(This is part 2 of a post that got too long. You can read part 1 about why being a parent with ADHD is so hard.)
Now we’ve established why executive function issues, distraction, and impulsivity are not super helpful when trying to keep ourselves and our kids alive and organized. But we knew that.
ADHD Can Be Hard to Manage. What Actually Helps?
This is where it gets tricky. Most “solutions” for staying organized are created by people who don’t have ADHD. Executive function skills can be developed and strengthened, but it’s much harder if you’re not neurotypical. Obvious advice like “use a planner” is great if all you need is some structure, but even the task of choosing and buying a planner is hard, let alone using it.
Plus, a lot of parents don't even get diagnosed until after they have kids. When you manage to compensate for a long time, you don't realize how dependent you are on certain strategies until kids throw them off.
Why does picking and staying with a system seem impossible at times? Because sticking with something doesn’t give you enough dopamine.
Your Brain Gets Dopamine from Interest, Challenge, Novelty, and Urgency
Multiple factors are at play here, and of course no one’s brain works exactly like someone else’s. But if we think about ADHD as a dopamine deficiency, our brains are always looking for ways to get more. Think of dopamine like the little coins in Super Mario games and we will go on ALL THE SIDE QUESTS for more coins.
That’s because things that give us dopamine are:
If something is boring, too easy, old hat, or not immediately necessary, your brain doesn’t care. Even if you want it to! Then we need to find ways to make it interesting, challenging, novel, or urgent.
The first three are fun and give us that dose of dopamine. Urgency allows us to use adrenaline to overpower our disinterest.
Stopping to get gas? BORING. Driving somewhere on empty? OK, fine.
Remember that Super Mario analogy a minute ago? This is why video games are made for people with ADHD. They’re designed to be fun, get harder, introduce new elements and rewards, and often have some type of time limit. Check, check, and CHECK.
Video games may not help you pay your bills, but I'll explain how using the same principles can help you do boring things.
Know Your Strengths and Limits
Don’t base your strategies on what you think you should be able to do; do what actually works for you.
“I should be able to remember this in an hour!” Great, but you won’t, so just write it down. You’ll lose that? Cool, make a voice memo in your phone. You’ll forget? Ask your partner or a friend to remind you. Or do all 3 if that’s what it takes.
Work with your limits, not against them. ADHD brains just work differently. We have a lot of strengths -- creativity, connecting ideas in unique ways, being quick and curious -- and no one is good at everything.
There are multiple presentations of ADHD, and no two people are the same. The solution that works for someone with inattention challenges may not work for someone who has decent sustained attention, but struggles with task initiation. Identifying your strengths allows you to double-down on those, and knowing your limitations lets you have reasonable expectations of what you can actually do.
What Might That Look Like?
My working memory is terrible with auditory information, so I know that nothing is real until I write it down. If someone is telling me something, I write it down, or ask them to send it to me. Text messages, checklists, and calendar reminders run my life.
Other people can’t focus on reading very long, and audiobooks are the best way for them to process that information. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just what works best for you. Or if reading out loud is hard for you, you might want to get audiobooks for your kids!
Parents with ADHD also have to navigate emotional intensity and impulsivity that can make managing children's feelings even harder, too. I see you. Not everything is about keeping track of information, but you have to remember to manage emotional triggers as well.
If it’s technically cheaper to buy, say, a whole cantaloupe, it’s still a waste of money if you forget about it and toss it when it’s moldy. It may cost more up front, but if buying pre-cut cantaloupe means you can just chuck it on the table for your kids with no prep, that’s a win.
Do what works for you and plays to your strengths!
What about when you can’t? That's when you may need more support.
17 Proven Methods to Help You as a Parent with ADHD
When you have ADHD, it’s pretty likely that you already have many, many lists. Some may still be in your head. Some may be scrawled on scraps of paper. Some may be in a notebook that you can’t find. I see you.
The beauty of a checklist, however, is that it can help you lay out the steps in advance to reduce the need for executive functioning. As a bonus, writing a list is satisfying, but checking things off the list actually gives you dopamine!
One trick I use is to add a few small things that I’ve already done so I can check things off right away. It’s like seeding the tip jar, except it’s your brain.
The other thing that helps me is having my favorite and One True pen and a notebook I actually like writing with. Scratching a half-dried-out cheap ballpoint into a used envelope is not my jam, so I set myself up for success in small ways. Get cute checklist paper, fun pens, hang a whiteboard on the wall, use whiteboard markers on a mirror, a giant notepad, or whatever works for you.
