In this super busy, nonstop world, we all want to be more productive, so we look for as many time management hacks as we can find. As a neurodivergent person with ADHD, anxiety, or depression, you may struggle with executive dysfunction, making it difficult to manage time effectively. This can lead to procrastination, poor planning, and difficulties in prioritizing tasks.
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In this article, we'll explore time management hacks to help neurodivergent people improve their executive function skills.
Understand Your Executive Dysfunction
Recognize the signs
The first step in improving your executive function skills is to recognize the signs of executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction presents differently for everyone. Some signs include:
- Difficulty initiating tasks
- Struggling to plan and prioritize
- Frequently losing track of time
- Difficulty switching between tasks or adjusting to changes
- Inability to break down complex tasks into smaller steps
By acknowledging these challenges, you can develop targeted strategies to address them and improve your time management abilities.
Certain situations or environments may exacerbate your executive dysfunction. Identifying these triggers can help you develop coping strategies and avoid situations that hinder your progress. Common triggers may include:
- Overstimulating environments
- High levels of stress or anxiety
- Sleep deprivation
- Poor nutrition
Develop a Routine
Establish a morning routine
A consistent morning routine can help set the tone for the rest of your day. It can also remove decision paralysis because you won’t have to think about what to do. That, in turn, helps create a calmer morning.
A morning routine may include waking up at the same time every day, engaging in a mindfulness practice, exercising, journaling, reading, or eating a balanced breakfast. Choose an activity that will put you in a positive mindset. (Notice, checking your phone first thing was not on the list.) By starting your day with a routine, you'll be better equipped to tackle your daily tasks with improved focus and energy.
Implement a bedtime routine
A bedtime routine can help you wind down after a long day and prepare for the next. It can help calm your mind and be ready for sleep so you don’t waste countless hours with racing thoughts. This can involve activities like:
- Reviewing your accomplishments from the day
- Planning and prioritizing tasks for the following day
- Engaging in relaxation techniques or self-care practices
- Keeping a consistent sleep schedule
Break Down Tasks into Manageable Steps
I feel like I mention this one in almost every article I write. Some neurotypical people are fine with looking at the big picture and tackling a project. However, most neurodivergent people feel overwhelmed by complex tasks.
Overwhelm leads to procrastination. To improve your executive function skills, break down tasks into smaller, manageable steps. This will make it easier to tackle each part, and reduce the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate. You’ll also see immediate progress as each step is completed, which will keep you motivated.
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Utilize Time Management Tools
Use a calendar app or planner
If you struggle with executive dysfunction, you probably aren’t good at remembering everything you need to do. Time management is hard and you run late because you don’t notice how much time has gone by. You miss appointments and deadlines. You need a way to organize the tasks you need to complete in a day.
I’m not saying that you need to use a paper planner if that’s something you’ll never even open. But you do need something. A digital calendar or app, a bound planner, a printable planner, heck—even an index card with a to-do list is better than nothing. You need to find the system that will work for you.
Implement a task management system
A task management system can help you organize and prioritize your tasks, making it easier to stay on track and focused. Here are a couple of different methods to check out:
The Getting Things Done (GTD):
The Getting Things Done (GTD) method is a task management system created by productivity consultant David Allen, designed to redefine how individuals approach their work and personal lives. The method focuses on storing and organizing work information in an external source rather than relying on the brain, which helps reduce cognitive load and improve productivity. The GTD workflow consists of five steps:
- Capture: Collect all tasks, ideas, and projects that require attention. This can be done using a physical inbox, a digital tool, or a combination of both.
- Clarify: Evaluate each item captured, and decide if anything needs to be done. If a task can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. If not, delegate it, defer it, or break it into smaller tasks.
- Organize: Organize the tasks based on their priority, context, and due date. This can be done using lists, folders, or digital tools. Categorize tasks into projects, if applicable, and assign appropriate contexts (e.g., work, home, errands).
- Reflect: Regularly review your tasks and projects, ensuring that they align with your goals and priorities. This may involve weekly reviews, daily check-ins, or setting specific times to assess progress.
