how stuck in deferral you are, one thing I like to do is to put 18 hour reminders on my alarms. The day before I remind myself that something is coming up tomorrow. I can dismiss it, not have it change my day, but it's on my radar. I probably don't have nearly as many reminders as you.

Trello: one board per project. Hopefully you have a subscription that allows for this.

One thing about your various tools, which I would agree is complicated and too-varying to pull into a cohesive whole, is to look at the big picture and figure out which knows the most about your things-to-be-reminded-of. Then figure out how you want to be reminded. If you have your phone buzzing and popups all over your screen, it may be relieving to choose one or the other.

"Too many moving parts per project," could you do some delegation so that you can take more of a holistic role? Obviously I know nothing of your projects, so it may be that you have to be that involved.

I use paper a lot. Lists of things for later, and things for now. "Between now and lunch," "by Friday," that kind of thing.

And figure out that mood piece! It's a torpedo always at the ready. Oh, and lastly: I spent years and years trying to get my brain out of ADHD with the same brain that got me into it. Getting help sooner is better than later if you even suspect you're a candidate. Your "figure it out" brain is defending itself going "no, no, I got this, I swear. You don't need them, baby!"
posted by rhizome at 1:51 PM on June 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

I also have ADHD and also lose track of things and time and get confused about what day it is and when things will happen compared to today - usual stuff.

I recently implemented a system using OneNote where I make a daily schedule where I portion out my time to work on my projects, based on what I need to get done that day. This schedule is accompanied by my to-do list for that day, separate ones for the next day and the rest of that week that I add to as new things come up, and then one with kind of a running list of other priorities that aren't today, or tomorrow or this week, but sometime in the future.

I then also have tabs for each of my individual projects that I work on that contain specific information and notes about those projects that I jot any notes from conversations or emails into so I can keep track of the more detailed aspects of those. I use these a lot less but they do come in handy.

Key to this system working for me is two things: I make a new schedule every day and I schedule making the schedule into my schedule at the start and end of the day so it can be informed by emails and such that I receive while I'm working on the individual items. The other is that I only check and respond to my email during scheduled times so that it distracts me less.

I also only use the reminders in Outlook to remind me of meetings I have, because I lose track of time and need that audible signal that a meeting is in five minutes (if I make it any earlier than that I will forget the meeting) and *sometimes* if I have a specific thing I have to prep before a meeting I'll do another one. and that sound isn't associated with anything else so it's effective for me as an "this HAS to be done" reminder.

This system doesn't make me work (that's another issue!) but it does help me keep on top of all the little pieces I often lose track of.
posted by urbanlenny at 2:00 PM on June 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

I think urbanlenny's concept is the one that is most helpful for me, with the trick being that you have to actually do it. But I find that keeping a simple list and frequently grooming it - even if it's pen and paper, and I use a Rocketbook for mine - and intention-setting at the start of the day and the end of the day is most likely to get the work done.

I do also use my calendar to manage my deadlines, as in I may have some kind of deliverable due in two weeks so I need every week to have at least one work block for it so that I have the visible reminder to work on it. If I need to prep for a meeting, I schedule my prep session the day before.

I feel you with the "mood" problem, and I am chipping away at that with a little bit of discipline and a little bit of leeway, as well as trying to put those work blocks in the parts of the day I'm most likely to be somewhere near the mood to do it. Same as cleaning or doing your taxes or getting your car maintained, you don't actually need to be in the mood, you only need to get it done.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:25 PM on June 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Clarifying some things:

I could eventually collaborate with someone re: Trello projects but I find that increases the organizational burden rather than reducing it. The steps already require a lot of collaboration.

I need to break down projects into their smallest steps, so nothing gets missed and so I can track across time reasonably. But too many placeholders gets overwhelming and breaks the system. I am not sure how I can have one board per project with one card per step without being overwhelmed. If anyone has resources for how that looks visually, any visual settings you can change so such a setup isn't so busy, please share.

Delegation is not feasible for most aspects of the projects. They involve tracking steps along the way with multiple people and adding another one feels burdensome. I do have someone to record a list of responses to a mass question, but even that feels like more trouble than it's worth -- except that it means I can get out of having to answer the phone.

Moving parts in the sense of needing to interface with multiple departments, being unable to move forward with one person until another completes their part, needing to track whether a specific person has done their part and I just missed the email or I need to follow up. There is a lot of corporate/bureaucratic drag, which in turn expands the tracking requirements. And higher levels push down changes in expectations or processes regularly so I have to find a way to remember all of that and fold it into the flow.

I believe today I cleared over 200 reminders. I have changed the settings so a calendar event does not automatically have a reminder. Hopefully that will help.