This idea comes from personal development white dude author James Clear and his book Atomic Habits. The idea is that you don’t have to make huge changes, since making tiny adjustments is more realistic, and they add up over time.
Let’s say you have a hard time keeping track of possessions, like your phone, or keys. It’s great to think that you’ll just keep them in the same place, but if you forget, that goes out the window. Maybe literally.
Instead, hook the new action to something you’re already doing, then make putting it away the next step. For me, I walk in the door, and put my wallet and keys in the drawer immediately. That’s the first step after walking inside. Every single time. When it’s new, it’s novel, and by the time it isn’t, you’ve hopefully created a habit that requires little-to-no executive functioning.
As mentioned above, video games are the perfect combination of challenge, novelty, interest, and urgency. How can you bring those elements into necessary parenting and adulting responsibilities?
Maybe you struggle with using a planner, but it really helps when you do. Can you add novelty or interest by getting special pens or stickers that you only let yourself use in your planner? Is a bullet journal overwhelming, or a better fit since you can design it yourself?
If getting out the door is hard for everyone in your family, maybe you add some urgency with an alarm on the smart speaker that plays The Final Countdown 10 minutes before you need to leave. If you all get out the door on time, you get a gold star. Get 10 gold stars and you have a special family movie night or ice cream date or whatever fun reward you want.
Can’t think of anything? I can!
Delegate, Automate, or Outsource When Possible
This isn’t always an option, but see if it is--especially in the areas you struggle the most. In a lot of cases, just because something needs to be done doesn’t actually mean you have to be the one to do it.
Can your partner or one of your kids take this on? My husband hates paying bills, so I do it. I really struggle with tidying up at the end of the day when my executive functioning is used up for the day. So I just stopped. I do plenty of cleaning earlier, and tons of other chores, but my husband deals with the living room while I manage bedtime. This overlaps with outsourcing if there isn’t anyone else available for whatever reason.
If you can, scheduling bills to auto-pay, getting email or text reminders, and creating smart speaker/phone alarms can help manage time and money.
- For my credit card, I have it automatically pay the minimum balance so I avoid late fees, then I can go in when I remember to pay the rest.
- Direct deposit or mobile deposits prevent those pesky paper checks from getting lost when you forget to take them to the bank.
- My kids and I lose track of time, so we added breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack reminders so they remember to eat before they get hangry.
- Having prescriptions auto-renew and even mailed to you is another big one (even though it doesn’t work for ADHD meds).
- I tried to pay bills on the same two days every month, but it didn’t work with our billing cycles. So I put recurring schedule reminders a week before each bill is due that isn’t automatic, then I don’t have to remember what day it is.
- There’s a specific type of Subscribe N Save called Amazon Mom for a reason.
This is usually the most privileged option, but doesn’t have to be. The obvious ones are hiring a housekeeper, laundry service, grocery delivery, and (of course) childcare. Other paid options are a professional organizer coming in to help, meal boxes to minimize planning and prep, or even having a friend come lend some executive function to get things done.
Create Recurring Tasks Whenever Possible
There’s a balance with this one, because you have to navigate keeping things interesting and novel with actually remembering them. But for many tasks and events, this saves so much executive functioning when you can create some muscle memory to make it a habit.
What might this look this?
- Choose one chore or room to tidy the same day each week so you don’t have to think about it.
- Meal plan with daily themes (Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, etc.) so you have some structure, but with flexibility. Then you just have to pick a meal that fits that criteria.
- Have a standing playdate every week, or every other, on the same day. Then you can schedule around it, and you don’t have to make plans every time.
- Sign up for an exercise class so you know it’s the same day and time each week.
- Wash sheets and towels the same day each week.
- I know it takes me 2 weeks to use up my coffee beans from a local shop, so I put a reminder in my calendar so I don’t run out.
You still have to keep track of what day it is, but then it’s easier if you know ahead of time what you do on that day, too.
Have a Central Schedule for Everything
This could be a wall calendar, a whiteboard, a shared Google calendar, or some other app, but having everything in one place is the only way our household functions. If my husband schedules something for himself or the kids, it goes in the calendar.
My work meetings, his work schedule, appointments for anyone, even our meal plan goes in there. This includes Zoom links, addresses, phone numbers, etc.
“Yeah I tried that, but then I never used it.”
I get it. It takes work to turn it into an automatic habit. If I make an appointment, I pull up my Google Calendar on my phone so it goes straight in there. When my husband texts me his work schedule, I reply, “Great, thank you. Is it in the calendar?” If I get a school calendar or activity schedule, I sit down and add it in the calendar before I can lose that piece of paper. I look at it before I go to bed and first thing in the morning so I know what’s happening that day. I just have to redirect myself to the main repository of information.
