ADHD Adults: Improving Time Management Skills

The core symptoms of ADHD predispose adults with ADHD to have difficulties with planning, organizing, and managing time. Here's some help.

Gee Whiz, I Missed It Again: How Can I Improve My Time Management Skills?

The core symptoms of ADHD predispose adults with ADHD to have difficulties with planning, organizing, and managing time. Here's some help.Bill told his wife to meet him for lunch, only to discover, after his wife was already at the restaurant, that he had a meeting with his boss. Sandra stayed up all night for two nights in a row finishing a major sales report that was assigned three months ago, and got to the sales meeting late. Peter aimlessly drifts through his day, feeling like he is getting nothing accomplished.

These three adults with ADHD are experiencing significant problems with time management. The core symptoms of ADHD- inattention and poor behavioral inhibition- predispose adults with ADHD to have such difficulties planning, organizing, and managing time. For most busy non-ADHD adults, a key element of effective time management is the use of a day planner. Many of you reading this sentence will lament, "But I have owned hundreds of day planners, calendars, etc., and I can never get myself to use them, if I can even find them." This may be because you went about using a day planner in the wrong way, perhaps trying to bite off more than you could chew all at once.

Forget about these past failures. Wipe them out of your mind. I am going to give you a simple, step-by-step approach for successfully using a day planner and taking charge of time rather than letting time pass you by. The key to this approach is that you take one small step at a time. Continue that step for one or more weeks and become comfortable with it. Only when you have mastered each step should you move onto the next step. Also, make a list of rewards or privileges which you can indulge yourself with for successfully completing each step. These might be special activities or purchases. After you have successfully carried out each step of this program for one week, pick one activity from your list and reward yourself for your efforts.

If you still find that it is too difficult to carry out these steps, ask a spouse or friend to help you. If that is not sufficient, seek out the help of a coach or a therapist, who will help you break tailor this type of program to your special situation.

  1. Select a compatible day-planner. At a minimum, a day-planner is a device that includes a calendar, space to write "to-do" lists, and space to write telephone numbers, addresses, and other basic identifying/ reference information. It can be a paper-and-pencil model, as with Franklin Planner or Day Timer brands. It can be a fancy electronic organizer such as a Palm Pilot, or it can be time management software on a laptop or desktop computer. Electronic organizers do have a number of advantage. They are compact; they provide audible reminders that can serve as memory management aides; they can sort, organize, and store more information more efficiently than paper and pencil planners; and they can easily exchange information with office and home computers.

    If you are a gadget-oriented person who learns new technology easily, pick an electronic organizer. If you are not technology oriented, pick a paper and pencil model. Go on an outing to an office supply store and carefully review a number of different types of day planners to see which one you feel most comfortable with. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, with different types of daily, weekly, and monthly views. Carefully inspect the different types of daily, weekly, and monthly pages. Do you schedule many appointments on the hour or half-hour? Then, you need a clear daily view. Are you making "to do"lists but not scheduling many appointments? Perhaps you need a weekly view with a lot of space for lists.

  2. Find a single, accessible place to keep the day-planner. After selecting a planner, the next step is to start keeping it in a single, accessible location at home and at work, so you will always know where to find it. The location should be clearly visible from a distance, even in a cluttered room or on a messy desk. Convenient locations might be next to the telephone, on a table near the front door, on the desk at the office. If the day-planner has a strap, it might be hung on a hook next to the front door, above the telephone, or together with the car keys. Select a place to keep your day planner at work and at home. Carry to and from work, and practice keeping it in the designated locations for a week.

  3. Enter the basics in the day-planner. You are now ready to enter basic information into your day planner. Gather the most common names, addresses, and phone numbers which you use. Enter them into the planner in the alphabetical name/ address section, or in the case an electronic planner, into its memory. Consider what vital information it might be helpful to have in the planner- insurance policy numbers, computer passwords, equipment serial numbers, birthdays and anniversaries, etc., and enter this information.

