ADHD: Incorporating Flexibility into To-Do List and Calendar Planning

Person with long curly hair writes something in planner while smiling and talking on the phoneWhen I suggest making a to-do list and/or scheduling time to complete tasks on a calendar, the number one complaint I hear from people with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) is it “does not work” because once one thing doesn’t go as planned (i.e., a task takes longer than anticipated, something more urgent comes up), the entire plan gets messed up and cannot be followed. That is technically true in that if you have a set plan and something affects the timing of one thing, you cannot follow the rest of the plan exactly. However, what is often missing when people set up to-do lists or plans to complete tasks is incorporating flexibility into the plan as well as methods to adjust as needed.

Here are a variety of practical suggestions on how to set up a to-do list and plan for completing tasks while incorporating flexibility in case things interfere with your ability to follow the plan exactly.

1. Have a master to-do list of all tasks that need to be completed and due date for them.

Consider separating tasks into categories such as one-time, recurring, personal, and work.

2. Map out a plan for when you will complete each task by using an hour-by-hour calendar on paper or electronically (i.e., Google calendar).

Either list each task based on how much time it should take or organize tasks into categories and reserve specific blocks of time to complete tasks in a given category.

3. Do not fill your entire day with scheduled items.

  • Leave two or three blocks of time of at least 15 to 30 minutes as unreserved.
  • Schedule two to four 5-minute slots at different times during the day (especially in the morning, midday, and end of the day) to be used for adjusting your plan as well as planning for the next day.

4. Reserve blocks of time to check/return emails and phone calls.

5. Don’t forget to block out time for lunch.

6. It may be helpful to have a 20- to 30-minute period of time reserved during the workday for personal tasks such as making doctor’s appointments, figuring out logistics for the weekend, etc.

Adjusting on the Fly

Here is how to adjust your daily plan when things do not go as scheduled:

1. When one thing throws off your schedule, take one of the following actions:

  • Continue completing items in the same order, especially if the extra 15- to 30-minute blocks will help make up for the time lost (if tasks took longer or you got interrupted unexpectedly).
  • Skip the next item to stay on track with your plan. During the next planning block, reserve a new time to complete this task.
  • Prioritize remaining tasks scheduled before the next planning block and do the most important ones first.

2. During planning periods:

  • Reschedule times to complete tasks you did not get to.
  • If new items come up, either schedule them as needed (and reschedule other tasks if necessary) or reserve a time on another day to complete them.
  • At the beginning or end of a planning period, consider taking a minute or two to relax and decompress. You could do a mindfulness exercise, listen to guided visual imagery or music, or do something else that is time-limited before transitioning back to work.


Everyone functions differently and has different daily obligations, so these tools are general suggestions that may need to be adjusted on an individual basis. It is important to keep a task system as simple as possible and try to minimize the amount of time—especially during normal work hours—you are planning instead of actually completing tasks. I hope these suggestions yield increased productivity.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Carey A. Heller, PsyD, therapist in Bethesda, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lena


    June 17th, 2017 at 9:13 AM

    I totally get it that having a schedule helps those people who can pretty easily get distracted BUT you do have to allot some time to flexibility and fluidity in the schedule as well. It can be going through life one explicit task at a time. I don’t really think that that alone will give you the tools that any of us would need to be prepared to make it on a day to day basis in the real world. Just my opinion.

  • logan


    June 19th, 2017 at 11:03 AM

    How about a little scheduled time just to do the tings that you actually enjoy doing?

  • Prianna


    June 19th, 2017 at 2:09 PM

    You know, truthfully, these are all great suggestions even for those of us who may not struggle daily with ADHD. It is always good to put a little down time into your day, all of us would need that. It’s good for all of us to pencil in a lunch break and to even set up small little reminders for ourselves to do this or that all throughout the day. I know that there are likely some of us who are going to benefit much more from these little tips but overall I think that there is a little bit of something there that could positively work for any or all of us.

  • SuzanneM


    June 20th, 2017 at 11:22 AM

    I want an ordered life but not to the point where I have to schedule in every little thing that I do!

  • Carey Heller, Psy.D.

    Carey Heller, Psy.D.

    June 23rd, 2017 at 2:34 AM

    Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  • vee


    June 25th, 2017 at 8:18 AM

    There are some people who can do a monthly calendar and that works just fine for them.

    For me though I have to break it down day by day because if I even attempt to look at a month at a time, my mind goes a little haywire and I have a tendency to go into panic mode big time.

    So there have even been times when I have to break things down hour by hour even to manage the day.

  • Jennifer


    August 2nd, 2017 at 6:00 PM

    Can you recommend a planner?
    Can you have to do list in planner or is that a separate notebook?

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