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Using a Day Planner as a Life Planner

By Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.

Been there? Done that? Lost a dozen? Using a day planner one of the most essential coping skills that a woman with ADHD can develop, but it's a skill that you need to practice and develop over time. Actually, using a day planner is not a single skill, but a set of skills that can be worked on, one-by-one.

1. Learn to have your day planner with you at ALL times.

When I am working with someone to help them develop the day planner habit, often, I hear, "I'm using it, but I just didn't bring it with me." Or, "It's in the car." Your day planner, when used properly, becomes your "external frontal lobes" - frontal lobes being the part of your brain where most high level planning and problem-solving takes place. You wouldn't leave your brain in the car would you? At least, not on purpose. So, your first day planner habit is to keep your external frontal lobes with you at all times - so that you can plan and problem-solve.

2. Write EVERY scheduled event, every to-do, in your day planner.

Some people feel that they have to keep a social calendar or family calendar in their kitchen, or a three-month planning calendar on the wall of their office. If this helps you, fine. But first each item should be entered into your day planner - that external brain that is always with you - and then transferred to other reminder systems. That way you can be sure that there is one place you can quickly refer to for appointments, upcoming travel dates, phone numbers, confirmation numbers on phone orders, etc., etc.

3. Keep a "must do" list and a "master" list in your day planner.

A "must do" list is your daily action plan. Items on your "must do" list should be assigned actual times on your daily schedule.

  • If there are a cluster of brief "must do's" that can be accomplished in the same area, or on your drive home from work - i.e., gas for car, pick up dry cleaning, groceries for dinner, birthday card for Mom -assign a block of time for this cluster rather than separate times for each.

  • Other "must do's" have a definite time - i.e., doctor's appointment, pick up kids and take to soccer practice.

  • Must-do's with no specific time attached to them are more likely to be completed if you assign them a specific time during the day - i.e., call plumber when I arrive at work, or, order tickets during lunch break.

A "master list" is a list of to-do's that are important, but not critical. Review your "master list" each day - pick a regular time - morning or evening - then transfer items from your "master list" to your "must-do" list as appropriate.

  • When is it appropriate to transfer a "master list" item to your "must do" list? When you assign a high priority to the item and there is time available. For example, when your "must do" list is shorter on a particular day, that's a good time to transfer a "master list" item such as - do online search for plane tickets for summer vacation; order catalogs for summer camp selection.

  • If you find that you never transfer items from your "master list" to your "must do" list until they are near crisis, this is a clear sign that you are either over-committed or are not reviewing your master list each day.

4. Learn to become a better time estimator.

Estimate the time that each task on your daily "must do" list will take. Most adults with AD/HD quickly learn that they grossly underestimate how long things take. Make a game of it - work on your time estimates each day until your estimates are fairly accurate. Your goal is to reach the point where your "must do" list is completed every day, with the exception of days of unusual, unpredictable circumstances.

5. Learn to Plan for Contingencies.

Even if you become a good time-estimator, life doesn't happen in a vacuum. Many adults with AD/HD so rarely plan for contingencies that they don't see their responsibility to plan for the unexpected.

Traffic happens. Phone calls happen. Emergencies happen. Priorities change. Will the grocery take 10 minutes or 30? What if there's a line at the cleaner's, at the bank? What if the dentist is running late?

6. Learn to Resist Impulses and Distractions.

Impulses and distractions will throw your carefully planned day into chaos. The phone rings as you're walking out the door and you answer it, even though you know the caller can leave a message. You run into a friend at the grocery and a friendly greeting turns into a 15 minute conversation, using up time you'd planned for picking up the dry cleaning, cooking dinner, or getting to your evening meeting on time

  • Time is not elastic. Having a daily action plan in mind, with times firmly attached, can help you remember your previous commitments. The fifteen-minute chat with your friend is being traded for the first 15 minutes of the meeting you plan to attend that evening, or the healthy dinner you'd planned to cook. Now you have a choice, fast food for dinner or arrive late for the meeting.

  • Changes in plans are OK! Your day planner helps you see more clearly what you're trading for what. Seeing clearly, you can ask yourself: "Is this conversation more important to me than a healthy dinner or getting to my meeting one time?" The answer may be "yes." This may be a person who is important to you whom you haven't seen in a long time. Your daily action plan doesn't "forbid" changes of plan - but the operative word is "plan" instead of "Woops! I lost track of the time."

7. Are you scheduling too much?

What if your "must do" list is rarely completed by the end of the day? If this happens regularly, you're either over-committed or you're confusing "must do" items for "master list" items. Stepping back to take a broader view can help you evaluate whether you need to reduce your commitments or whether you're just using your "must do" list as a catch-all for random to-do's that occur to you during the day.

8. Does your daily "must do" list feel like a rigid taskmaster?

All of us have things in life we don't enjoy, but which are important. Life becomes chaotic when we don't "manage" our lives - by taking out the trash, washing our clothes, having regular medical checkups, pay our bills, etc. But it's time for a major re-evaluation if you find most hours of most days filled with dreaded "oughts." When this is the case, it's time to ask yourself:

  1. Does this really need to be part of my life, or am I just conforming to the expectations of other people?
  2. If I dislike this task so much, can I find someone else to do it for me? Would it be worth working a little longer to earn extra money to hire this task done?
  3. Is there a way I can creatively problem-solve and make this task less time-consuming or more interesting?

9. Use your day planner as a life planner, not just a chore planner!

Your day planner works for you, you don't work for it! Creating action plans, learning to estimate time, assigning specific times to tasks may sound rigid and limiting, but remember - you're in charge. The only reason to develop these habits is to make time in your life for the things that are most important to you.

Step back and review your "must do" and "master" lists regularly. When you feel overwhelmed by chores, ask yourself whether these chores that can be combined, streamlined, or eliminated. Remember to put positive "to do's" into your daily plan - i.e., talk to a friend, take a walk, practice the piano, read a book. A day planner isn't a taskmaster, it's a life planning tool. When you're clear what you want in your life, a day planner can help make it happen.

More information on life planning and ADHD-friendly organizing strategies can be found in ADD-friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.


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