How to Get Ready, in N Recursive Steps

(That’s N for an unspecified number.)

Thank goodness I have that extra 15 minutes built into my morning routine, because I needed all of them today. It was one of those mornings when I’m amazed that I got out the door and where I’m going without having achieved some minor catastrophe. The whole ADHD routine would be quite comical were it not so damn typical.

Of course, there are a few people who “don’t believe in” AD/HD. And there are people who believe that it exists, but can’t quite get their brains wrapped around the whole How and Why of it. You know, What could possibly be so hard about something as straightforward as getting dressed, eating breakfast, and driving off to work?

Well, it’s like this:

I wake up, for the umpteenth time. This isn’t really part of the ADHD, but is reflective of crappy sleep due to hot flashes, combined with the fact that I’m one of those rare people who doesn’t need an alarm clock because I’ve one in my head. (That only sounds great until you realise that it means I get jetlag something dretful.) I’ve a headache because I forgot to wear my TMJ biteguard last night, plus, my joints ache. It’s hard to get out of bed, but after a while I have another hot flash, which is my cue to roll out of bed and get dressed before I get cold again. Toilet, deodorant, wash face — ooh, I’m having a rare case of “bed head” and need to wash my hair this morning, despite having washed it last night. I return to the bedroom for my bath towel, which I’d left behind on the rocking chair last time instead of hanging it back up in the bathroom.

Once I return to the bedroom, I realise I forgot to get my clothes sorted out the night before. I did remember to iron shirts then (finally, four days later on Thursday, tho’ Sunday would have been a better time), so I decide to wear a nice button-down shirt and jeans. Damn, I forgot to wash the laundry last night — I could have pulled those jeans from the basket and worn them again another day, except some soggy kitchen washrags were dumped on them, ditto smelly socks. That nixes the jeans idea.

I stand in front of the closet, staring at clothes. On an industrious day I’d actually organised articles into actual clusters for specific outfits, all neatly lined up. What to wear … No dresses; just can’t deal with pantyhose today, as my head hurts too much. Realising that reminds me that I need to eat breakfast soon so I can take some medicine. It’s going to be cool today, um … okay, I’ll wear a white turtleneck, plaid skirt and boots. I remove the sweater and skirt from hangers and toss the clothes onto the bed, making a cat jump off in annoyance. Rummage around in the dresser, and realise that I can’t find my white bra, and I can’t wear a jog-bra with a turtleneck because it gives me that stupid “uni-boob” effect. Oh, crap, back to Square One. Put turtleneck and skirt back on hangers and into closet. Okay, I’ll wear the black turtleneck and the other plaid skirt. Find black bra, but can’t find black tights. Oh for crying-out-loud … I see a baggy olive-green sweater (jumper) on the shelf, which I wear with a khaki shirt and brown corduroy pants. Rummage through dresser drawer to find once again the jog-bra, and grab panties (knickers) and socks. Finally I’m dressed. This is why I pick out clothes the night before.

Clothes, check.

Doing buttons reminds me that I need to take my meds, which in turn reminds me that I need to eat. My day is chock-full of these annoying But-Before chain reactions; I can’t just do something, but have to do something else first, and invariably will do the but-before yet forget the thing for which I was doing that antecedant. I amble stiff-kneed downstairs to the kitchen.

