adhd practical tips STUFF

Leisure is a chore

My son has been sick with tonsilitis and just as he was recovering I started to come down with it too. I’m feeling slightly better today, thank goodness and he’s finally well enough to go back to Kindy. So we’ve been in Survival gear for close to a week now and soon it will be time to change gears back to Treading Water.

And I know I still have so many unfinished posts about each of the individual gears (I’ll get there!) but today I wanted to write about something very important about the Treading Water gear.

Treading Water is the STUFF gear where you focus on not letting things get worse. Between Survival (where you do what you absolutely need to to get through the hour, day and week) and Usual (whatever usual looks like for you!)

If your executive functioning is impaired (whether because of a neurological condition like ADHD or Autism or because of chronic stress, illness, pain or fatigue) it seems to makes sense to use rewards and punishments to try and get things done. “If I do this list of things then I can reward myself with…”

And It might work! For an acute episode of “I just don’t wanna” reminding yourself that you can sit down and read your book or watch netflix or play video games just might give you that little spark of motivation. It might? I mean it sounds good in theory. But… honestly? That… has never really worked for me?

And it’s not just that there is no accountability. I could just… sit and watch TV. Nobody is stopping me.

But “If I do all these chores THEN…” doesn’t really work as a sufficient incentive for me to do the chores because the problem isn’t that I don’t want the chores to be done. Or even that I don’t want to do them. It’s that… I can’t do them.

I like having a clean house. I really hate having a sink full of smelly dishes. There is a reward already built in to doing these chores in that I don’t have to live in filth and bad smells. I don’t actually need extra incentives to want those chores to be done. The incentives are kind of… built in. The problem isn’t a lack of incentives. So increasing those incentives has no real effect.

Let’s look at a very frequent scenario for me: I have a lot of dishes that I can’t manage to do. And I want to play The Sims.

So I tell myself:

“Elise. You absolutely cannot play The Sims because you have not done all of the dishes!”

And generally one of two things happens after that:

A. Failure: I play The Sims anyway. I feel guilty for breaking my own rules.

B. Success: I do not play The Sims. I do something unpleasant instead like reading The Bad Internet.

But do you notice something important about the ‘Successful’ scenario B above where I resist playing The Sims? I still didn’t do the dishes.

And when this happens day after day, week after week… well sometimes I do get around to doing the dishes and it’s hard and I force myself to do it (or I am forced to because we don’t have any clean spoons) and it takes SO LONG and then I don’t have time to play The Sims afterwards and I feel frustrated and resentful and sad.

And every time I do something “fun” or “relaxing” I have this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m being lazy and bad.

And this usually happens when my responsibilities are genuinely Too Much for me and everything is really hard. Isn’t that funny? I never accuse myself of being “lazy” when things aren’t overwhelmingly difficult.

So what’s absolutely vital about being in the Treading Water gear. When you’re working as hard as you can just to keep things from getting worse… is that Leisure is not a reward.

Leisure is a chore.

It’s a thing I need to do. It’s a task on my to-do list that I need to tick off and say “yes, I did do a fun thing today just for fun.”

Because when it comes right down to it playing The Sims is actually as important as doing the dishes.

If I don’t do the dishes my sink will fill up with dirty dishes and it will smell and I won’t have any clean spoons to eat with.

If I don’t play The Sims (or watch TV or read a book or…) then I will just feel like I am getting wound tighter and tighter and I’ll spend too much time reading The Bad Internet and “relaxing” by only doing things that make me feel bad and therefore somehow sidestep the guilt of having a good time when I really shouldn’t.

And that doesn’t help me in the Treading Water gear. It doesn’t help me prepare for changing gears back down to Survival or up to Usual.

It just makes me feel bad about myself. It makes me feel worse about myself.

So. Leisure is a Chore.

Do a fun thing. Just for fun. Not a project that you also find fun. Just… consume an art. Play a game. Read a novel. Listen to a podcast. Listen to music. Watch a video.