Thank you for everything offered so far.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:46 PM on June 8, 2022

When you mentioned lots of dependencies, the tracking style that came to mind was a GANTT chart.

YMMV of course, but I have personally found it helpful to to write down the typical workflow of a task (e.g. teapot blog post procedures). This is something that is sometimes helpful to do with a colleague. Sometimes it's appropriate to turn these steps into a tracking sheet (e.g. teapot co blog tracking sheet). You might also be interested in automating workflows (e.g.).

It doesn't sound like you have hit your personal "sweet spot" of the right amount of info to track. If it's too much work to update the system, there's (probably) a pretty good chance that your system won't get updated. Too little info (as you know) is also terrible.

You may want to consider scheduling on a daily/weekly basis taking stock on your goals (and deadlines) for today/ this week/ this month. Or maybe you would do better scheduling blocks of time to accomplish a specific task. (E.g. 1 pm on Mondays == follow up on outstanding emails from the previous week.)
posted by oceano at 3:48 PM on June 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

One thing that I do with emails that I might need to follow-up on, is go into my sent items and set a reminder for a specific date. I do that as soon as I send the email. When the reminder pops up, you can click to open the very email from there and then search to see if you got a response or else send another follow-up.

For things that you're not in the mood to do, I have found that body doubling works well for me. Sometimes I do this virtually with friends, but I have also had success with Focusmate. Basically you set a meeting, log on with your camera to this total stranger, both of you say what you're going to work on and then you do it. If you've never tried body doubling before, it is magic for the ADHD brain.

Those are just some tricks that came to mind. I haven't been able to successfully use OneNote or Trello in my own life so can't speak to that.
posted by purple_bird at 4:40 PM on June 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I don't have a particularly helpful tip on actual systems.

I just wanted to share my experience with this in case it helps. I also have ADHD. I have tried many, many, many, many organizational systems.

I will try a new one – when I start, it feels exciting! Finally, I have solved the problem! I spend a bunch of time designing the *perfect* (likely too complicated) system, and setting everything up. Then pretty soon, the system itself is no longer exciting. I don't have the habits around it that might make it useful. It gets slightly disused and no longer reflects the state of the union. It becomes a source of shame/guilt. I abandon it.

I think of a new system! All my problems are solved!


To me, a new organizational system becomes the most seductive form of procrastination imaginable, because it feels like I'm solving the problem. I've done this probably well over 100 times in my life. I get the initial rush and then it makes me feel terrible in the end.

The real thing that makes the systems work is not systems, but habits of using the systems.

I don't really have a good solution for this. I think it would be to think carefully about what habits you already have for organizing things, think about how you can alter those around the margins to get closer to something that seems like it will work, and try to slowly move towards any change. Look into advice about habit building, and follow that. Commit to putting extra effort in at the beginning even though it feels like you aren't getting anywhere. Keep working at the system even when it starts feeling boring and hard.

For sure, anything that is totally different than what you are doing now will not immediately work and may just become a discouraging failure.

As for actual systems, I have given up on electronic options. To me, changing windows is like entering a different room - all information gone. I go to look at the tasks place, and what I was doing before is gone, then leave, and the tasks are gone.

My most resilient system has been colour coded post-it notes on a big wall. The colour codes developed slowly over time - blue for tasks, purple for events, pink for my feelings about the tasks, etc. I like this system because it is impossible to lose things. Having things be visible and regularly reminding myself of them has been far more effective. It's easier than trying to build the habit of regularly looking at a planner, because it is hard to miss.

The other problem with electronic systems is their rigidity. Each thing like Trello imposes a specific way of doing things. If you want to stick with electronic, I would try for a bit just using a Word document with numbered multilevel headings for subtasks. Alternatively Excel. Send me a message if you want me to share a template. Doing things like this makes it much easier to adapt the system if it's not working - make the text bigger or smaller or italic, change the font, whatever. You can create a table of contents to see everything.

Last thought is just to validate that this is very, very hard. I have struggled with this for a long time, as soon as I start feeling like I maybe have it my job gets harder. If you are finding that the job is stressful and just not suited to you, consider moving towards a job that has less of this thing that you find difficult. I have just decided that certain parts of my line of work are not for me, but there are so many things I can do that no one else can do. I have decided to stop banging my head against the wall to force myself to be able to be just short of adequate at something that most people can do, rather than focusing on these other things. It sounds like you are new to this position, so of course it is extra hard!

I hope you can find something that works for you.
posted by lookoutbelow at 10:05 PM on June 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

I don't have ADHD (I think?), but I work as a project manager and OMG is there a lot of things to keep track of!