Oh thank goodness, I did remember to prep the coffeemaker the night before! I punch the Start button, and then stare at the pantry for a minute before deciding on a bowl of corn flakes. Before I can set the cereal bowl on the counter corner by the fridge to fetch the milk, I have to move my lunchbag aside. As a matter of habit, I put the lunchbag in the way (after removing the dirty dishes) as a prompt to myself to put food into it the next morning. Of course, it’s still half an hour before I have to leave, and I don’t want to let cold food sit out that long (in addition to the commute time), so I say aloud to myself, “I need to pack my lunch when I come back downstairs.” I grab a spoon and the bowl of cereal and start to head back upstairs to eat at my computer, when I realise that I forgot my coffee. Do a U-turn and pour coffee. Fetching the vanilla soymilk for the coffee makes me realise that I’m already running behind in my morning schedule, so I’d better get my lunch food packaged. I find a lidded bowl, scoop up some soup, and then set a carton of yogurt atop the soup lid so I don’t forget it. Feeling clever, I shut the refrigerator door on my packaged food, and then notice that the vanilla soymilk is still sitting on the counter. Sigh and open the fridge again to put it away. I grab my mug of coffee, and turn to head back to the stairs (again), but trip on the kitchen trash can in the middle of the kitchen floor — oh yeah, it’s there as a reminder to myself that today is Trash Day. I nudge the trash can out of the way and notice my bowl of cereal on the counter, grab it, and head back upstairs.

Breakfast, check.

All these little cues to myself, the placement of objects to jog my brain, are difficult habits to build. They have to be rational and inescapable, little “incompatible behaviours” that mean I if I’m doing A then I can’t do C until I first do B. They work great as long as I am successfully running through the little subroutines without getting distracted by D after I’ve done B but before I got to C. Unfortunately, I get distracted a lot. That’s one reason why routines are so important in my life; they are enabling, and without them I get discombobulated.

I scan my email subject lines, read a few blogs, and glance over the newspaper headlines to make sure nothing unusual has happened that I should know about in detail before evening. Satisfied that the rest of the world is bumping along in its usual dysfunctional way, I shut my laptop, knocking over the medicine bottles I’d left awkwardly close as a reminder, and wrestle with the lids to retrieve pills. Note to myself: ask pharmacist to not give me child-proof lids, especially not on the pain medication (I make this same mental note every morning, and uselessly never think of it again until the next morning).

I suddenly realise my feet are cold because I didn’t put my boots on yet. Where did I leave my boots last time? Find boots, put them on. I trip over my purse, which spills some of its contents, and repacking it reminds me to put my car key and such in my pants pockets. The car key in turn reminds me to grab my mobile phone on the bed-side book stack. Having put on my boots and packed my car key and mobile, then I notice my morning’s pills still huddled on the desktop, so I finally take my medication.

Meds, check.

Slurping the pills down with the last swallow of coffee reminds me to grab my dirty dishes. I pick them up and then trip over the dirty clothes dropped on the floor last night. I take the clothes to the laundry basket, and head downstairs with the dishes. Oh yeah, the trash can is still in the way. That cues me to go clean out the litter box, and I hand off the bag of trash to hubby, who’s heading out the door. Hooray, I remembered the trash and the cat litter!

Wow, I need to get going. Put on bomber jacket — where’s my fedora? Stop, think … oh yeah, I left it in the car last night because my hands were full. Oh! Hat — head — hair. Yikes, I still gotta wash my hair real quick! Take off jacket and leave it on the stairs, so I don’t have to hunt it down again. Grab towel from rocking chair, stand over the tub and use shower wand to shampoo hair really quick. Blow-dry hair. What time is it? I haven’t put on my watch yet … it’s in my purse, which reminds me to fetch my purse. Go back downstairs.

STOP. Luggage check. This is the other hard part of my routine. Remembering isn’t so hard, it’s the “remembering to remember” or remembering to stop and think and ask myself what it is I need to remember. I do the “pocket Macarena”, patting down each pocket to be sure I have what I need for the day: left pocket = pocket knife and index card with ToDo list, right pocket = car key and pen and little tin of balm (I’m trying to train myself to lubricate my torn cuticles instead of biting them). Balm is missing, stop, think … oh I bet I left it in a blazer pocket. Go back upstairs to fumble through blazers hanging in closet, find balm. Stop by the kid’s bedroom to say goodbye and make sure the teen hasn’t fallen back asleep or become willingly “trapped” under a mere nine pound kitty-cat. Back downstairs. I put on my jacket, pick up my purse and realise that I still have a hand free — yikes, forgot my lunch! Return to the kitchen to put the lidded bowl of soup and the yogurt carton in the lunch bag, and while returning the trash can to its proper space under the kitchen sink, notice the coffee maker is still on and flick it off. “Ooh, I’m-good, I’m-good.”