Because that isn’t a bonus that you need to earn. It’s something that you need.

STUFF – an introduction
Getting started with STUFF

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The Which of STUFF

STUFF – an introduction
Getting started with STUFF

Okay so you’ve read about STUFF and you’re keen… you’ve read about getting started and know it’s app-neutral and you can do it on paper or digitally or on a whiteboard or skywrite it.

But what exactly do you put IN your STUFF list? Everything? Is it everything?

Nope. It’s definitely not everything. Please don’t put in everything!

I don’t know about you but I’m often pretty overwhelmed by my own list. Even scheduling something on a calendar makes me want to rebel against doing it. I used to think that if I could just find or develop the perfect system then I couldn’t forget about the important things…

But I could still ignore them. I can ignore anything. I’m really good at it!

So the important thing about your core STUFF list is that it’s not things you’re going to want to ignore. At least – not directly.

One of the most important items on my STUFF list is to look at my calendar. In my Treading Water gear it’s to look at and update my calendar for today and tomorrow. In my Usual gear it’s to look at and update my calendar for the next two weeks. Even if I know everything that’s on it. Even if I know it’s empty. I still look at it. And a lot of the time I was wrong about what was or wasn’t on it. And I often think of things that should have been on it but weren’t.

But the calendar items aren’t part of STUFF. Just the reminder to look at the calendar. So if I’m really overwhelmed by my calendar (or my general to-do list or housework list or anything else…) I can ignore that without ignoring STUFF as a whole. Of course, I try not to ignore my calendar because that leads to missing important things… But knowing that I will sometimes ignore my calendar at least that ignoring doesn’t ALSO lead to me ignoring everything else.

So your STUFF doesn’t track your mood (use a mood tracker!)

STUFF doesn’t keep track of your todos (use a to-do list!)

But add all of those other things to your STUFF list.

Other things on your list should be core habits or daily tasks. For me I have taking my medication, feeding the cats, making the bed, planning what’s for dinner tomorrow, engaging in a leisure activity and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Finally I have some daily goals on my list. To meat my move and activity goals on my apple watch. To meet my “karma” goal on To-doist. To check off a certain number of tasks under my housework and social categories on my to-do list.

So what’s on your STUFF list?

  • Prompts to check other lists or apps (calendars, trackers, lists)
  • Core habits
  • Regular daily tasks
  • Daily goals

What’s the difference between habits, tasks and goals? Ehhh. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think it’s important. But I hope this gives you an idea of the kinds of things that go on your STUFF list.

What’s NOT on your STUFF list?

  • Your calendar
  • Your general to-do list of once-off things
  • Your less frequent repeating tasks
  • Bigger or long-term goals
What goes on your stuff list?
YES - Prompts to check apps
YES - Core habits
YES -Regular Daily Tasks
YES - Daily Goals

NO - Calendar Events, No General ToDo, No bigger or long term goals

STUFF isn’t a task-management system. It’s not designed to do the grunt-work of scheduling or task-management. There are LOTS of apps that do those things pretty well. STUFF will be your “hub” which allows you to keep using ALL those other things at once instead of trying to cram everything into one app or system which you spend 12 hours in a row adding everything into and getting all the settings exactly right and then never open again.


It’s okay to change gears

A lot has happened since my last post. Not a lot has changed for me personally but… gosh. GOSH.

I don’t know if “habits” the way people talk about them really exist. Because people also say things like “… like brushing your teeth!” about habits and I don’t think they mean “something you remember you were supposed to do after you’re already in bed”.

So I don’t think your STUFF list is a thing that will “build” over time. The momentum that builds from having a novel system and a completed list is very fleeting. Then it’s just another list which will be as boring and ugly and scary as any other of the thousands of lists you’ve made.

And you know what? That’s okay. Because I want you to make a list that you can keep using even when that happens. That’s one of the times that you need to change gears.

