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If you Give an ADHD Brain a Schedule

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When my kids were little, they loved the book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  For those of you not familiar with this contemporary classic, it’s a “circular tale,” which means the last scene of the story leads to a repeat of the first scene, creating the potential for indefinite repetition (a.k.a., an exhausted parent’s nightmare). 

It wasn’t until my kids had long outgrown the book and Markus was diagnosed with ADHD (and myself a few months later) that I began to think I had more in common with that damn mouse than the occasional cookie craving.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this:

A boy gives a cookie to a mouse. The mouse asks for a glass of milk. He then requests a straw (to drink the milk), then a mirror (to check for a milk mustache), which leads to a need for scissors (to trim his hair in the mirror), and a broom (to sweep up). Of course, at this point, the mouse is tired and wants to take a nap, which means he needs to have a story read to him. This inspires him to draw a picture and hang the drawing on the refrigerator. Looking at the refrigerator makes him thirsty, so the mouse asks for a glass of milk. And – you guessed it - he wants a cookie to go with it.

Of course, we can easily see that our little mouse is slipping down the shiny object rabbit hole (mouse hole?). But, when you’re in the moment, it’s much harder to see those shiny objects for what they really are – distractions taking your attention away from whatever “it” is you’re supposed to be doing. 

So, days go like this:

You wake up with the best of intentions and a list of To-Do’s ready to get done. You sit down at your desk, open your email and see that your Sephora rewards points are due to expire (not gonna let that happen). You’ll get started on your list right after you hop over to Sephora.com – 25 minutes and a brow quiz later, you’re searching for the recommended products when you remember that you purchased a brow pencil a month ago. What brand was that? You obviously don’t want to order the same brow pencil twice, so you head to the bathroom to search your make-up drawer. However, before you can even open the drawer, you notice the toothpaste in the sink and, honestly, the entire bathroom desperately needs to be cleaned, which you are now compelled and completely motivated to do. The day ends, and your To-Do list is still waiting to get done. At least now that the bathroom is clean and you know which brow pencil to order, there won’t be anything to distract you when you wake up early tomorrow…and we’re the mouse.

WHY?

It’s not that we’re lazy or unmotivated. It’s brain chemistry. We have executive function challenges. We struggle to schedule and plan because we’re time blind. Our ADHD brains, as brilliant as they are, have a very short time horizon. We are in the moment people, which makes it difficult (i.e., damn near impossible) for us to plan for the future. And, I’m talking about any point in the future, not just those flippin’ 5-year goals. For us, there’s “now,” and there’s “not now.” We don’t have a practical understanding of what time even means. How long will a project take? An hour? Twenty minutes? A day and a half? It’s hard to organize your day when you literally do not know how much time it takes to accomplish what needs to get done. 

Plus, like all super-sheroes, we have our own kryptonite...BOREDOM. Neurotypicals can generally force themselves to focus on inescapable humdrum when needed (I mean, how else would we have accountants?), but not us. We struggle to maintain motivation when we’re bored, and we’re often either all-out hyper-focused inspired or watching paint dry bored – there is no in-between. Add to that our tendency to get distracted (looking at you, little mouse), and you get activity without results. Our mind is busy ALL. DAY. LONG. but that doesn’t always translate into productivity. 

Am I destined to be a mouse always looking for the next cookie? No. Hell, no. You’re only as destined as you are unwilling to try new things. I am all about finding ways to use our ADHD strengths to our advantage, and here are few potential solutions that can put you in control of your days. 

Show that clock who’s boss. Here’s the thing, most people can physically see and feel time. We, on the other hand, have to learn time; we have to externalize by using clocks and timers. Personally, I have to time myself so that I have some idea of how long it takes me to do, frankly, anything. Otherwise, every day is like starting over from scratch without a recipe. A lot of our ADHD women love the Datexx Cube and the Pomodoro technique, where you take a break after every 25- or 45-minute work session. Try both and see what works for you. When I need help getting started, a timer gets me out of my head into action. I tell myself that all I have to do is 25 minutes, but of course, once I’m in the flow, I never fail to finish. 

Emoji that. Time and emotional regulation are actually linked. It’s our feelings about time and planning, and goal setting that are the problem. We’re often waiting to feel like we want to do it. We don’t want to plan because what if we don’t feel like doing it when we say we’re going to do it. The struggle is real, but at some point, we’ve got to do what we’ve been avoiding, and there’s nothing better than a little hit of dopamine to get us ramped up to tackle the big stuff. Try starting your day by checking off some of those quick, easy To-Do’s to get your dopamine flowing. I know that once I’ve crossed off a few small items, I’ve had enough dopamine hits to get me to tackle a medium To-Do. Go ahead, use colored pens, checkmarks, thick lines – whatever helps activate that feeling of achievement. 

A teaspoon of sugar makes the medicine go down. I love Mary Poppins. She always had the ability to add fun to the everyday (and she pulled off a mean full skirt in the process). Whenever I can, I take Mary’s lead and make things fun. Why? Because fun generates positive emotion and positive emotion increases dopamine, thereby increasing our motivation. Now, each of us has a different idea of fun, so you need to ask yourself what you can do to feel better about what needs to get done. Will listening to a podcast make it more fun to clean the house? How about giving yourself a challenge? If I get through X within a half-hour, I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee and sit outside for 10 minutes. Remember, it’s all about creating positive emotion. 

Wash, rinse, repeat. Whenever someone uses that phrase, I always think, they obviously don’t know how long it took me to do a load of laundry before my Apple Watch (let’s just say, the struggle was real). Of course, the point is that once we have a system down, it becomes easier to replicate. So, when you’ve been successful at planning or goal setting, ask yourself why it worked this time and why you weren’t successful last time. For example, when you were successful, ask yourself, did I exercise before tackling that task? Did I get a good night’s sleep? Did I feel really connected with what I was doing or who I was doing it with? And when you’re not successful, ask yourself what decreased your productivity. Was I tired? Was I anxious? Was I constantly interrupted by my kids, my spouse, a work colleague? Was my workspace a mess? It’s amazing how awareness can help you create your own version of wash, rinse, repeat. 

Look, there are more productivity tools and tricks than there are drink combinations at Starbucks. And, just like you weren’t born knowing that a full fat, single, honey latte was your thing, the only way to know which strategies will work for you is to try them. And, while I don’t know your Starbucks order, I do know that traditional planners don’t work for our non-linear, ADHD brains (and I have a shelf full of them to prove it). That’s why I created the A-OK! Every Day unplanner system. Designed specifically for the ADHD mind, A-OK! Every Day provides a step-by-step system for getting your thoughts and ideas out of your head and into action. The initial run sold out within days. I’ll be printing a second run before too long. Click here to get on the waiting list.

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