I wrote this over lockdown for the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, for their Tall Poppies Magazine. But since I keep losing the link, I thought I had better reproduce the article here so I maintain a copy of it.
The Everything Book
Tracking, scheduling, planning, without judgement
Neurodiversity and Executive Dysfunction
Hi, I’m Lara, and I have ADHD. I’m also autistic, and since learning about my diagnoses later in life, I’m now working on squeezing every positive aspect out of this self knowledge, with the aim of being a better me, and also helping kids to reframe their own challenges. I work with gifted and neurodiverse kids to help them become better self advocates, better social communicators, and take control of their anxiety.
Having ADHD means I respond really well to change, hate routines and schedules, love adventure, and would carry my passport in my back pocket if I thought there was any chance of a spontaneous trip. Being autistic means that I also like to know what’s happening and feel a comfort in routine. I feel safe knowing what is going to happen, who is going to be there, and what will be expected of me. My life is a constant conflict between a need for safety and a terror of being bored.
I also have a different sense of time – living in the moment means it is easy for me to ignore a deadline until it is like a jumbo jet rushing past my head. There is only now, and not now, and an important deadline only gains relevance when it shifts temporally from “not now” into the real and visceral “now”.
So I’ve tried as many different organisational systems as I have tried diets, and “The Everything Book” is the condensed wisdom of the best systems I have trialed, massaged into a system that works for me and my family. Having my everything book means that I still have room for spontaneity, but I can make sure that all the important stuff gets taken care of so that I can relax and enjoy it without worrying that I’m letting someone down.
Time Blocking, Bullet Journalling, and the Pomodoro Method
If you’ve heard of any of these, you’ll know that at one point or another, they have all been promoted as the next big thing, to help resolve executive function disorders. And if you’re like me, you’ve tried just about everything to try to get your life sorted. Add kids into the mix, and all of a sudden, the life hacks that have got you this far start to fail, and the overwhelm can threaten to swallow you whole.
If you haven’t heard of them, I’ll give you a brief rundown here, and some references for more information at the end. Each of these three I have picked out because they have aspects that can be helpful for an ADHD brain, with certain caveats and modifications. Remembering that time blindness is real, and that our attention can slide off a task even if it is important to us, and that our nervous systems are interest based, can help us to find a way to manage our lives that boosts our self esteem, and gives us the dopamine we need to tackle that next big thing.
The Pomodoro Technique is named after the red tomato shaped kitchen timers (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato), and the core premise is that we can tackle anything for 15 minutes at a time. While this may be true, for those of us with ADHD, even when our motivation is high, our attention can wander, and even setting a timer doesn’t help us overcome the overwhelm we feel when a task seems impossible. Conversely, if the task is something we are interested in, we can do a deep dive and not feel the need to come up for air for quite some time, and a 15 minute timer could be an unnecessary interruption if we have managed to get into the flow of a task.
PROS: Only asks that we start a task, and not commit long term. It’s accessible, easy to implement, and easy to understand.
CONS: Doesn’t help us with the task of breaking down a big task into smaller, more manageable and approachable tasks. Can interrupt a flow state and stop us from being productive. If we lose focus 5 minutes into a session, we won’t get a reminder until the end of each 15 minute period.
Time/Calendar Blocking is the idea that we can lump associated tasks into our calendar, and “block out” time for those tasks to be achieved. Three days a week I am working at schools, Sundays I have a long day of work, and Saturdays are family time. That leaves Monday and Tuesday for me to do all my correspondence, bill paying, planning, dealing with staff, training, and general life admin. I try to block out my mornings for the harder tasks so that I can do the fun stuff (that I am more easily able to concentrate on) for the afternoon, as an incentive to get the hard stuff out of the way.
PROS: If time is allocated and scheduled to a boring admin task, it’s importance and urgency are artificially boosted such that the task is more likely to be done. Works brilliantly with google calendar, and simply allows you to share calendars with your family or team.
CONS: You still need to do all those boring tasks, and if you can ignore 15 minutes worth of boring tasks, the likelihood of staying on task for a whole block of time is even lower.
Bullet Journalling was invented by someone with ADHD, as a way of tracking everything in his life in a systematic way. If you spent any time on instagram, you’ve no doubt come across people whose weekly bullet journal spread rivals the Sistine Chapel in complexity, beauty, and organisation. My bullet journal was a coffee stained wreck, with medical letters and appointments spilling out, and a dividend cheque from three years ago waiting to be banked. Over time, my bullet journal became a way for me to feel bad about myself, rather than a system that helped me to be organised in any meaningful way.
PROS: Bullet Journalling was invented for ADHD, and it is at heart a very flexible system, allowing you to add or subtract pages and spreads that fit your lifestyle and the way you work. It’s simple, needing only a pencil and a notebook to get started. You can also use digital planners with an ipad and pencil if that suits your workflow better.
CONS: Everything has a place! And if you can’t instantly recall where that place is, or you haven’t plotted out this week’s spread yet, you can already feel like you’re behind the 8 ball and flailing. Structure and organisation aren’t built in, ADHD means we learn to become very responsive and spontaneous, but any measure of forward planning can feel like we are setting ourselves up to fail.
