Time & Productivity

How to Manage Time in a Disorienting Pandemic: 4 Steps to Restore Order & Productivity

Managing time and maintaining productivity remains a persistent and frustrating pandemic challenge for many people with ADHD. To regain order and direction, go back to basics: create a simple structure, get to know your energy patterns, set new boundaries, and use the other expert tips below.

pandemic time management

We are suffering a distorted sense of time. Hours pass in the blink of an eye. Days crawl like cold molasses. For many adults with ADHD, the pandemic robbed us of “normal” time, structure, and routines — not to mention spiking stress, anxiety, and grief. We can barely keep our heads above water. Productivity is only a dream. Our time-management strategies don’t work anymore. On top of that, the energy and accountability that kept us motivated is in short supply.

But even when days run together, when distractions scream for attention, and mental health challenges tax our focus and organization, we can find balance and order in this pandemic. It’s all about getting back to basics. Revisit the core components of time management – structure, planning, productivity, and limiting distractions – and adapting them to the times. Here’s how.

How to Manage Time in a Pandemic

Step 1: Instill Structure for Productivity

Structure anchors us. At the bare minimum, your days must include space for the following:

  • Sleep. The most important habit (and the first we push aside), getting enough sleep improves focus, mood, memory, and energy levels. It also sets the tone for the next day. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep, and institute a consistent bedtime and wake-up time.
  • Morning rituals. Start the day right by using this time to address self-care needs, review daily tasks, and mentally prepare for the day. It could mean actually dressing up for remote work, looking at your calendar, or taking a moment to meditate.
  • Physical activity. Exercise, no matter the intensity (as long as your heart rate goes up), is also great for regulating energy, mood, and improving health. If you’re working from home, try spending more time standing rather than sitting.
  • Downtime. Another often-forgotten or often-ignored habit, downtime is crucial for ADHD minds. Whether it’s a short walk, creative time, partaking in a hobby, or quietly reflecting, downtime is helpful for reducing stress and helping us feel connected.

[Exercise and the ADHD Brain: The Neuroscience of Movement]

Step 2: Plan for Productivity

The advice to “plan” is enough to make many of us run away. Plans often fall through, and with the pandemic, the value of planning may seem dwarfed by the pain of its effort. But it’s in these disorienting moments when planning works best.

Planning, when done right, lets you take control, increase autonomy and credibility, and to reduce stress and procrastination. Failing to plan wastes time, lets things fall through the cracks, and destroys your confidence. The trick to planning is finding a system that works for your ADHD brain – a neurotypical approach isn’t always the answer.

ADHD-Friendly Planning

  • The big picture: Individuals with ADHD tend to think about the whole rather than the details; most time-management systems are detail oriented. With any plan, start by identifying the overall focus. This will make it easier to see its main pieces. Once a week, spend time looking at the big picture in your projects, and then schedule times to complete the pieces.
  • Prioritize projects, not tasks: Prioritizing an array of individual tasks is never easy, as it requires heavy use of our executive function skills. Instead, focus on dividing your tasks into projects or themes. This will help you become more mindful of the number of projects you have ongoing (it’s ideal to have no more than seven projects at a time).
  • Be precise: When planning a task, lay out the goal first. This could be getting 500 words into a report, answering x number of emails, or working uninterrupted for a certain number of minutes.
  • Quick hits: For immediate gratification and motivation, reduce the time between starting a task and seeing progress by taking on quick hits.
  • Agendas: Use just one agenda (preferably electronic) to note everything and take the load off of your working memory. Schedule everything in it, including routines, events, and time for yourself. When scheduling appointments, make sure to include addresses, phone numbers or video conference links, and notes on what you’ll need. It’s also important to commit to the times you lay out to yourself – when you don’t respect the plan, it impacts your self-esteem, your energy levels, and your belief in your own ability to achieve goals. Make it part of your morning ritual to go through your agenda and be sure to use a system that allows you to see all days of the week.
  • Time boxing: This is an approach to determine a start and end time for a task – not easy to do when time blindness is a challenge for ADHD. If you’re not good at estimating time, make it a rule of thumb to triple your initial estimate.
  • Task batching: Specify recurrent periods to check emails, make calls, and do other routine tasks that pull away from your main duties. This reduces the number of transitions you make in your day and improves workflow as you develop a routine.

Step 3: Know Your Energy Patterns for Productivity

Your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day following your unique pattern. People with ADHD have:

  • The Genius Zone – when sustained focus occurs
  • The Kinetic Zone – when you feel the urge to move, or when the mind is churning more ideas
  • The Recharge Zone – when full rest is needed

[Click to Read: 7 Daily Intentions for Brains In Search of Structure and Purpose]

Noticing when you experience each zone is key to better managing your time and improving productivity. All important work that requires sustained attention, for example, should be done in the Genius Zone. Do short, simple tasks that don’t need as much focus in your Kinetic Zone.

Note that these zones often occur more than once in the day. Start taking a closer look at these modes to identify when they occur and to zone in on your times of greatest focus.

Working as a Team

With a spouse, other adults at home, and/or children, collaborate to determine and plan around everyone’s energy patterns, schedules, and plans.

  • Identify your partner’s energy patterns and agree that each person gets to work in their genius zone as much as possible.
  • Share your schedules and negotiate on household tasks and responsibilities. Plan together when possible.

Step 4: Manage Distractions for Productivity

  • Visual clutter? Some people need to completely box away visual distractions and work in a quiet, clear area. Others need visuals and other people nearby to stay on track. Figure out what works for you.
  • Use a catch-all list. If an unrelated but important task or subject pops into your head, resist the urge to immediately pursue it, especially if you’re in the genius zone. Instead, write it down so you can pursue it later on. Set a time to check that list.
  • Set times for email, texts, and calls. Communications are more difficult to manage now with social distancing, and pervasive technology. Batch all of these communications to specific times and stick to your limits. Consider turning off unimportant notifications on your devices.
  • Use a body double – a quiet person whose mere presence keeps you focused on your work. A body double doesn’t have to be in the same place as you – consider setting up a Zoom work session with colleagues, friends, and others to get the same benefit.
  • Set boundaries with your children and others in the household. Tell older children that they can only come to you under certain circumstances, as you need quiet. Use scripts with adults to make setting boundaries easier and to avoid overcommitting (“I’d love to help, but right now I need to attend to this task.”).

How to Manage Time in a Pandemic: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Time Management in a Pandemic: Better Productivity, Even When Every Day Could Be Monday” [Video Replay & Podcast #341]” with Linda Walker, PCC, which was broadcast live on January 28, 2021.

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