neurodivergent woman using a notebook to set goals with orange and blue post it notes

Interview: Goal Setting & Time Management as a Neurodivergent

This week I sat down with Casey Sharp, a writer and an intern at Corvisiero Literary Agency. We talked about what being neurodivergent means to her, how this impacts her life at work and at home, and how she manages her time and sets attainable goals as a neurodivergent person.

What do you find are some of the key hurdles in goal setting and time management as a neurodivergent person?

My whole life I’ve had time management problems. I’d do homework until 10pm. I wouldn’t get my bosses’ to-do lists done the day they wanted them done. When I became a stay at home mom, I just never seemed to be able to catch up on chores. Sound familiar? 

Of course, I’ve tried numerous methods to fix this. I’ve had planners that I’d write everything in and list the tasks in order of priority. After a few days, it’d be left in its spot forgotten. 

I’ve tried time blocking, setting alarms for each task to begin. Unfortunately, my ADHD would get distracted by something. Or worse, my child and pets would have different ideas of what was supposed to happen at that moment. 

As an autistic, homemaker, mom, and chronically ill person, I need a flexible schedule that accounts for distraction, flair ups, and breaks. I tried many different routines before I finally found one that worked for me.

Why do you think more common goal setting techniques don’t work so well for neurodivergent people?

I’ve identified three of the many techniques I tried to use to set goals over the years, and I’ll tell you about each one, and why it doesn’t work so well for neurodivergent people.

SMART

The most common goal setting technique is SMART goal. It stands for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. I even attended classes in the Navy to learn about this.

Unfortunately, for me, it was too vague. What’s attainable? How do I know what’s relevant? For an autistic person, a lot of steps or information is relevant that a neurotypical person wouldn’t think was relevant. I’d get corrected over and over that my SMART goal wasn’t right, but with no clear direction on what to actually do.

Comparing

The other technique I’ve tried was to simply compare to others. Whatever I was working on, I’d see what my coworkers were doing, I’d Google average times, and I would even watch countless tutorials which said how long something should take.

Most of you reading this right now will probably see the problem with this. In the writing community, we’re constantly reminding each other not to compare ourselves to other writers. We all have our abilities and strengths. Comparing yourself to another person in a different situation is harmful to our mental health.

On top of that, I was highly masking* at the time. I compared myself to neurotypical, able-bodied people and lamented that I couldn’t keep up with them. I had frequent meltdowns and burn outs because I was pushing myself too hard.

*Masking: To ‘mask’ or to ‘camouflage’ means to hide or disguise parts of oneself in order to better fit in with those around you.

Patterns

Once I accepted that I was disabled and neurodivergent, I stopped comparing myself. It was amazing for my mental health. Unfortunately, it’s not so amazing for goal setting still. 

I love numbers and patterns. Everything I do, I boil down to analyse the pattern or the number of things I’ve completed, like words written in a day. After a few days, I would create a spreadsheet based on the pattern or numbers and create a goal from that.

The problem was that I did this at my best. Feeling great, no overwhelm, no flare ups, I could pass as neurotypical or able-bodied. Then there would be too much stimulation. Or I’d have a flare up and be in excruciating pain. Or both. That goal that seemed so reasonable the day before, now seemed impossible.

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What are some of the best techniques you’ve found for setting goals as a neurodivergent person?

The Start

While browsing TikTok, as I do, I came across a planner for disabled people. It divided tasks into “good” days and not-so-good days. As you read in my time management post, I implemented that quite successfully.

It got me thinking. If it could work for completing things around the house, what if I used it for goals? I started analysing not just what I do on good days, but on medium and not-so-good days too.

The conclusion I made was to have three goals for whatever I want to accomplish and divide in tasks corresponding to them. 

How It Works

First, you figure out what you can do at your absolute best. Is it writing 2k a day? Reading a book in a day? Crocheting a foot a day in your pattern? (Yes, these are goals I’m working on.) You can take those best numbers, project to your end goal, and now you have your “best” goal end date or end completion (like 30 books a month).

Second, you figure out your medium amounts. Maybe you’re just a little fatigued or really busy. Project out to that end goal. Lastly, what can you accomplish when you’re feeling your worst? Project to that date.

Now you have three goals for one thing. What I love about this is if you feel awful for many days, you don’t need to be disappointed in yourself. You accounted for taking care of your body into that goal. On the other hand, if you feel awful and suddenly you feel great, you could move in your schedule from the not-so-good feeling goal to the medium goal or even the best goal. 

The goal posts could always change, but only for the better. If you set your goal posts for listening to your body and taking care of yourself, you won’t fail or disappoint yourself. But you could always surpass it and surprise yourself!

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Casey’s Neurodivergent Time Management Solution

What I suggest is to combine routines. If you pick your favourite parts of different routines you’ve tried, chances are that’ll work better for you than anybody else’s routine. Here’s how I made mine:

Have a Morning Routine

First, I have a specific time I wake up. It’s before the baby and dogs wake up, so I have time for myself, caffeine, and a quiet task, like reading or writing. 

Then, I have a morning block. I feed the baby, walk the dogs, and do a chore of the day. I’ve divided my days to have a specific chore so I don’t get overwhelmed by doing too much every day. Monday is dishes and cleaning the kitchen, Tuesday is laundry, etc. This ensures that even if I get distracted, I’m getting distracted in the same area and it’s working towards my goal. 

Usually, I finish the chore of the day before a scheduled lunch and dog walk. That gives me time to check with my husband if there was anything else he wanted done, play with my kid, or just simply relax. 

Schedule Your Mealtimes

Scheduling my lunch at a specific time helped me immensely. It provides a transition task. It also reminds me to eat. Like most neurodivergent folks, I’m not always aware of when I’m hungry and can often go hours without eating anything. Sometimes, eating lunch prevents the afternoon crash, sometimes it doesn’t, but I always feel better for eating either way. 

Plan Tasks For When You’re Feeling Good

For the afternoon block, I plan two sets of tasks, one for when I’m exhausted or having a flair up, the other for if I’m feeling great. Having small, easy to do tasks when I’m exhausted helps me to feel productive and not guilty for having my disabilities. On the other hand, having more complicated tasks for when I’m feeling great makes me feel like Superwoman. 

The evening block starts when my husband gets home from work. It’s a great transition moment for me because now there’s another person and everybody naturally transitions to different activities when he’s home. I’ve dedicated the evening block for me time, family time and dinner. It’s a perfect time to relax.

Every neurodivergent person needs to find what works for them, but I hope my example helps. The most helpful aspects for me were having tasks that happened at specific times, having blocks of times that were more flexible, and having transition activities to help me get from one task to another.