Seconding urbanlenny's way of doing things, except I put my todo list right into the daily schedule. Every day, I go through my todo list(s) (some tasks in Todoist, some in Evernote), my calendar (Google calendar which has both work and personal calendars plus family member's events are also in my personal calendar) and anything else that might generate a need for action on my part (random post-its on my desk, incoming paper mail etc). Every day, I write out my schedule for the next day along with all the things that need to happen that day. Eg: 7 morning routine, 7:30 daycare drop off & leave note for teacher, 8 start work & prepare TPS report & send TPS report to manager etc etc. If it helps, I can send you a screenshot, PM me. I do this in Evernote and when I'm using two computer screens, I always have it open on the second screen. I used to do this on paper and that way I could have it somewhere I would see it all the time.

There are few key things here:

1) ALL the obligations are written down somewhere, in a small number of places so you don't have to remember to check a lot of different systems/places/inboxes. Kid comes home with a birthday invitation from a friend? It goes into my calendar, and a task "buy gift for X" is added to my to-do list. Partner has a meeting late in the afternoon? Goes into my calendar. We're making plans for the weekend? Goes into my calendar, and tasks to pack stuff, buy stuff, etc are added to the to-do list. Hard deadlines go on the calendar. Follow-ups go on the to-do list.

2) You have to take time for planning and scheduling as part of your day. It takes me about 10 minutes to make my daily schedule (I'm copy pasting a template and change/add as necessary). It takes about 30 seconds to add each new event or task as they come up. I also do a weekly plan on Fridays to keep bigger things on my radar. All these things take time and you have to consciously do them, not just rely on reminders. Going through all my tasks when planning makes me not forget things.

3) There is a limit of how much you can keep on your plate. Sometimes things slipping through mean not that your system is not good enough, but that you simply have too much to do.
posted by gakiko at 11:01 PM on June 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Also, motivation is a bad way of trying to do things. Do things because they're on your to-do list, because you need to get paid to keep your roof over your head, because you can enjoy the feeling of checking them off your list... but don't do them because you "feel like" doing them.

And PS. I don't like Trello. I do use a kanban board for some things, because it helps me to see many parts of the project at once. For projects with a lot of finnicky small steps that don't need a more strategic, overall view, I'd stick with a simple hierarchical outline/checklist or task list. The act of going through the list and reminding yourself what needs to be done is the key, not the way the list is shown.
posted by gakiko at 11:06 PM on June 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have ADHD. I have been where you are. My take is that you are spending so much energy tracking and prioritizing your tasks that you have nothing left for doing the tasks.

Hire the coach.

Don’t make it a point of pride to do the things that are hardest for someone with ADHD. Get help with that part so that you can spend some energy actually doing the things on your lists.

Also, is one of your tools medication? If not, and if you can, that has made the single biggest difference in my life. It is shocking how much it lowers the “I don’t feel like it,” hurdle. Gakkio is right that motivation is a bad way to do things… but has no idea what lacking motivation means to someone with ADHD. Medication can help with that part.
posted by Kriesa at 3:14 AM on June 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

I feel like I should be able to figure this out on my own
This is your ADHD lying to you. Please get support of whatever sort that may help. Body double, coach, whatever. Focusmate helps ground me. Once I have set up a work date for 50 minutes (25 is an option), then I feel obligated to work.

I try to batch tasks but if that batch doesn't match my mental state/mood when it's time, I don't do it
I feel you. My most common work mood is "don't wanna." My brain's default is to toddler brain at least half the time. One approach that often helps me involves three steps: 1. Reminding myself that feelings aren't facts. 2. Putting my ass in my office chair. 3. Setting a timer for 10 minutes. When the alarm goes off, most often I am engrossed in my task and can keep going.

Brains are really good at telling us we can only work on shit when we feel like it. It is easy to be swayed by that nonsense; I fall for it all the time. But if you are willing to power through the discomfort for 10 minutes or so, you may discover (as I usually do) that you are plenty able to make progress on a specific, unwelcome task. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:44 AM on June 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

I have ADHD, and definitely recommend trying out medication if you haven't (or trying again if you have!). I was in the middle of a project with a lot of moving parts, collaborators, overlapping/shifting timelines, etc. when I started meds last year (20 years after first going to a Dr., 18 years after trialing meds with great results but not following up, 7 years after finally getting a diagnosis when insurance was lined up...). The difference was immediate and amazing and very obvious but also super subtle. Not at all like caffeine which is what I had expected it to be like.

Urbanlenny and lookoutbelow have great points. Systems are great and seductive and interesting to optimize until they get boring or frustrating. What really matters is actually using a system, day after day.

