On the surface, I function incredibly well. I get things done, I’m productive. And after years of practice, I make doing the little everyday things that most people do look thoughtless. But they’re not. I have to think about everything I do, because my brain doesn’t filter things out properly. Every time I turn off the shower, I jump when the faucet clinks back into the “tub” position, and I lose my train of thought. If something happens that I’m not expecting, or if there are sounds or textures or any other things that are “off” and it sends me into sensory overload, and I get stuck. When that happens, I lose my train of thought. Sometimes I can pick it back up, but other times I can’t, and I get completely overwhelmed.
I need structure in order to function every day. Otherwise I get stuck. I forget what I’m doing, get sidetracked by other things, and never finish a project. Unless of course, that project is related to my special interests, in which case, I often forgo everything for hours in a single-minded pursuit. Those are the best times, because I’m doing what I love. I can spend an entire day sitting in the same place, working on something, or reading a book, or simply thinking, so absorbed that I forget to eat, forget how to talk, forget to function. I could spend all my days completely absorbed in this state, and would enjoy every minute of it.
But I’m an adult, a graduate student, and living independently. I have to get up, go to work, clean the apartment, shower, feed myself and my cat, and fulfill all my other responsibilities. I have to go to the grocery store, the post office, and other places. Even before I was living on my own, I had to take care of myself and often my younger sister, because my mother was really not very helpful in that regard (another post(s) for another day(s)). Figuring out how to survive without external support or guidance from a very young age was one of the reasons I am able to be on my own successfully today. But this functioning isn’t easy. Some days I get stuck between waking up and going to the shower, because I’ve read something really interesting the night before and I can’t wait to keep reading. Never mind that I have to be at work in an hour, and if I’m not there, things won’t get done, and that is not good. Never mind that I love my work, and am passionate about it, and it’s just so much fun. Sometimes I get stuck over things as well, like trying to figure out what I want to eat for breakfast. Or trying to organize all the things I need to do today and figure out which one to do first.
I’ve learned how to break this cycle, though, at least superficially. I keep the same schedule every weekday, and a modified version on the weekends. And I have it written out, and keep a copy of the day with me at all times. And in order to keep myself from getting stuck, I add little annotations to each step. And I leave time each day to just be. Too much scheduling is a bad thing, and leaves me unhappy, so my schedule is somewhat flexible, but I have timepoints I try to meet. I also put time limits on my decision-making, and have default answers if I don’t make a decision.
I also keep a notebook and pencil (never pen) by my bed, so that I can write things down when I’m falling asleep or waking up. I also use this notebook to make a list every day of things I want to accomplish. Every morning before I really get up, I make a to-do list for the day of things that need to get done. Things like laundry, meals, shopping, tasks for classes and work. Then after I finish my “wake up” routine, I sit down at the computer, type my list into an open word document, and order them. I classify them into groups of “must do today”, “it would be good if I can get these done today”, “do in next few days”, and “longer-term things”. Then I order them and add them into my schedule.
Although this isn’t my whole schedule (too long), it’s an example of how I keep myself moving.
- Wake up. Turn OFF alarm (not just snooze)
- Check phone for new emails, and if there are any very pressing ones, make note to answer them in notebook.
- Get up, give cat 1 spoonful of wet food from fridge.
- Go to the bathroom, brush teeth (left hand in morning, right hand before bed*)
- Pick out clothes for the day (underwear, bra, t-shirt, jeans, socks, sweatshirt). Socks/sweatshirt go on bed, rest goes into bathroom along with TOWEL
- Take shower. Do not forget shampoo and conditioner. Dry off, put on deodorant, get dressed. Hang up towel to dry. Put glasses and watch back on. Move dirty clothes to laundry basket in bedroom. Put on socks and sweatshirt.
- Brush hair, put into ponytail**. Put hairbrush back on bathroom counter by toothbrush.
- Make breakfast (maximum of 2 minutes for decision. If I can’t decide, it is oatmeal and orange juice.)
- Eat breakfast, answer emails, make day’s to-do list
- Wash all dishes.
- Make lunch (check for leftovers or make sandwich).
- Fill water bottle, refill water filter, put BACK in fridge.
- Clean cat litter box, refill water
- Repack backpack: laptop, charger, phone, wallet, kindle, class notes, lab notebook, my notebook, lunch, water bottle, snacks (the rest of the things that are in there generally stay in there, or are out on the kitchen table and in plain sight.) Ask: is there anything else I need for the day?
- Put on jacket, backpack. Turn off all lights. Leave house with keys in hand. Lock door and check that it is locked. Put keys in jacket pocket. Walk to bus stop for 7:00am.
*I have this thing about doing everything I do with each side of my body equally, so that I’m not uneven.
**I wear my hair the same way every day. It is easy, functional, and doesn’t get into my eyes.
And then it goes on. If I don’t follow the schedule, I get lost. I forget things, like my phone, or my lunch. If I follow the schedule, I know that I have locked the apartment and fed my cat. I know I have everything and I’m set for the day. The next section is my day at school and the lab. It is structured around the to-do list I organize during breakfast, and I often set goals for each the morning and afternoon. I also include my classes in the schedule, giving me time points to work around. I remind myself to eat lunch, pay bills, finish and hand in classwork, and get various lab tasks done. I include things like “cook dinner” and “empty dish rack” and “grocery shopping – make a list”, depending on what the needs are for the day. And I have a similarly structured routine at night that includes plugging in my phone to charge and setting my alarm for the right time the next morning.
And on days that don’t follow a normal schedule, I will write the schedule out the day before. Having time to think about what my day is like if it’s not “normal” does wonders for being able to function in the situation. And if I get thrown a curveball and my plans change suddenly in the middle of the day, I take a few minutes to figure out how I’m going to deal with the change. I figure out which things MUST be done, and which things I can ignore. Having a list written out means that I can figure things out without being completely confused and overwhelmed (and while being completely confused and overwhelmed), especially when there are other stressful situations cropping up suddenly. I’ve learned how to curb my reactions, and figure out how to handle situations. That isn’t to say that this is a perfect system, but it generally helps me get through the day and accomplish the things I want (and/or need) to accomplish.
Case in point at failure of system: I got stuck today between eating breakfast and leaving the house while writing this. I let myself get stuck there because I don’t have that much to do today, since its vacation. But now it’s been more than 5 hours, and I haven’t eaten lunch or even started on the goals for the day, and it’s almost dinnertime. so I’m going to make a grocery list and go to the store. Just as soon as I’ve finished playing with my cat.