So, if you’ve tried it all, and still can’t get it together, what’s next?
Never fear! There is a solution. First off, stop judging your executive function against others. Some people sail through these challenges, and never run out of milk, bread, or toilet paper. Those of us who lack that superpower can make up for it with our creativity and brilliant out of the box thinking – as long as our self esteem remains intact.
Enter, “The Everything Book”. It needs to be big enough so that you can write clearly, and small enough that you can take it EVERYWHERE. Think of it as a combination calendar, bullet journal, and notebook, the one place that you record important information, as it occurs to you.
The bullet journal system relies on you knowing where information belongs before it is recorded. In your Everything Book, the goal is to record the information, before you have all the information, and the complete context. When your boss starts talking about a future task, you can make a note, and add questions, without interrupting the flow of conversation to ask. When someone mentions an upcoming birthday, you can note it down and add it to their contact details later. Documents, forms, prescriptions, business cards etc can go into the back pocket of your notebook, and when it gets too fat, you can either have a sorting session, or find a bigger rubber band (or both!).
Key to this system is taking the time to collate and transfer your day’s rough notes into whatever other systems you are using. For the kid, this tends to happen at the end of the school day, when the lunchbox has been emptied, and they are about to start on school work. For me, I tend to do it in the evenings before bed, as I consider what I need to get ready for the next day. And as a failsafe, I have designated Mondays and Tuesdays as my work and life admin days, so anything that gets missed through the previous week gets rounded up then.
Any information that is time sensitive goes into a calendar on paper, and sometimes on my google calendar too. Tasks that are big, multi step projects might get their own double page spread, with related tasks lumped together, and an attempt made to break down bigger tasks into smaller chunks. Shopping lists, errands, phone calls, staff meetings, all with estimated due dates, and durations if relevant.
If you use an electronic calendar, remember to share key information with others that might be involved or affected by your time blocking. Keep a family calendar that keeps everyone informed of events and dates that are significant. How you use these tools will differ from how they work for me. With the everything book, the only non negotiable is to record the information, and then make the time to review it daily if possible, or less frequently if that is what works for you. Pair it with Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep, or ask Alexa to keep tabs on you
Remember to keep celebrating the successes – dwelling on what we didn’t get right isn’t helpful. A quick analysis of what went wrong, some compassion for that past you who was struggling, and a thought about what might have helped them in that situation is all we need to set ourselves up for another day. Last week I failed to write something down because I was driving the kid to school, and left my book at home. Next time, I’m going to use my phone to send myself a text message, which will ping on my laptop as soon as I boot it up when I get home. That means my “failure” this time has boosted my ability to think through a problem and find a creative solution, and next time this happens I already know how I am going to handle it. And that becomes a reason to feel good about my ability to handle challenges, not a reason to feel bad about my failures.
Growth mindset tells us that we build the neural pathways that we reinforce. So every bit of positive reinforcement we can give ourselves leads to better efficiency of those pathways in the future.
WHAT YOU NEED TO GET STARTED
- Paper. A cheapie notebook, a fancy handbound book, a binder, whatever. Just make sure it’s big enough to write in comfortably, and small enough to carry with you EVERYWHERE. You won’t be able to take notes in the shower, but if you have it handy, you can jot down notes before you even dry off properly – so hopefully you can take your notes before you forget what you needed to record.
- A writing implement. Any colour, any type. If you’re into stationery, here is your excuse to get a nice pen that writes smoothly and dries quickly. If you do have a lovely fountain pen, and want to use it, just make sure whatever you choose isn’t a barrier to making notes. One of my pens takes ages to dry, so I actually stopped writing notes unless I had time for the page to dry. This pen went back into a drawer, and a more practical pen came out, and my notes got more consistent.
- Let go of your expectations. Remember that “Done is better than perfect”, and focus on writing things down over making sure you get all the details right.
- If in doubt, write it down. Appointments, tasks, birthdays, present ideas, meal plans, recipes, holiday inspiration, budgeting, tracking spending, health symptoms, homework, exams, whatever it is that you have going on in your life, write it down. Get into the habit of having your book handy at all times – after a while, you’ll notice what works for you, what you need to pay more attention to tracking or recording, and what you can let slide, because it’s already automated and built into your life. I don’t track my medication, because I have my medication with coffee every morning, and I NEVER forget my coffee.
- Once a day, once a week, whatever interval works for you, categorise your random notes into meaningful pages. Events can go on the calendar, to-do lists can be prioritised and allocated to days, and future plans can be scheduled sensibly, instead of my usual catchall category of “later”.
- Break down big tasks into smaller, achievable tasks. Washing the dishes can seem overwhelming. Breaking it down into smaller tasks that we can check off a list gives us a sense of achievement, and a dopamine hit that can help us get motivated to tackle the next task on the list.
- Congratulate yourself on a job well done. An ADHD brain needs dopamine, and task achievement releases dopamine. Ticking off a checkbox and allowing yourself to feel good about that achievement might just give your brain the dopamine it needs to be able to tackle the next job on the list.