EF 1.3 – Choosing a system

Now that you’ve been dazzled by my incredible diagrams, it’s time to learn my favorite executive function hack. By creating consistency over time, you can develop an automatic routine, reduce cognitive drain, and make your life much easier.

When it was time for me to get my permit, I started learning the driving rules before I got behind the wheel. Rules like “look both ways” and “check your blind spot” and “there’s a $1,000 fine for abandoning an animal on the side of the road.” I had to think about all this consciously when I did start driving, and for a while, it was hard. Eventually, though, I got in the habit of using turn signals and not crashing into stop signs and following directions, and now, I’ve integrated those habits into routines, like driving my sister to tennis practice.

This is just one example of how the rule/habit/routine strategy can make life easier. As I mentioned, consistency is key. The rule should be simple, and it should always be the same. Here’s an example of a bad rule: “I check my calendar if I have stuff on it, but if I don’t, there’s no need to check out.” This rule doesn’t work because it requires you to actively remember if you have anything on your calendar, defeating the calendar’s purpose. A better rule: “I always check my calendar as soon as I open my computer each morning.” Soon enough, I’m opening my calendar habitually, and then – ta-da!!! – it’s a routine. Mission accomplished.

The best system is the one that works. It might take some trial and error to figure out what works for you. For a while, I tried to do everything on paper (planner, sticky notes, calendar on my desk, the works), but then I had too many things to keep track of – again, rule/routine/habit. The stress of trying to fit them all into the planner outweighed the destressing effects of having a planner.

Nevertheless, some people do find planners helpful. Of course, there are approximately a million different kinds of planners that will magically change your life through positive affirmations on every other page and, I don’t know, making you write down stuff you’re grateful for. I’ve never been a huge fan of that kind of thing, but to each his own, I suppose. Here are some examples of different systems:

The Lucy Approach

I use an app called Things. In fact, I swear by it. Here’s why:

  • The interface is clean, neat, and calming.
  • The organization is intuitive and sophisticated. I have different areas for tasks, including Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), Writing/Blog, Russian, and Work. Within each of those areas, I can use tags, and I can also set up projects.
  • Each item can be repeated. They can also involve reminders, subtasks, and deadlines.
  • It syncs with my calendar.
  • There’s a feature where you can set the due date of a task as “someday,” which I find immensely satisfying. This is a little similar to my not-to-do list: I have the idea written down and recorded, so it’s not plaguing me constantly, but I’m also not pressuring myself to do too much.

The Brie Approach

“I’ve found the Google calendar app on my phone works best for me. I can set the appointment, who it’s with, where it is, what time it is, how long it is, a reminder notification so that I leave the house on time, and color code it. I keep my entire schedule there so that I can easily visually see when I have class and stuff too. Plus, I can change the color of the class if homework is due! I use the widget and have it take up one whole screen of my phone so that my schedule is never more than a swipe away, and I always know what to expect next. The calendar on your phone is also great for reminders. You can even schedule a text to yourself (literally, you can send a text to your own number and set a delay so that you get it right when you need to).

“If you tell your teachers that you use your phone as your schedule, 99% of the time, they won’t care that you took it out in class to add the homework due date. If they do decide to get all uppity about it, it also qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA as long as you go through your school’s disability office. (or you can conveniently need to use the restroom every time they announce something you need to schedule lol).”

The Sarah Approach

“I use an Excel schedule with 30-minute blocks and color-coded blocks for “fixed” events like classes and office hours. It’s easy to put a task in a block but shift it around if I did something else instead.”

The Douglas Puryear Approach

(from his book Your Life Can Be Better, Using Strategies for Adult ADD/ADHD. Check out his blog, ADDultStrategies.)

Puryear talks about having three index-card lists on him all the time. One is red (most urgent), one is yellow, one is green. He also writes about how he only has five items on a list at a time. Otherwise, he gets overwhelmed. Keeping the lists short helps him stay focused and get things done, rather than stressing about the number of things he needs to do. When he has a complex task, he breaks it down into smaller steps on its own notecard.

Important note: Don’t forget the time management glitch and the accompanying timetable hack! If you’re like me and you like to plan out every single moment of every day in detail, then you might want a planner that has one page per day. If, on the other hand, you lose track of time easily and have trouble staying on top of long-term projects, it could be helpful to have a week or even a month at a time. Some planners have a page for each month and then a two-page spread per week, so you could just write the most important big tasks for the month and then have more space for each day. More on that here.

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