  4. Carry the day-planner at all times. Now that there is some information in your planner, you should carry it with you at all times. Many of my patients tell me that they have carried their planner with them at all times, but they forgot the great idea they thought of while shopping. "At all times" means whenever you leave the car to go into a store or whenever you leave your desk to attend a meeting. Work for several days on carrying your planner with you at all times.

  5. Refer to the day-planner regularly. Many adults with ADHD write things in their planners but rarely look at what they wrote, relying instead on memory, with disastrous consequences. Before you can use the planner as a calendar or for "to do" lists, you need to develop the habit of checking it regularly. You should start by checking your planner a minimum of three times per day- once in the morning to plan/review the day's upcoming events, once in the middle of the day to make any mid-course corrections and/ refresh your memory about the remaining day's events, and once in the evening, to plan/ review the next day's events.

    What can you do to help you remember to check your planner? First, if you have an alarm wrist watches or alarms on your electronic planner, set them to go off at regular intervals when you wish to check your planner. Second, you could associate checking your planner with habitual activities that you always do at approximately the same time each day, e.g eating meals, getting dressed in the morning or ready for bed at night, entering or exiting the office, etc. Third, you could leave yourself reminder notes in strategic locations (on the desk in the office, on the mirror in the bathroom, on the dashboard or door handle of the car) to remind you to look at the planner.

    You should practice checking your planner at least three times per day, using the reminder methods outlined above if necessary, for at least one week, before going onto the next step.

  6. Use the day-planner as a calendar. You are now ready to learn to use your planner as a calendar. Make a list on scrap paper of all the appointments which you have scheduled at any time in the future. Then, write these appointments in the appropriate time slots on the pages of the planner for the particular days and months. Review the scheduled appointments for that day each time you check the planner. As you go through your day with your planner by your side, write in any additional appointments as soon as you schedule them. Use your planner as a calendar for the next week.

  1. Construct a daily "to-do" list and refer to it often. "To do" lists are lists of things which you need to get done. Only after you experience success using your planner as a calendar should you start making a daily "to do" list. Most planners have a place to put "to do" lists adjoining the calendar for each day. During the first review of your planner in the morning, make a list of everything you need to get done that day. Keep the list relatively short, e.g. 5-8 items, so that you can experience success completing all of the items. State the items in language which clearly tells you the action you need to take. "Buy my wife flowers" would be a more specific item than "Be nice to my wife."

    Examine the list and decide which items you can assign to a particular time during the day. Write these items into your schedule at the designated times. Try to complete them as scheduled. Refer to your list often as you go through your day. Check off any completed items and review the items which remain to be completed.

    At the end of the day, compute the percentage of items on the list that you completed, analyzing the reasons why you did not complete every item. If there are a few unfinished, items move them forward to the next day's list. However, if you have many unfinished items, then you need to consider whether you have unrealistic expectations for how much you can get done. You either must scale back your expectations or find other approaches to getting tasks done (delegate, streamline, eliminate, etc.).

  2. Prioritize your "to-do" list and act in accordance with your priorities. Now you are ready to prioritize the items on your daily "to do" list. There are many ways to prioritize a "to do list." You could number all of the items on the list in order of decreasing priorities. Alternatively, you could classify the items into one of three categories: "Essential," "Important," and "Do only if I have extra time." Pick the method that fits your style best. Begin prioritizing your daily "to do" list.

    As you go through your day, carry out the items on your "to do" list in order of decreasing priorities. If you are like most adults with ADHD, you will often be tempted to ignore your priorities. An exhaustive discussion of methods for sticking to your priorities is beyond the scope of this article, but I will give few suggestions. Make sure that you are taking an effective dose of stimulant medication that lasts throughout the day. Set the alarms on your wrist watch, electronic planner, computer task management software, or beeper to go off at regular intervals as a signal to check whether you are on task following your priorities. Use self-talk to help avoid distractions. Train yourself to repeat reminders such as "I have to keep from getting distracted," "I have to stick with my priorities," "Don't switch now, I am almost done,"etc.
    Work on prioritizing your "to do" list and following your priorities for at least two weeks before going onto the next step.

