As an educator with ADHD who has worked one-on-one with ADD/HD teenagers and adults for nearly twenty years, I have shared the struggles and the successes of my clients as they’ve improved a variety of skills. These people are distinctive individuals, with different goals, abilities, and backgrounds, and each of their improvement plans reflected each person’s unique life situation.
However, as difficult as it may be to make broad, generalized statements about ADD individuals. there does seem to be one universal area of discontent: Time Management. The symptoms range from the visibly obvious (walking into class/work late on a regular basis) to the subtly damaging (paying numerous late charge penalties on bills and losing credit rating points). Some of the adults with whom I’ve worked may not have even LOOKED like they have time management problems, but as one executive confessed to me, “No one has any idea how many nights a week I go without sleeping because I’m trying to get caught up on what I didn’t get done during office hours.”
In addition to physical exhaustion, ADD people deal with the emotional drain of living life “under the gun” and of being “out of sync” with the clocks and time zones. Over time, repeated efforts and subsequent failures will erode a person’s confidence to the point of depression. This brand of frustration is familiar to me, both professionally and personally, but my experience has been that these patterns can be remediated, and when we begin to control time more effectively, we often re-define ourselves from being victims of time to being masters of time.
During the last two decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a great deal about what kinds of strategies help AD/HD individuals manage time more successfully—as well as what kinds generally don’t help. One key factor we address is understanding and responding to certain ideas that I like to call “Brutal Truths.” These ideas are often concepts that ADD persons comprehend on an intellectual level, but they have problems when it comes to shaping their behaviors to reflect that comprehension.
For example, one important Brutal Truth is: “You cannot live your life on a completely spontaneous basis every day.” Now, most ADD/HD adults may “know” this statement is true, but each day they may behave as if it was an exception to the idea. Truly “getting” the reality behind a Brutal Truth involves changing specific, targeted behaviors, a complex process that includes analysis, development of anticipation skills (foresight), and monitoring. In other words, there’s more to making adjustments in behavior than telling an AD/HD teen or adult to “Knock it off” or “Just do it this way.” The methods that result in success for AD/HD individuals are methods that reflect the operation of their nervous systems and their mental proclivities, and much time and energy can be wasted in trying to make them operate as if they weren’t what they are. Frequently, I encourage my clients to conserve the energy they expend on non-productive guilt, for they will need that steam to work in other directions! (There IS such a thing as “productive guilt,” but that’s another article entirely.)
One of the most crucial Brutal Truths my clients and I review regularly deals with a very practical issue: getting stuff done. Accomplishing tasks, whether they are about regular maintenance (monthly expenses, grocery lists, etc.) or about special situations (projects, family gatherings, etc.), constitutes a life-long challenge to my AD/HD clients. They bought a book, written by a very organized author, and they tried filling out all the planning forms that came with it—well, at least one time,,,but it took up ‘way too much time and actually became just another chore to bungle. They’d also been told to “pace themselves,” and they’d made all kinds of decisions and declarations of self-determination…but that didn’t work so well, either.
SO, here’s the Brutal Truth: AD/HD individuals have two time frames in which they usually get stuff done—and those two time frames are Immediately…and At the Last Minute. In between those two time zones is the vast “middle ground” of steady, consistent pacing, a place that will likely never be very familiar nor comfortable territory for those with AD/HD.
The good news is that, within the scope of Immediately or The Last Minute, there’s a lot of opportunity to get stuff done; the bad news is that, left to their own devices, AD/HD people don’t manage these time frames effectively. The first step in doing so is to separate the two zones, for treating Immediate tasks as if they were Last-Minute tasks (and vice-versa) will often lead to failure. For instance, returning a business call is an Immediate task, but if a sales representative treats it as a Last Minute task, the customer may find another source in the interim. On the other hand, treating a Last-Minute task, such as cleaning the house before relatives arrive, as an Immediate chore may mean that the work will be executed too early and will have to be repeated before the arrival of the family members.
As my clients categorize various chores according to these two time frames, they also review and practice how they will get these goals accomplished. Immediate tasks are typically quick-action items that are typically postponed. In fact, the classic AD/HD response to an Immediate task is: “That won’t take long to do. (Pause) I’ll do it later!” The problem is that “later” is never defined as a specific time slot, and so the task “disappears” until the next time it’s noticed, but again, it will be done “later.” One of my favorite tactics for managing this pattern is to catch myself saying “later” about a chore and then follow it up with, “Okay, get out your calendar and make a note when ‘later’ will occur.” With Immediate tasks, I find that most of the time, it’s more effort to get my calendar out than it is to just do the actual task—so I do it!
Last-minute tasks are more time-demanding than Immediate ones and exist within a bigger time span. They usually have concrete deadlines and require multiple steps/phases to complete. Such tasks give my clients the chance to build many tangental skills that are essential to time management, such as sequencing information and estimating time. In particular, the ability to accurately estimate time for tasks is fundamental to success with Last-Minute tasks; if someone wants to wait until the last minute to do something, that person better know how long it takes to perform the task—otherwise, she/he won’t know when to get started! My clients may always tend to procrastinate, but they also learn they can’t procrastinate about everything, all the time. Thus, they become “efficient procrastinators” who meet, instead of miss, deadlines with greater consistency and who become more self-assured and less harried as a result.
Of course, life is full of many Brutal Truths for just about everyone, whether that person has an attention/impulse disorder or not. For ADHD people, learning how to respond to harsh realities can be a daunting effort, one that requires energy, support, and a savvy approach to the distinctive patterns of AD/HD behaviors. In my career, it has been gratifying to see the hard work my clients have put into improving themselves and the victories they have accomplished. I fight the same battles they do in terms of dealing with my own AD/HD problem areas, and while I will never claim total success, I can say with confidence that life is better when “stuff gets done” more successfully.
And, in case you were wondering, this article was very interesting to brainstorm, which I did Immediately. The writing part—well, frankly, that’s a lot less entertaining and a lot more effort…definitely finished at the Last Minute!