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How to work when the planner doesn't

As neurodivergent creatives, I often wonder if we rebel even harder against planning than some others do. It seems many of us fall into either the "I need everything planned out so my life doesn't fall apart" camp or the "Eww, structure! It hurts!" camp.

I am by no means saying this is a "one true way" or even a set in stone method. It's simply an adaptation of something I desperately wanted to work that didn't the way it was taught to me.

After I saw success with it, I couldn't help but talk it up to some of my coaching students and author friends. And this crazy thing happened...

It worked for them, too!

Scroll down for what I did (and how), as well as what's worked for some others. (and if you're just here for the highlights, scroll even further for the bullet points)

What I Did

Thanks to the class that was going to change everything, I had dry erase board and a pile of sticky notes in different colors. The problem was, the sticky notes weren't the good ones, and they sort of didn't want to stick to the board for longer than a couple of weeks.

By that point, my ability to use the method was about as strong as the adhesive, so maybe it worked out for the best? Both me and my notes needed a better way.

I also happened to have a planner (or twenty) that hadn't worked for me. And notebooks that were going to be great bullet journals, which I actually did use but again, not in the way they were intended. Instead of writing down my to-do list, I picked a color for each "segment" of the work I do.

Planning on a manageable scale

The colors were essentially the projects, and the sticky notes were the tasks, or in some cases, the pieces of the tasks, that needed to get done. Big projects still went on the board, and I offered up a prayer that I'd get them done before the adhesive failed. The day-to-day, I wrote down when I planned what needed to get done (and we'll call this parenthetical a reminder to link to the blog post I need to do on that, lol).

This made it easy for me to see what needed to get done, and which piece of my business needed my focus. The priority stuff went at the top of the page, and then I made columns to get through the day. Anything that was left got moved to the next day.

While the to-do picture above might look like a lot for one day, it was every task I needed to get done, and some of them only took a few minutes. Others were meetings I couldn't forget or people I needed to check on.

Someone at 20Books told me they need a "done" list more than a to-do list so they know what had been accomplished. And this next part will help with that...

The "done" list

Many of us experience times when our brains feel scattered. And there are times when our brains actually are all over the place. These are the days that often leave us assuming we got nothing accomplished, even if we did.

For me, the "done list" is the bottom of the dry erase board. Each row is a day of the week. When I finish a task, the sticky note goes from my notebook to the board. Every Sunday, when I'm planning for the next week, I pull them all down for a clean slate.

When the chaos gremlin tells me I'm not getting anything done, I look at the board and tell the gremlin to stuff a sock in it! Object permanence is an issue for more than just the produce in the bottom drawer.

What worked for someone else: A friend of mine started using the sticky notes and takes satisfaction in crumpling up each note to put in a jar on her desk. This way, she can see the progress and maybe relieve a little stress at the same time.

What about the leftovers?

There are going to be days when you have more to do than time to do it. And that's okay! Seriously. This is about being more productive, not about being perfect.

The same friend who crumples her done stickies has a great process for this as well...

Keep on moving things to the next day (or if you use a planner, you can put them on the day in the planner when you think you'll get to them). If the sticky notes turn into not-so-sticky notes, it's time to reevaluate. At this point, you have two choices:

  1. It's time to do the damned thing. Seriously, you've been putting it off long enough to kill the adhesive.

  2. It's time to think about whether this belongs on your list at all. Sometimes, the answer is it's not that important. Other times, it may be a task you know is better off put into someone else's hands. There is zero shame in hiring someone else to do the tasks you aren't suited for. Yes, there are other complications that may stand in your way, such as money or knowing who to hire to do it, but maybe those are the tasks you need on the list. Figure out how much it's going to cost and plan for the expense or find the person who's capable and within your budget.

Again, this is not a solution that's going to work for everyone, but it's one more tool to put into the box. Even if it doesn't work today, there might come a time when your current method fails you, and then you can see if it's time to pull the sticky notes out again!

One very important last thing before we go...

Choose a color for personal tasks. I keep this pad right next to me at the desk so I can jot down a new to-do whenever I think of something I need to do for myself or my family. That way, I'm not stopping my current task to call the doctor to get a meds refill for my son, which will inevitably lead to me forgetting to get back to work.

As a bonus, it also helps me remember the things I might need to do later that I totally, absolutely won't forget (yeah, we all know how that story ends).

The Quick and Dirty

  • Get yourself some sticky notes. These are the ones I use because they come in a pack of small pads rather than a brick I have to break apart.

  • Pick a color for various writing tasks. For example: Orange: Writing. I like to have a sticky note for each 500 words I complete. For me (most days) that's a doable starter goal, and if it's a green light day, I'll put three or four on there. Mine are labeled with the word count achieved in the document but do what works for you. Yellow: Writing business tasks. These are things like ordering a cover, writing a newsletter, scheduling social media posts, etc. Blue: WYOP tasks. I don't consider the neurodivergent content or coaching part of my writing because it's a separate venture, so it gets its own color. Pink: Jobby job tasks. This is the stuff I do for my day-job, including any accounts I'm working on, coaching sessions, and other tasks. Purple: Family stuff. These are the notes I write throughout the day, but also have them for appointments, errands, etc.

  • Find a notebook, planner, etc. that you can use to organize your notes. The most important go at the top, the less important to the bottom (at least for me).

  • Don't forget you have projects and tasks. Writing a book is a project. Releasing a book is a project. Writing an email, your daily word count, etc. is a task. Break it down as far as you need to be manageable.

  • As you complete tasks, move them to your "done list." Personally, I put them on a dry erase board so I can have a visual of my accomplishments each week. Another idea is putting them in a jar so you can see. Note: If you suffer from feeling like you aren't accomplishing anything, no matter how much you actually do, I do not recommend simply throwing them away. Having a done list is part of what will help you fight the lying gremlins in your head.

Do you have something else that works for you? Drop a comment below and share what it is! Your solution might be just the thing that helps someone else!

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