  3. Conduct a daily planning session. By the time you have completed the first eight steps, you will be conducting "ad hoc" daily planning sessions when you construct and prioritize your daily "to do" list. It is time to formalize this process as "the daily planning session." Consider the time when you construct and prioritize your lists as your daily planning session. Your goal at this time is to plan the upcoming day's activities and develop a plan of attack to carry them out. In addition to listing priorities and reviewing schedules, the planning session is the time to consider exactly how each task will be accomplished. What materials will be needed? What individuals will have to be consulted? What obstacles are likely to be encountered? How can these obstacles be overcome? You should ask yourself these questions as you prioritize the items on your "to do" list. You want to emerge from the planning session with a mental map to guide you in carrying out the tasks on your list.

    When you have reached this point in the program, congratulate yourself! You have mastered the basic steps to using a day planner to manage time! Continue to follow these steps. As they become habitual, you may want to consider trying the last step, which bridges the gap between short-term and long-term planning, but understand that it is more challenging and may require the assistance of a coach or therapist.

  4. Generate a list of long-term goals and break the long-term goals into small, manageable chunks, allocating these chunks to monthly and weekly planning sessions. I can only touch on this briefly here; readers interested in a more detailed discussion of it should consult sources such as Covey (1990). First, you generate a list of all of your long-term goals. These are broad goals which you want to accomplish over many months and years. Then, you take one goal at a time and break it into small chunks or sub-goals which might be accomplished on a monthly basis. You assign one sub-goal to each month of the year. At the beginning of the month, you conduct a monthly planning session, during which you decide how to accomplish the sub-goal over the course of the month. You assign various tasks to each week of the month. At the beginning of each week, you conduct a weekly planning session, during which you decide how to assign aspects of that week's sub-goal to the daily task lists for the entire week. During each daily planning session, you plan the details of the assigned task, which you then carry out that day.

    For example, one of my adult ADHD patients had as his long-term goal to write a historical non-fiction book. He already had much of the factual material which he needed collected. We divided this goal into the following sub-goals which we tentatively assigned to various months of the year: (1) January- make an outline of the book, specifying 10 major chapters and topics; (2) February to November- write the first draft of one chapter during each month; (3) December- review all of the chapters and prepare the book to send to the publisher by the end of the year. At the beginning of January, we further divided the task of making the outline into portions to be done each week; at the beginning of each week, the patient decided when he was going to work on the outline and assigned it to each of his daily task lists. He continued in this manner for the remainder of the year.


I understand that it is easy for me to give you the suggestions given in this article, but hard for you to carry them out. As stated at the outset, you need to develop a list of strong rewards, and give yourself these rewards on a regular basis as you accomplish small steps towards using a day planner effectively. Enlist your spouse, relatives, or friends to praise you as you experience success at each step. You may need to creatively break these steps down into even smaller steps to tailor them to your particular form of procrastination.

If you experience difficulty following this advice, don't give up. Remember that it took a lifetime of ADHD to get to the point that you are at now; it will take more than a short time to start making meaningful changes. Do as many of these steps as you can on your own, then seek the assistance of a friend, a coach, or a therapist to help you complete the process. Good luck!

Ten Steps For Learning To Use a Day- Planner

  1. Select a compatible day-planner.
  2. Find a single, accessible place to keep your day-planner.
  3. Enter basic information into your day-planner.
  4. Carry your day-planner at all times.
  5. Refer to your day-planner regularly.
  6. Use your day-planner as a calendar, writing in appointments and time-locked activities.
  7. Construct a daily to-do list and refer to it often.
  8. Prioritize your daily to-do list and act in accordance with your priorities.
  9. Conduct daily planning sessions.
  10. Generate long-term goals. Break your long-term goals into small, manageable chunks, and allocate these chunks to the monthly and weekly task lists and planning sessions.

next: ADHD Adults: Tips for Making Good Career Choices
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Covey, S. (1990). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dr. Robin is a member of the CH.A.D.D. Professional Advisory Board and a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He also maintains a private practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 22). ADHD Adults: Improving Time Management Skills, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Last Updated: February 14, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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