Get Text Reminders
When I can, I opt in to text reminders for important things like doctor and dentist visits, acupuncture appointments, haircuts, prescription refills, bill payment reminders if they aren’t automatic, etc. Emails are easier for me to miss, and I will always check a text notification.
(That’s it. That’s the tip. Texts.)
Set Alarms and Reminders
I half-joke that I program my life into my phone and just follow the directions. It’s kind of true, though. At this point I’ve conditioned myself and my kids in small ways that make our lives easier.
Between my phone and our smart speaker (I know, they’re not for everyone), I have alarms, reminders, and notifications. When we have appointments, I connect the Waze traffic app to my calendar so it can tell me what time we need to leave in case of traffic. If I’m feeling distracted, I’ll even set an alarm to check the laundry.
At home I set up the smart speaker to play reminders for:
- breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack for the kids
- getting dressed and ready to leave for weekly appointments
- brushing teeth before bed
- taking vitamins or medication, or drinking water
- putting the trash out at the curb each week
I also set alarms for the kids a lot since time is an abstract concept for them. Then they can ask the speaker how long until the alarm goes off instead of me. This is handy for afternoon birthday parties, "when is Dad going to be home," or going to pick up a grandparent at the airport.
Paper Bad, Digital Good
This a little absolute, so go with me for a minute. I absolutely love planning things out on paper. I like filling in calendars and making lists and crossing things off, and writing things down helps me remember them. (The memory bit is true for most people according to studies.) My Get to Work Book planner (designed by a local-to-me mama) has been my go-to for years now.
But then I leave it in my office or bag, don’t have it with me when I’m thinking about it, or any number of things.
So anything that I can make digital, I do. No paper bills or bank statements. I use a notes app on my phone to jot down ideas and reminders all in one place so I don’t have to search for them.
For the best of both worlds, I bought myself a Rocketbook reusable notepad so that I can take notes by hand, then scan them with my phone to send to a digital folder. Ta-da! There are a variety of styles and sizes, so I just linked the one I have. They also make a Rocketbook planner (come on, it has a panda on it).
You can also use your phone or smart speaker (or both) to use voice commands to add items to a shopping list so you can't forget to write it down. This is great if one is within hearing distance of the shower or wherever it is that you actually think of things you need.
Get a Paper Filing System
I know this is the opposite of the last heading, but hear me out again. This could go two ways.
- Get a file box with folders and a label system, then sort papers so you can actually find them. Have a friend help you, or we actually hired a professional organizer for a few hours to help us set this up.
- Get a program so that you can scan all paper and organize everything digitally, then shred or store the hard copies.
As always, play to your strengths and choose the solution you will actually use. Delegate or outsource if possible if this is too overwhelming or boring for you. Maybe your partner takes on the task of filing, and your only job is to put your share of documents in one spot. Or maybe playing a 15-minute song list and just working for that duration each day would help.
Accountability from a Friend or a Coach
Remember way up at the top when I talked about Interest, Challenge, Novelty, and Urgency? You can help up the ante by having what I call an accountabilibuddy (thanks, South Park) or a coach to help keep you on track. There are people who specialize in ADHD coaching, but as a coach with ADHD myself, accountability and followup have always been incorporated into my client work, even before I was diagnosed.
I work over the phone, Zoom, or the Voxer app so that we don’t even have to schedule time to talk! Support between sessions is included to check in so that you can accomplish what you need to do, or shift your approach if something isn’t working. Want to know more? Schedule a call with me.
Use Visual Aids When PossibleMy kids and I make a whiteboard schedule for the day each morning to all be on the same page, and just to have a sequence of events. “After lunch” makes more sense to them than “later” or “at 2:00.”
Making visual schedules or putting a checklist near the door/on the fridge can help you remember to grab your lunch, bring the reusable grocery bags, verify that the kids have shoes, etc.You can also get a visual timer like the one pictured to help you see how much time is left/has passed.
Break Down Projects into Smaller Steps
Lists are great so long as you actually use them. One problem is that most people list projects instead of tasks. A project has too many steps, so you look at your list and it says something like “Clean entire house.”
If you struggle with task initiation already, something huge and boring like that is never going to happen. Ever.
But when you break down projects into smaller tasks, it can get easier since you can actually achieve each piece. Then checking the tasks off the list provides dopamine. Hooray!
If you break it into too many steps it can get overwhelming, so make sure you know your strengths (see above). This is another area where a coach or buddy can help.
