Planning to Plan: A Guide for the Adult with ADHD
Are you disappointed in yourself for not getting tasks on your to-do list completed, or even started? For procrastinating or missing deadlines? For not following your plan? Sound familiar? Most adults with ADHD or Executive Function challenges are in the same boat: too much to do, falling behind, disappointing themselves, and not managing their time. These issues are the result of problematic executive functions like getting started, following through, organizing, making decisions, resisting distractions, and the all-formidable planning.
A lifetime of these difficulties can lead to a lot of negative feelings. I knew I had to pay that bill, but it is still sitting on my desk, overdue. What is wrong with me? I was supposed to have the project submitted yesterday. How could I let that happen again? If you have ADHD, then you know very well the kinds of things that can lead to a pile of shame. Negative feelings can easily get in the way of planning to plan, which, in turn, can lead to more negative feelings, which can lead to more avoidance, and so on.
Make sure you have a plan before you are tempted to beat yourself up for not following a plan.
Because planning does not come naturally to adults with ADHD, many will (mostly unintentionally) do almost anything to avoid it. One avoidance strategy is to punish yourself for not following a plan that you actually do not have. Flooding yourself with negative feelings, you can skip the difficult steps of making a plan and failing to follow it and jump right to feeling crummy about it.
I caught wind of this strategy when one of my clients, we’ll call her Kate, once told me (while making a miserable face), “I didn’t do a very good job following my plan.” While this is not at all an unusual report for my clients, I took a pause to consider what Kate was really getting at. I asked, “What did your plan look like?” This was followed by a snort and resounding, “Well, I didn’t really have one!”
Like Kate, many adults with ADHD are so good at self-shaming, have made so much of a habit of it, that piling on the shame to avoid planning has become automatic. Sounds like an overly simplistic scenario? How about Robert, an attorney with ADHD who arrived at my office last week lamenting that he didn’t prepare his arguments for court until the last minute. While some last-minute thinking can yield amazing results, he felt that he could have performed a lot better if he had prepared more in advance. But, when I asked him what his plan looked like for this case, he gave me a blank look. Plan?
Make sure you have a plan for planning.
Kate’s discovery that she was beating herself up for not following a non-existent plan took some of the oomph out of her negative feelings. Then, she was able to turn her attention toward actually making a plan. Because planning is so hard for Kate, and other people with ADHD, it helps to create a plan for planning. For Kate, planning to plan means working with me each week to develop a task list with steps for each task for the upcoming week and then reviewing how the steps went afterwards. Because she needs to keep her plan in plain sight, she tapes it to her desk in front of her computer. This also allows her to take notes and make changes to her plan throughout the week without requiring her to open an app or browser. For Robert, planning to plan means setting aside time each Friday before leaving the office to list tasks for each case or matter on a legal pad. Then, he sets aside blocks of time to work on each task in his digital calendar for the next week.
What would planning to plan look like for you?
To design your own plan for planning, consider these 5 questions:
When do you do your planning?
Where do you keep your plan?
Do you plan for each day or each week, or both?
Do you put tasks from your to do list into your schedule or calendar?
Could you describe what your plan looks like to someone else?
Through setting aside her shame and planning to plan, Kate was able to face what she was avoiding by giving herself a structure: the what, when, and how of getting things done. This helped Kate to change the story she tells herself about planning from “I feel bad because I never follow a plan that doesn’t exist” to “When I have a plan, I can focus on the next step and it feels good.” With this new story, Kate can break the habit of beating herself up for not following a plan that she doesn’t have.
Even with plans, adults with ADHD will find it hard to sail through the tasks on their to do lists, efficiently getting everything finished well in advance of deadlines. But, the same can be said of people without ADHD as well. Plans are never perfect. Having a plan will make it easier for you to prioritize, organize, make decisions, and alleviate some of the avoidance and negative feelings that come as part of the ADHD package. If you catch yourself feeling crummy for not following a plan that you don’t have, consider establishing the habit of planning to plan to move towards more positive results.