Problem: You are a free spirit, and the thought of routines gives you hives; but you are simultaneously a disaster in most areas of your life, and chaos is your middle name.
Solution: Suck it up and REALLY REALLY REALLY TRY routines (with checklists!)!!!
I constantly mocked an old boyfriend who was so rigid in his routines that he refused to bend them even slightly. My husband actually is a pretty big creature of habit, as well. I have to say, I spent many a day frustrated because he had to do something, and we couldn’t leave until it was done.
For my entire life, no two days were the same. I couldn’t ever be on the birth control pill because I could barely remember to brush my teeth consistently, let alone remember something so important. So, of course, the first 44 years of my life were chaotic. Actually, chaotic is probably an understatement. I thought it was because I was a “free spirit” and I needed less structure because “that’s just how I work best.” The truth is probably closer to: “I thought people who stuck to routines were rigid and boring.”
My husband probably has helped me see the benefit of doing the same general routine consistently as a good thing. Over the years I’ve read many (MANY) books and articles on organization, taming clutter, getting your shit together, or whatever you want to call it. I will (at some point) review some of those books here, as several address ADHD specifically.
So what finally clicked? Nothing. There wasn’t one thing. It was like a slow boil, coming to the realization that I actually NEED structure to even come close to my potential. I had to-do lists (oh BOY did I have to-do lists!!!) for many many years. I tried Franklin-Covey Planners, FLYLady binders, several to-do apps for Iphone and Ipad…nothing really stuck. I read lots of books, especially in the last year or two, on habit stacking, systems, compound effect, checklists, etc. It was more the combination of picking various things from this or that book, this or that webinar, this or that blog article…that I started to build 9and come to understand/love) routines. At no point did I say, “Today I’m going to build and work my routine,” or “You know, this is the day I might implement one of those systems things!” It just progressed organically over several months of observing, trying, and tweaking. And as it did, the love grew.
That’s not to say some sources of information weren’t more helpful than others. Early on, one of my colleagues in France took an entire hour to show me how he uses Microsoft OneNote to track everything from to-do lists, to meetings, to communication, to project details (which I still rely on a great deal). There was a PluralSight course that was incredibly helpful in the beginning (Time Management for Technical Professionals by Doru Catana). An article (long since lost) specifically on checklists was incredibly enlightening.
Many times I didn’t believe any of those interventions would work (this is a common theme in my life, btw). Instead I would approach it as “Let’s see what happens.” It was all a grand experiment! I certainly couldn’t do any worse than I currently was in failing to reach my potential! Some ideas I actively resisted, including routines. This was something I didn’t want to actually work. But, unfortunately routines really do work.
For me, forgetting to do minuscule things triggered incredible feelings of shame. This is hard to write, but I’ve learned since that this is common for ADHD people. A good example is if I got to the car and realized I had left the driveway lights on, I’d instantly slide into a place of shame. “I’m so fucking stupid I can’t even manage to remember to turn off the driveway lights! How freakin’ hard is it to remember? Every other person on this street can manage to remember, except me. What the hell is wrong with me?” All of that would race through my mind in the split second when I registered that the driveway lights were on, and debated going back into the house to turn them off or let them burn all day while I would be at work. What routines have given me is really what they have taken away: a lot of self-abuse. Now, I leave the house every morning and the driveway lights are off, because they are a checklist item on my morning routine. I don’t get out of the shower without washing my hair anymore because it’s a checklist item on my glass shower wall (in dry erase marker). Where I had to bring deodorant, toothpaste, and a toothbrush to work because I’d get to work only to realize I’d skipped any or all of those while getting ready in the morning, I’ve not had to use any of them now that I have routines.
Another thing to note is that my routines evolve and change all the time. I usually give myself a week or two trying a specific routine version before tweaking it. Also, accepting that sometimes the answer is that you just need to allocate more time for something is incredibly important. For almost 8 months, I left the house every morning frazzled, beating myself up, and having to skip major parts of my morning routine. “Why can’t I get this all done in 1 hour!?!?!?” I would wail as I peeled out of the driveway, late again. One day it finally dawned on me: “Maybe I just need more time?” Obvious, of course, but the obvious answer isn’t always accessible to the ADHD brain. Instead of thinking of myself as “WRONG” or “BAD” because I couldn’t make everything I needed to do fit into an arbitrary time range…I decided to accept that my “process” required two full hours. This was a lightbulb moment for me. Accepting that this is who I am right now in my life, and maybe it’ll change at some point, maybe it won’t, was HUGE.