- Engage: Focus on completing tasks based on their priority and context, reducing the need for multitasking.
While this system might seem like a lot at first, Tiago Forte uses a version of this to create a second brain for himself. This resonates with many neurodivergent people because they have so many amazing ideas and they’re afraid of losing or forgetting them. Your second brain is a way to store all of these ideas. He uses the app Notion to store and organize everything.
While GTD has its pros, such as reducing mental strain, it also has its cons, like being too flexible for some people. However, the GTD method has proven to be effective for many people seeking a better way to manage their tasks and improve productivity.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a task management system that focuses on time management by breaking work into 25-minute intervals, called Pomodoros, followed by 5-minute breaks. This method aims to increase productivity, reduce distractions, and prevent burnout by dividing work into manageable time chunks.
To use the Pomodoro Technique as a task management system, follow these steps:
- List your tasks: Write down or use a task management system to list all the tasks you need to complete.
- Prioritize tasks: Organize your tasks in order of importance or urgency.
- Set a timer: Start a 25-minute timer for your first Pomodoro work session.
- Work without distractions: Focus on your task during the 25-minute interval, avoiding interruptions and multitasking.
- Take a break: When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break to rest and recharge.
- Repeat the process: Continue alternating between Pomodoro work sessions and short breaks. After completing four Pomodoros, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.
- Adjust as needed: You might not be able to do a 25-minute stretch of focused work. Feel free to alter that time to something that is achievable for you. Maybe your Pomodoros are 15 minutes. Use that and as you get better at it, you might be able to increase the time blocks.
Schedule Breaks and Downtime
This hack might seem counterintuitive for being more productive. However, because we all want to do more, we tend to push ourselves too far. This is even more so for neurodivergent people who are trying to force themselves to function in a neurotypical world. If you don’t take breaks and prioritize self-care, you’ll burn out and not be able to accomplish much at all.
Take regular breaks
Taking regular breaks throughout your day can help improve focus and prevent burnout. Aim for a 5-10-minute break every hour to stretch, get a drink of water, or engage in a brief, relaxing activity.
Going back to working from home during the pandemic was the best thing for me. When I was in the office, I would work straight through for 3-4 hours without a break (unless I had to go to the bathroom). Being at home, I get up and do things like load the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry. While it’s not really a “break” in the traditional sense, it gets me out of my chair and away from the computer at least once an hour.
Neurodivergent people (especially women) often struggle with self-care due to executive dysfunction. If you didn’t get everything done during the day you don’t think you “deserve” self-care activities. Or you just feel guilty taking time for yourself.
Make a conscious effort to schedule regular downtime for relaxation, hobbies, and self-care practices. This can help reduce stress and anxiety, ultimately improving your executive function skills. If you’re less stressed, you’ll be able to give more positive energy and time to the things that matter to you, like your family.
Set Realistic Goals and Deadlines
Setting unrealistic goals and deadlines can lead to feelings of overwhelm, failure, and increased procrastination. Instead, aim for SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals that take into account your executive dysfunction and provide a clear, achievable path to success.
Don’t set your goals and deadlines to compare to other people. Lean into your strengths and create timelines that will work for your brain.
Delegate and Outsource Tasks
Recognize that you don't need to do everything yourself. Delegate or outsource tasks when possible. This can help reduce overwhelm and improve your overall time management abilities. It might not be possible at work if you don’t have a team that you work with. But you can probably delegate some things at home.
I find the biggest issue with most women I know is that they feel guilty for wanting to outsource some tasks like housecleaning, cooking, or laundry. We’ve been brainwashed by society to believe these are “our” jobs and since we want to be good wives and mothers, we should be taking care of them. And maybe (maybe) that made sense when we weren’t also working our own jobs and juggling the busy lives of our kids. Get rid of the guilt.
While these time management hacks aren’t going to solve all of your problems, they can help you improve your executive function skills and reduce some of the daily stress you feel. Remember, this is a process, and building new habits and strategies takes time. Experiment to find the methods that work best for you and don’t beat yourself up when you have a setback. Even when you falter, you’re still improving.