The ideas so far mainly focus on practical, tangible advice. But what about dealing with your actual kids who may also have ADHD? These next 3 can help with physical and emotional regulation, too.
Get Exercise or Physical Activity
This one make a lot of people groan, but aerobic activity actually increases your body’s levels of dopamine and serotonin. The research isn’t definitive about the “best” amount, duration, or frequency of activity, so finding something that you actually enjoy and will do is your best bet.
Chasing your kids at the park, roller skating, swimming, going for a family walk, having an afternoon dance party, or taking a yoga or exercise class are a few ideas. People who struggle with task initiation can find it especially challenging to start a new exercise routine, so scheduling a class or working out with a friend can be a helpful scaffold.
Many people (especially kids) also benefit from "heavy work," which are activities that provide a lot of pressure for your joints. Think jumping on a rebounder or trampoline, lifting things carefully, pushing heavy items, etc. If you're taking medication, it can also alleviate some "rebound" symptoms when your meds wear off.
Meditation and Mindfulness - Wait, Don’t Skip This One!
I have a friend who claims that it is “impossible” for people with ADHD to meditate. It’s not!
It’s hard, but that’s also why it’s so impactful. Sitting still with your mind blank is not actually the goal, nor is it the only way to meditate. For many of us, we need to fidget or move or multitask to get that extra dopamine. But as you build your meditation “muscles,” you actually increase your dopamine that way, as well.
What Might That Look Like?
- Just sit and breathe for 60 seconds, and pay attention to your breath.
- Follow a 5-minute meditation (just check on YouTube, or get the Calm or Insight Timer app). Having a guided meditation to follow can help your brain latch onto something.
- Try a “walking meditation” where you can focus on being present and bring your attention back when it wanders.
It’s called a meditation or mindfulness practice, not perfect. The goal isn’t to “do it right,” it’s to do it at all. Find a few minutes to create a habit - just before bed, in the car before you leave work, whenever you can. This is great practice for getting into your body (often hard for us to focus on) and calming down when stressed, which happens to me a lot, personally, when trying to get 3
cats I mean children out the door wearing pants.
Boost Serotonin with Music
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who need background noise, and those who can’t handle it. I’m the second kind, but not everyone is, and music can be a simple way to boost your brain. You can make a playlist you love which will increase your dopamine levels because you’re happy, or search for “serotonin,” “dopamine,” or “binaural” music on your preferred streaming platform and see how it goes.
Combine upbeat music with a little physical activity, and have a dopamine dance party. I suggested this idea to a friend, and she found a playlist she likes. She puts that on and says it helps her focus on her meal and homeschool planning every week. Worth a shot!
What About Taking ADHD Medication?
Medication for ADHD can be controversial, mostly because of ableism. It's common to think that:
- ADHD is "made up" or "outgrown"
- Medication is overprescribed and is for "sick people" (sickness = weakness = less productive = bad)
- People with ADHD should just try harder and they wouldn't need medication.
I was admittedly skeptical about medication, but when my doctor asked if I wanted to try it after my diagnosis, I decided to give it shot. If I didn't like it, or it didn't work, I would just stop (stimulants in particular wear off quickly).
Holy crap, people, it was like putting glasses on my brain that I didn't know I needed. The first week I started with a fraction of a pill to check for side effects and gradually increased the dosage. After a few days, I sat down at my desk and finished two whole projects that had been on my to-do list for almost a year. I just.... did them.
It took a few tries to get the right dose and timing for the medication, but it helps my brain work like I actually want it to instead of constantly running out of inertia when I'm trying to do things I actually want to do!
Like I talked about in my previous post about the challenges of parenting with ADHD, you do need a formal diagnosis for a prescription, and refilling stimulants (which are controlled substances) can be a pain. As much as I don't want to need a pill, the benefits have been incredible.
It's obviously a personal choice, and each medication works slightly differently. I'll probably record a podcast episode detailing my experience soon if you're curious.
If you want to judge me for taking medication, go ahead, but that's how I got this blog post written for you instead of leaving it half-finished for 2 years in my drafts folder. 🤷🏼♀️
Does any of this resonate with you?
Anything you already do? What works the best? Anything you want to try?
Share the post with another friend who needs to read it, because we all know that if you have ADHD, all your friends are neurodiverse, too. 😂
And if you’re tired of having all the lists of ideas and none of the task initiation to accomplish them, contact me. Do it now before you forget, though. Schedule a call (my scheduler emails you a reminder) or just send me a message on Voxer. We’ll figure it out.