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
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
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
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
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:
- Does this really need to be part of my life, or am I
just conforming to the expectations of other people?
- 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?
- 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
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.