Luggage, check.

Finally I am out the door, and on the road to work. I have used up all of my 15-minute time buffer, and as long as I don’t run into more than one random traffic slow-down, I will still get to work on time. I am, by most anyone’s standard, an ADHD person who is coping successfully.

Then while at a stop light, I remember to dig my ID tag from my purse and clip it on.

A few miles later, I realise that last night I forgot to call someone back about scheduling me for a speaking engagement. At the next stoplight, I transfer the sticky-note with her phone number from my purse to a blank space on the dashboard above the radio controls. Hopefully next time I get into the car, I will notice it and call her before I leave. Because they are irregular events in my daily schedule, appointments and phone calls are two things that I have difficulty remembering; phone calls to make appointments are even worse.

Nearly at work, I realise, Damn, I got sidetracked too many times, and forgot to brush my teeth.


Earlier today there was a muffled holler from the bathroom as the kid called me, “MOM?!”


“Can you get me a towel?”  Once again, a nameless Someone had taken a bath and forgotten to check for towels first.

I pick up three towels scattered on the teen’s bedroom floor and deposit them in front of the bathroom door. “Hey, some people hang their towels back up in the bathroom when they’re done with them …”

“Who would do something like that?” he teased back.

Gee, wonder where he gets that from?


  1. excavator said,

    2 July 2008 at 19:01

    “My day is chock-full of these annoying But-Before chain reactions”

    It’s always such a relief to have a name put to these phenomena. It seems I stumble upon these things at every turn.

    ‘I can’t just do something, but have to do something else first, and invariably will do the but-before yet forget the thing for which I was doing that antecedant.”

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHA! Tears of joy and recognition.

    Somedays I just want to stay in bed with the covers pulled over my head. And then there’s that nagging feeling, always, that I’ve forgotten something…

  2. 29 February 2008 at 6:31

    […] on time makes things worse; the clumsiness increases. Even after finally getting ready one morning (in N-recursive steps, as usual), I have then been finally ready to go, had all my stuff together, had my car key in hand […]

  3. msphd said,

    13 November 2007 at 18:27

    yeesh, this post made me tired. I can see myself being this way except that I grew up learning to cope by using routines, and I try to make a habit of doing a major simplification a couple of times a year. I get up ~ 2 hours before I have to be at work, most days, to avoid the morning panic that tends to exacerbate the potential to forget lots of little things. And I make lists. LOTS of lists. Sticky notes tend not to work because I forget where I put them or they get lost in pants pockets (a la balm for cuticles).

    A few hints: I buy appliances (like the coffee maker) that turn themselves off automatically, and wash my hair every day (I always shower after breakfast, never before) just because it’s simpler to keep it in the routine, and brush my teeth while I’m in the shower because it just makes more sense to me to group it with washing everything else.

    I take my med & vitamin directly after breakfast, which I always sit down to eat, and I lay out the pills on a napkin while I’m eating since this helps alleviate the “did I take them already” problem. And so on.

    I also write notes with a white-board pen on my mirror, but like Ms. Clark I mostly ignore them for long periods of time, so unless I do the thing right away, it just stays up there for months (or even years).

    I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD but as an adult I’ve started to wonder if some of my problems in school were because I could never really focus on anything for very long. My coping strategies are so elaborate that it never really occurred to me that not everyone does this. I’m not particularly obsessive about it, they’re more like habits than compulsions, but I’m definitely more discombobulated when I travel. Again, I always just assumed that everyone felt that way, but maybe not.

  4. Kara said,

    29 October 2007 at 4:08

    lol! Love this post Andrea-can just see you running through your day…and you seriously reminded me to do my own laundry for tomorrow!
    P.S. Thanks so much for contributing to the carnival last week. I had a blast hosting it and have always enjoyed your blogs so I was really honored that you joined in on the fun.

