Personal productivity is not a matter of coming up with ideas for what to do. We adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) are great at that. The problem lies with our poor sense of time and our inability to gauge how long it will take to complete a given task. Then there’s the trouble we have with setting priorities, and our tendency to get distracted and forget what we were trying to do.
Not getting things done can be extremely frustrating. As my client, Charlie, recently explained, “The amount of time I spend working seems to be inversely related to any tangible results.” Charlie has trouble staying focused and on task. Just how much trouble became clear not long ago, during one of our morning telephone sessions.
We had just finished prioritizing his daily to-do list when he said he was going to make a brief stop at Wal-Mart on his way to work. I reminded him that his boss had put him on notice for poor productivity, and that he had an important report due that day. “No problem,” he said. “It’ll only take a couple of minutes to return some socks.”
I decided to trust my instincts on this one. Sure enough, when I gave him a buzz on his cell phone a couple of hours later, he was still at Wal-Mart. The socks had been returned; now he was looking at shirts and ties.
At this point, Charlie followed my suggestion that he use a timer to “enforce” his daily schedule, and to limit the amount of time he spends on a given task (whether it’s making phone calls, writing e-mails, composing memos, or returning socks). Now he keeps his daily planner and timer with him at all times, resetting the timer throughout the day. Since Charlie started using this system, he hasn’t missed a single meeting at work — or lost track of time while running an errand. His new motto is “beat the clock.”
Timers have proven helpful to many of my clients. Emily, a stay-at-home mom, uses her kitchen timer to keep her busy household on schedule. Stuart, a doctoral student, uses his to stay focused on writing his dissertation. Monday through Friday, he sets it for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. He writes one paragraph in each 20-minute “burst.” Each week brings him 10 paragraphs closer to the end.
What else can you do to make sure you do the things you want to do? In addition to using a planner and timer, you must learn to protect your time. Say no when you need to. At work, shoo people out of your office, and don’t get caught up in gossip or text-messaging. At home, answer the phone only when it’s convenient. If a long-winded friend tries to keep you on the phone when you need to do something else, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “It’s been great talking with you, but I have to go now. Keep in touch.”