Now there are two things you can do. You can change gears and/or you can change gears. Is that confusing? Probably. But when you do one it’s a good time to think about doing the other as well so it really doesn’t matter that they’re called the same thing.

Changing Gears.

You move from Usual to Treading Water. Or from Treading Water to Survival. Or the other way around. Something comes up. You need to work from home? Things are hard but you need to keep the lights on. So you look at your gears and you change your expectations of yourself.

Changing Gears.

But how long ago did you put this list together? Before the global pandemic? Maybe it’s not… exactly right. What does your ‘Survival’ gear look like now that… you might have to live there for a while? What changes in your ‘Treading Water’ gear if … *gestures defeatedly*… yeah.

Whenever you change gears you need to take the opportunity to change gears. If you need to! And if you’re going to be here a while… that’s your Treading Water. Because that’s what treading water is for. And if this is your new normal? Well… that’s your usual gear.

Maybe you thought you were changing gears from Usual to Survival. But… maybe you’re actually changing your Survival gear into your Usual gear.

What’s “usual” for you now? It’s okay if that used to be your Survival or Treading Water.

If you’re not meeting your expectations of yourself it’s okay to lower them. I promise. If it’s all too hard and you’re not facing your obligations let alone meeting them? If what you think you should be doing is making you feel bad and you’re still not doing it? You don’t get points for that. That doesn’t make you better than the version of yourself that expects almost nothing – but actually does something.

So right now in this time of foreboding and social isolation… what are you actually able to do? What’s realistic for you? What’s realistic in an ongoing way?

Change your gears. Create a new page in your bullet journal for your new STUFF list. Or re-tag your tasks in whatever app you like best for managing your day-to-day routines and habits.

Make a version of your list that you’ll actually look at – and one that won’t make you feel bad about yourself when you do.


The where of STUFF

Okay you’ve read my STUFF introduction and you think “this is exactly what I need!!”. So what’s next? Where do I start? No… WHERE specifically. What app do I open? What notebook do I buy? Are you giving me an excuse to go to officeworks to buy new pens or what??

A person lost in a maze

STUFF is app neutral. You don’t need a new app (although I have IDEAS for how my ideal app would work!!) or to buy a certain kind of journal. I know you’ve tried a thousand of those already and I can’t offer you anything that any other app can’t give you and you’d stop using mine for exactly the same reasons you stopped using all of those others.

So stick with the apps you’ve used the longest. Or sound the most interesting. Or seem the most fun. Or have the most features! Or gamify the way that excites your brain. Or a journal that feels nice when you touch it or fits in your bag or has nice paper or… you get what I mean. The best tool is one that you keep using.

I use Habitica for my daily STUFF. I have done for years. It’s not for everyone and it doesn’t streamline STUFF in any super elegant way. But I started using it in 2013 and… haven’t stopped yet. And I still find it kind of neat and kind of fun. So that’s what makes it the best one for me.

In Habitica I use tags to keep track of my STUFF gears. I use a tag manager tool to bulk switch tasks on or off if there are too many for me to just find and switch on and off one-by-one. I’ve seen screenshots of an app called Fabulous and someone creating Fabulous routines for each gear. You could use tags or categories in Todoist. Whatever you will keep using. Whatever is going to give you a way to view your lower gears without feeling guilty or overwhelmed by your higher gears. The first step is to use your STUFF tracker. The second step is to use it even when it’s no longer fun and exciting.

Tip #1: Good fences

For this reason I recommend that you keep it well partitioned away from any lists that feel burdensome or are likely to provoke any guilt or bad feelings. You might think “if I have everything all in the one place then I will HAVE to keep up with it all!!”. But friend… I have such faith in your ability to ignore important things. I know you can do it!! Don’t put your STUFF tracker in your calendar or your to-do list. Because you’ll want to avoid those things at some point: and I don’t want you to ignore your STUFF at the same time.