Besides meds one of the biggest shift I've had in the past few years has been understanding better how I perceive and think about time. Google "time blindness" to start learning more if you'd like. For example, my mind was blown to learn (in my 30s) that I would have to go to sleep earlier if I wanted to wake up earlier everyday. I just didn't think of time as a resource like that, just kind of a river I was flowing through, not even very linear. It turns out that you literally can't get time back and that you only have so much! Wow! Who knew.

A paper schedule (I use a Clever Fox Planner) to schedule tasks/meetings/etc. in half hour blocks has helped me understand what I need to do when and make sure I have dedicated time to doing it (this works until it doesn't for all the reasons described so well above).

For me, podcasts or public radio work as a body doubling method.

Finally and perhaps least usefully (or even the opposite of useful) I've started learning programming and have just discovered Emacs. If you have time to mess around and some programming experience or willingness to learn, you could conceivably use Emacs to build your own perfect organization, communication, and notification system, endlessly customizing/extending it for the rest of your life so as to avoid losing interest. At least that's my plan for now, wish me luck.

TL;DR, hire a coach/find a therapist/get help/meds, this is so hard and you are doing great!
posted by soy bean at 6:40 AM on June 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Moving parts in the sense of needing to interface with multiple departments, being unable to move forward with one person until another completes their part, needing to track whether a specific person has done their part and I just missed the email or I need to follow up.

For my system, this is the intention of the dedicated email time, which is spent treating email as its own specific task rather than as a part of the other tasks I have to do. During these sections, although I will respond to quick emails that are basically yesses or nos (like whether I will attend a meeting or whether someone is on the right track with something).

However, I am more using this to add detail to my system, both as tasks for my daily schedule, but also details about and determine which emails need to be thought about and responded to later. This is when I confirm whether steps in my various processes have been completed, where things are, etc. If there are more thoughtful emails to be written, I will often schedule these as their own tasks.

Part of why this works for me (YMMV) is that I have a great memory for themes/corporate repetition and am a good strategizer (and to be honest, bullshitter/great on the fly, which is probably an ADHD survival skill), but I am bad at remembering little details and tasks that I need to do. I used to get made fun of when I worked in an in-person office because I would carry around one of those little, like, 3.5"x5.5" lined pocket notebooks while everyone else carried full-sized office ones, but I was basically just noting down action items (for me and others), which would later get done or get followed up on and checked off, and everyone else was taking notes they'd never look at again and needed to be reminded of the action items.

Also, echoing above people: body doubling totally works. Find a work friend or IRL friend who shares your struggles and be accountable to each other. If you're struggling, tell your friend you're going to work on XX for XX time. I can't keep myself accountable at all unless I'm up against a deadline where I'll look bad, so I make my own deadlines where I am seen by someone else if I don't do it. Pomodoro doesn't really work for me unless I don't have to do anything at all outside of that time; the thought of having to get through a whole workday on that seems interminable to me.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:25 AM on June 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

I do not have ADHD, but I do a lot of to-do stuff and have a million things to juggle all the time.

I hope some of this is helpful; please ignore anything that's not.

1. 10 minutes are your friend, A: oh it's the block of time to make all those outward facing phone calls. Meh. I don't feel like doing that. For one week (or maybe two weeks), do the thing you planned to do, whether you feel like it or not - but for just 10 minutes. If at the end of those 10 minutes, you STILL don't feel like doing it, go ahead and switch to something else - but you might find that just getting started gets you over that feeling of not wanting to do the thing. Also, you'll have done at least 1 or 2 of those outward facing phone calls in your 10 minutes, so you get a gold star for having done the thing, at least a little.

2. 10 minutes are your friend, B: make lists of things that will only take 5-10 minutes. Any time you're feeling like your task is too big, pick one of those 5-10 minute things and do it. Now you've made progress, and you may feel motivated to keep the momentum going.

3. I feel like I should be able to figure this out on my own - I second Bella Donna. Don't let "should" dictate ANYTHING about how you work. Instead, set yourself up for success. Imagine you have a Magical Wizard Mentor who wants everything you do to be as easy as possible for you: what would that wizard bring into your life? What would make things EASY for you? Set yourself up for success. The more you can get rid of friction and barriers, the easier it will be to get things done, and the better you'll feel about doing that.

4. Consider ditching Trello. For me, Trello is overwhelming even with a smallish number of projects. I much prefer something like Freedcamp. It has a pretty powerful free level, and it uses To Do Lists instead of cards. It's MUCH less cluttered.

I hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by kristi at 4:30 PM on June 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

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