5 ADHD time management tips with big impact

Managing your time when you have ADHD can feel like wrangling a wild animal.

A slippery wild animal. That's also invisible.

And we're supposed to have this unruly beast firmly within our clutches just by virtue of becoming an adult.

Time management and getting things done - on time and without big time stress - are tricky for people with ADHD at all stages of life. Many executive function skills are required to organise time and get the important things done: response inhibition, flexibility, planning and emotional control.

I don't have a quick fix for you (or me). BUT, if there’s one thing we know your ADHD brain loves, it’s an immediate reward. And these ADHD time management tips are tried and tested to help you feel more in control of your time.

I hope these little tips inspire you to explore your issues with time more deeply, and reflect on what’s standing in your way of being the master of your time and getting the important things done. Wouldn't that be nice?!

1) Say no.

Kicking off with the quickest time management fix of all: just say no!

Or, if that feels terrifying, at least practise saying no.

Or, if that feels like too big a step, reintroduce NO into your vocabulary. (It may have gone missing since toddlerhood).

This is an especially helpful rule for women with ADHD who really do not want to disappoint people.

Adults with ADHD often struggle with saying no and having a realistic idea of what they can take on. There are a few reasons for this, including:

  • Executive function issues can make it challenging to weigh up the pros and cons of taking on the task or commitment
  • Impulsivity. Yup, we just didn’t think it through…
  • The tendency to see time as “now” and “not now” means that people with ADHD will often make choices that feel good in the moment without thinking about their future self.

If you find yourself saying “yes” to requests and then feeling overwhelmed and resentful later, this is a skill you can practise that will have an almost immediate positive impact on your life.

Saying yes to things that aren’t realistic can contribute to that feeling of being “flaky” that many of us struggle with.

Tips for saying no:

  • Develop a concrete set of rules for evaluating whether you say yes or no to a request. This can be a quick evaluation process based on your core values and whether the request aligns with your values.
  • Have a policy of saying “no” at the outset, especially when you’re put on the spot. Put some time aside to think about it, and then if you want to say yes you can come back and say you’ve changed your mind.
  • Have a scripted response ready to go. For example: “I’d love to help you but I’m maxed out at the moment”, or “Let me check my diary to see if I have capacity for that and I’ll get back to you”.

2) Clocks everywhere

Practise seeing and externalising time as much as possible.

People with ADHD often struggle with time blindness, meaning they have difficulty:

  • noticing the passage of time
  • how long things take to complete
  • what time it is

Having plenty of clocks around the spaces you use gets you in the habit of noticing time and reflecting on what that time means.

  • Should I keep going with the task at hand?
  • How long have I been doing what I’m doing?
  • Am I on track or completely off course?

Analog clocks are particularly good as they give you a great visual representation of the passage of time. There’s no hiding from the relentless movement of the hands on a clock. This heightens your sensitivity to the fact that time just keeps on chugging on.

3) Timers for everything

This is where our phones, smart watches and digital devices come back into play.

Once again, this trick is all about externalising time as much as possible as our excitable, time-blind brains cannot be relied upon to track the passage of time!

Alarm clocks are not just for waking you up in the morning. They can be an excellent tool in helping you break hyperfocus and snap you out of what you’re doing. They also help eliminate the constant (and exhausting) negotiation we do with ourselves when making decisions about time.

Here are some of the ways my clients use timers to help them manage their time:

  • Set a timer half an hour before you have to leave to go somewhere
  • Reminders to take medication at a certain time
  • Set meal and snack times (especially useful if you take stimulant medications which can affect appetite)
  • Use a timer to snap you out of hyperfocus and remind you that it’s time to move on to the next task.
  • Set a get-ready-for-bed alarm

Timers can also be an excellent strategy to help you get started on a tedious activity you’re resisting. This is a great way to turn something really boring into a dopamine stimulating countdown.

Some of the way my clients use timers to get started include:

  • Setting a timer for a short amount of time - even five minutes - and committing to working on a boring task for just the five minutes. When the timer goes off, it serves as an external instant reward of knowing that you got started
  • Breaking big projects into smaller bite-size chunks and tackling them in 25 minute chunks, and then taking a five minute break before moving onto the next chunk. (aka The Pomodoro Method. By the way, I’ve just described the entire method. That’s it).

Some apps you can try for making timers more fun and novel (which our brains need) include:

4) Take 5 minutes every day to make a daily plan

Don’t freak out. This is not about making an elaborate and demanding schedule for your day in 15 minute increments. I know you’ve done that a million times and beaten yourself with a stick for not following through on your militant plan.

Taking 5 minutes in the morning or the night before to write down a *loose* structure for the day is a powerful exercise in setting the intention for the day.

This is NOT a to-do list, which is a big brain dump of all the things you have to do in the whole world.

(Side note: these have their purpose, by the way. But I’m sure you can understand why writing a list of all the things you have to do as your plan for the day is counterproductive).

Here are some of the ways my clients do this

  • Put the bones of the day in first - concrete times that are externally enforced. Eg going to work, meetings, appointments, getting the kids to school, hopefully having a shower at some point. In the times around the bones, pop your most important tasks that are realistically achievable. If you haven’t timed yourself doing this activity before, allow for twice as much time as you think you need.
  • Pick three areas of focus for each day
    Keep a Big Grand Daddy Brain Dump list that you’re constantly adding to as things pop into your head. Then each day pick a few things off that list to go on your daily plan
  • Make your daily planning a moment of luxury. Do it with a cup of tea in the morning, a glass of wine in the evening, or in the bath. Ideally not with a glass of wine in the morning, but hey! Whatever works for you.

5) Only touch things once

Or "Only Handle It Once", otherwise known as the OHIO method.

Ok, so this sounds very simplistic, but stick with me.

Anything you can do straight away, just do it. Putting it off can feel very rewarding in the moment, but that pile of stuff in your brain is always just lurking there.

The dirty clothes on the floor you step over. The petrol station you drove by because your tank wasn't quite empty enough. The unpaid parking fine (guilty).

Little things that could have been handled with little difficulty quickly become big things when we put them off to another day some time in the never never.

Getting things out of your head and means you don’t have to organise or squeeze that activity into another time slot. It also means you’re not relying on a dodgy working memory.

The longer you leave a task, the more likely you are to forget or procrastinate. A task done is one you don’t have to remember or put off!

And if you genuinely can't do something now? Immediately setting a reminder for another time to do it is almost as good.

There are several different applications for this approach that can make a big difference:

  • Open mail and pay the bills as soon as you open them
  • Hang shirts and t-shirts on the line on hangers and move them straight from the line to your closet
  • Take rubbish out of the car when you get out of the car so it doesn’t pile up (if you have a car dump, I’m with you - it’s my nemesis)
  • Pick a daily slot of time for dealing with email and then action immediately.

Trial and error works for ADHD time management

Hooray you’re cured! You’ve just taken on all my advice and now time is not a thing!

I wish.

The truth is, you need to figure out what works for you. Maybe pick just one or two things in this list that take your fancy and give them a go. Notice what worked about it and what didn’t.

In ADHD coaching, we deep dive and really pick the eyeballs out of this stuff to see what’s getting in your way. And as I always say to my clients, “failure” is just data! The more things you try and learn from, the closer you are to getting on top of the things you struggle with.

Got your own tips with quick payoff? I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments below.

Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.

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