Ask anyone with ADHD who feels they have it managed fairly well what their secret is and I’d bet my boots their answer would include the word “systems”. My systems have gotten to the point where my husband actually says things like “after your morning routine” and “have you started your 3PM routine?” It is in the verbal culture of our family.
I’ve gone through so many versions and iterations of systems, it’s a little bonkers. If you wanted to play a drinking game, watching my life, you’d definitely need to take a shot every time I said “I’m trying this new system”. (It’s a little odd how much I love the concept of drinking games given I don’t drink alcohol and never have...) And as amusing and often infuriating as that is, it’s not something that’s going away any time soon. Because I know a big secret about ADHD and systems...
Someone with ADHD mentioned recently that once they’ve tried a system and it stops working, that this is “scorched earth” for them. They even went so far as to say that this is the case for all of us. And I know that isn’t the case for me. Let me elaborate.
For a while, a handful of years ago, I had a cleaning reminder system that worked very well for me for close to a month. Then it worked not very well for close to six months. Then I abandoned it. I tried tweaking it, changing it, nothing worked. I came to realize that it wasn’t the cleaning system that was my issue, it was my living situation. No system will save someone from having all the motivation stolen from them due to depression.
Again, this is not to say that systems ought to be abandoned in the case of depression, but I digress.
I was able to move out of that unworkable situation and into a much better one. Several months went by and I essentially was using the threshold method of cleaning. Whereby when something gets too bad, then I put effort into cleaning it, rather than on a schedule (clean the microwave every week, wipe down mirrors every 3 weeks, etc.). Then I got busier and discovered even though a lot of things were past my threshold, I wasn’t cleaning them.
So, I got out my notebook and cooked up a new system that bears a striking resemblance to the one I’d first been using. I used a different app and different locations and breakdowns of tasks, but it was very similar. I am now able to work that system, effectively, despite it breaking down on me previously.
When and how systems break down can also provide valuable insight into how to change things. One of the changes I made was a new app because the previous app had been eating reminders. Nothing to do with me or my brain, except that I didn’t trust the technology I was relying on to augment my poor memory. Not optimal. Now I have an app that, to my knowledge, is very reliable.
For a while, I tried to write myself up a to-do list for the day, every morning. This was part of my attempts to integrate bullet journalling into my life. This system broke down. I found myself writing lists I then didn’t look at afterward. Some people find the act of writing the list by itself valuable, and I have been there too, but that was not this case. I was just going through the motions, wasting time, and not benefitting. So I stopped because I assumed that was not a system for me.
A few months ago, I realized that what I really needed that day was a to-do list. So I pulled out my littlest notebook and made one up. It was super helpful and I followed it all day. Then I did it again the next day. Concerned I might forget about this strategy again, I set a reminder for myself just to nudge that this method exists. And as I was setting when it would fire, I realized one thing that had caused this system to break down for me before: I do not need to do lists every day.
There are days, and some of them are predictable, when I will never need to write myself up a list, partially because my calendar is my list for that day. Tuesdays have been my errand day for over six years now. That takes up my entire day, and if I do end up with extra time in the evening, it is automatically used for decompression. So my “Write a to-do list for today?” reminder doesn’t fire on Tuesdays. The question mark at the end reminds me that it is only a suggestion. Some days the calendar is so full that there’s no room for other tasks and therefore no need to try and fit them in. It also has a little hedgehog emoji with it. This whimsical touch helps take the pressure off of me when I see it. “It’s ok,” the hedgehog says. “If you don’t write a list today, no problem.”
And someday I may turn off that reminder because enough days have passed when I didn’t need to write a list that I don’t need that system right now. Even so, I can see a day coming after that time when I’ll need to take the 10 minutes at the beginning of my day and just slot in what stuff needs to get done, on paper. When I become a parent, for example.
I have developed a fairly fine-tuned sense of my systems. I can tell by feel, by the sensations in my body, and by observing my behavior and results, how each system is working, or not working, for me. This is a sense that took me a loooooooong time to develop. And it’s maddeningly prone to error.
If I’m sleep deprived or struggling with depression, for example, I can often tell by the number of things that I do more or less consistently that are mysteriously failing to get done, all of a sudden. That does not mean they are scorched earth, it just means that the modicum of motivation I typically have is being sapped enough by something that they are not currently viable, or at least on auto-pilot.
In these instances, I either need to accept that until I course-correct on whatever is happening to throw me off that these things will not get done, or I need to bring out the big guns. The “big guns” in this context is usually me getting some phone or text message accountability from a friend or asking my husband for specific reminding.
This is another example of a system that could easily become scorched earth, if not handled correctly. If my husband nagged me about everything, all the time, as I’ve read and heard about others doing, I would feel overwhelming resentment and the things would still not get done. When I ask for him to specifically remind me about one thing at a time, then it helps.
This is also why I try and make sure I test out new systems when I know most of the usual culprits won’t be lurking around and sabotaging my efforts.
How do you keep methods of functioning from seeming like, or becoming, scorched earth?