Failure to plan ahead. The ADHD symptom you forget you have until it’s too late.

Not planning ahead well can wreak chaos on pretty much any aspect of your life, leading to broken commitments and unnecessary stress. So why do people with ADHD keep making the same mistake over and over again?

The long-story-short answer is that people with ADHD have a different relationship with time than people without the disorder they tend to be more caught up in what the present moment, not in a Zen way but more in a “future? I’ll worry about that later” way.

The long-story-slightly-longer answer is that several factors are at play in how people with ADHD move through time and why ADHD interferes with planning ahead. Some of these factors are:

  • Many ADHD symptoms come back to how people with ADHD process rewards. The ADHD brain is understimulated and hungry for reward some researchers refer to this state as “reward deficiency,” and it relates partly to differences in dopamine functioning. As a result, people with ADHD are always looking for things they can do to get rewards in the present moment, which makes them more focused on what they want to do right now instead of what they need to do in the future.
  • Planning ahead and delayed gratification are two sides of the same coin. All people experience something called delay discounting, which basically means that rewards become less rewarding the further they are in the future. However, some people discount rewards more heavily than others. So, if you have the choice between being given twenty dollars right now and a hundred dollars a year from now, some people are more likely to choose the twenty dollars right now than others. Overall, people with ADHD tend to experience higher delay discounting and therefore pay more attention to short-term rewards, even though planning for the future requires being aware of long-term rewards.
  • Because they’re so focused on short-term rewards, people with ADHD tend to view the future as a sort of homogeneous haze. When something gets schedule for “the future,” it doesn’t get scheduled for any particular time. It just means it’s going to get done at some point that isn’t now.
  • For tasks that aren’t intrinsically rewarding, people with ADHD have trouble motivating themselves to do these things without some sort of strong positive or negative external reward. Because things like doing your taxes just don’t carry much positive external reward, people with ADHD often put off these tasks until the negative reward for continuing not to do them becomes so high that adrenaline and stress kick the ADHD brain into gear. This leads to a sort of desperado approach to time management of constantly waiting to the last possible second to do things and then frantically doing everything at once.
  • People with ADHD don’t concentrate easily on activities like mapping out a schedule or drawing up detailed plans in advance.
  • Because people with ADHD tend not to take the time to think through the details of things, they don’t always think about what’s involved in a given task or how long that task might take. In other words, they miss the trees for the forest, but planning ahead is all about figuring out where to put every tree.
  • When people with ADHD have to scramble to handle the fallout from their past failure to plan for the future (which has now become the present), they don’t have time to plan ahead for the next future before that future also becomes the present, so they get caught in a vicious cycle of not planning for the future.

Overall, then, people with ADHD are especially wrapped up in short-term rewards, and the way their brains work predispose them to prioritize seeking out activities that offer some sort of reward in the present moment. And sitting down to plan out details for the future does not qualify as one of these activities.

But that doesn’t mean having ADHD dooms you to a life filled with those moments when it suddenly dawns on you that you haven’t planned ahead well and that not planning ahead was a big mistake. Sure, you might never be a paragon of perfect organizational skills, but there are other things you can aspire to in life, and there are some steps you can take to cope with ADHD-related failure to plan ahead.

The first is that once you acknowledge planning ahead isn’t your strong suit, you can try to immerse yourself in activities that don’t put too many demands on you in this area.

For example, finding a fast-paced, unpredictable job can level the playing field since no one can do very detailed planning ahead in this kind of environment. Similarly, finding a job that you genuinely enjoy doing work that provides some sort of ongoing, short-term reward can help get around the problems with delayed gratification.

Second, by developing a better understanding of what causes you to not plan ahead, you can try to stop yourself from falling into the patterns that cause you problems. For instance, you can make a rule that whenever you catch yourself mentally telling yourself you’ll do something in “the future,” you have to stop and write down exactly when in the future you’re going to do it.

Basically, the bad news is that planning ahead is a big problem for people with ADHD because it’s the difference between order and chaos. The good news is that there are three possible solutions:

  1. You can try to build a life that requires only a minimal amount of order.
  2. You can try using your insight into your symptoms to develop coping methods that reduce the chaos.
  3. You can aim for some combination of 1 and 2.

Whatever path you choose, you won’t ever regret doing all you can to address the problems ADHD-related failure to plan ahead is causing in your life because you won’t ever regret being less stressed out.

What are your tricks for dealing with the impact ADHD symptoms have on planning ahead? Share in the comments!

Image: Gevert