Tip #2: Minimal Minimum

Some days you might want to spend 10 or more minutes reflecting on your day. That is so amazing. But most days I just feel annoyed at any obligation that I HAVE to do. So I make tracking my STUFF as simple as possible. My end of day checkin is… so fast. It takes less than one minute for me to open Habitica and tick off the things I did. I have it set up in a Siri Shortcuts routine which opens my calendar and my todoist to-do list (which I ignore) and then opens Habitica. If I feel like Habitica is “too much” then I know it’s time to change gears and make it so simple that even I can’t resent having to do it. (But also sometimes I still avoid it but one of the features of Habitica is that when you open it in the morning it asks if you need to check anything off from the day before)

So that’s where you start. Wherever you’re likely to go back to day after day, week after week. And if you get bored of one app and it’s no longer exciting you can start using some other newfangled app with social or gamification features which sound fun. You can keep switching apps every month if that works to keep you keeping on with stuff… and STUFF.

I always love to see screenshots of how you’re using STUFF so if you’ve got it set up in Things 3 or TikTik or Daylio or you’ve got a Bullet Journal or whatever I’d absolutely love to see how you’re doing it!

(and if you make apps and want to hear about how my PERFECT STUFF TRACKING APP would work I’d love to hear from you too…)


STUFF – an introduction

You’re not coping.

You need a new routine. You need a new system. One that will actually work. Because if you do it right – if you build the right habits and the right routines in the right way then they’ll stick. Then you can add on to them. Then you can build up your routines and eventually get to the point where you can live your life. Am I right?

You know what you need to do. You know that you just need to eat better and sleep more and take more time for yourself and meditate and be present and keep on top of the housework so it doesn’t build up and and and and… 

So why don’t you? You don’t have the right journal. The right app. The right planner. The right tracker. Why can’t you just do it?

Because… It’s hard.

It’s not the routine. It’s not the system. It’s… the stuff. It’s hard.

It feels easy sometimes. So you start a new routine. You start a new system. It’s so easy! To begin with. And having a streak is motivating for a while. But then suddenly it’s hard again and now you’re too ashamed to look at it. And now you’re not coping.

STUFF isn’t a new routine. It’s not a system. It’s a strategy for managing your routines and your systems. A framework for dismantling your routines and putting them back together. Because you can’t keep waiting for things to get better. You can’t keep forwarding your problems to Future You.

Your Helpful Aunt tells you to think positive! Maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and be motivated! But… maybe you won’t? Because Future You is just you… but older. 

Your life won’t begin once you get through this. Once you get on top of things. Once you do it right.

This, right now, is your life. 

When things are good it feels like they’ll keep getting better. But sometimes they don’t. And the expectations that you set when things are easy will crush you when things get hard. STUFF helps you manage the gap between what you can actually do and what you think you should be able to do… and helps you adjust as that gap changes over time.

Sometimes when you’re riding a bike you change gears. You change gears so that you can keep riding up a hill… or down. There’s no “best” gear to be in: it depends. With STUFF you can “change gears” when things get hard. By deciding in advance which expectations you’ll lower (or drop) you’ll have a plan to manage yourself when you need it – and a plan to work back to where you were if and when that’s realistic for you.

STUFF. Survival. Treading Water. Usual. Fulfilling. Future.

S – Survival. Survival gear is the absolute minimum. This is crisis mode. What absolutely needs to get done regardless of how bad everything else is? Food. Medication. Sleep.

T – Treading Water. A step up from Survival, Treading Water is the gear where your priority is to stop spiralling into crisis – to stabilise ready to get back to Usual. 

U – Usual. Your realistic expectations for whatever “normal” is for you. Maybe your “Usual” looks like someone else’s “Survival”. That’s okay! 

F – Fulfilling. Stretch goals for good days. Some days you do these things and that’s amazing! But when you can’t? That’s okay. 

F – Future. Future goals and aspirations. Maybe one day your Fulfilling tasks become your Usual. Here’s what comes next. 

Okay… so where do we start?