    • Tisha said,

      15 November 2011 at 4:11

      In the comlpcieatd world we live in, it’s good to find simple solutions.

  5. Ms. Clark said,

    28 October 2007 at 6:22

    I use some of the same tricks you do. I tried one that I learned from you a few times and then forgot about it… it’s a great idea, writing notes on the bathroom mirror with a white-board erasable marker. I can’t remember now why I don’t do it any more. Maybe I misplaced the pen…

    Anyway, one of the scariest things about my distractability is that I take a pill or pills (OTC antihistamine or my one prescription) and put the lid back on, put the container back where I had it. Walk away, even a few steps, do something, and then turn back and look at the pill bottle and sometimes I can’t remember if I just took the pills. I remember that minutes before I had thought, “better take those pills”. But I can’t remember if I took them or not. Which is really creepy and scary because I don’t want to overdose by taking them again (in this case taking double the dose wouldn’t kill me, but it isn’t smart, even to take double the necessary dose of aspirin, when double is unecessary.)

    Usually, I can pick up the bottle and start to take off the lid and the sensory memory will be there, I can say, “yes, I just did this very recently” which tells me that I opened the lid in the minutes preceeding, but it’s still possible that I set the pills down somewhere on the counter and just can’t see them because I put a plate on top of them or something.

    I think I’m having small absence seizures, but I don’t have any evidence of it except for those small memory losses. I haven’t had anyone say that they tried to get my attention while I looked like I was checked out, and I haven’t had any big errors like putting the dog in the fridge or something in a post-ictal state. My dog wouldn’t fit and she wouldn’t cooperate anyway…. otherwise, maybe I would. I cook her food for her so maybe I’d get confused….

    Anyway… my sympathies for the frustration of things like getting ready and getting on your way and then remembering that you haven’t brushed your teeth. I have long hair that is messy when not brushed and I’ve gone out without brushing my hair in the not too distant past… a few times…

    I don’t really have much of a schedule because I start to feel too confined by too much of a schedule. It sort of feels like it’s mocking me if I have too many things to do and scheduled back to back, because I know I will fail somewhere… so I keep a loose schedule with lots of free time for the kind of “n= the number of recursive loops” things I do.

    I’ve found that sticking notes on the inside of my front door helps, I don’t do it very often, but for more or less life or death things that I must remember. My fridge is covered with reminders and they frequently don’t work. They all sort of blend into each other and become meaningless.

    As for laundry, I have to use a laudromat for the apt complex for washing (but I have a dryer and a rack for drying clothes on on the patio…). I regularly forget my laundry in the laundry room for a day, sometimes two. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any laundry thieves around.

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    28 October 2007 at 0:54

    Hah! The apartment I lived in didn’t have a chute — I had to remember to drop my trash into the bin in the parking lot. I lived on the upper floor, so by the time I got downstairs and passed the bin, it was essentially too late, as I wasn’t going to bother returning upstairs to fetch the trash, especially when I was usually leaving just barely on time, if that.

    To remind myself I learned to simply set the bag in front of the door, where it was impossible to miss when I left each morning. (I stuck with using plastic grocery bags for my trash as they were free, and keeping things small required removing it daily, which kept things from getting unduly smelly.) That worked because the apartment had but the one door. My house has doors to the front stoop as well as the garage, so setting something in front of the door only works if I don’t leave by the other door …

  7. 27 October 2007 at 20:18

    Are you sure you aren’t channeling someone else? Like, say, me, fer instance? :-)

    We don’t have garbage days (in an apartment building you have to dump things down the chute yourself, but on your own schedule, much to the peril of people with ADD everywhere) — but if we did, I’d probably “remind” myself in much the same fashion as you do here. Another option would be to put the garbage out the night before. Though that, too, requires remembering.

    Two other posts on the web that have also resonnated with me (though these are written by a woman with autism, not ADHD):

    How to boil water the EASY way


    How to make a phone call, in 70 easy steps

  8. 27 October 2007 at 17:48

    Sooo familiar…. Good to know I’m not the only one!

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