Before I started getting really sick, I was lucky enough to serve as a teaching assistant and student teacher in an elementary/middle school for two years.
That period of my life sometimes feels like a strange detour from what I started doing after college and what I’ve done off and on for the past four years, which is nonprofit work.
But I did learn a lot.
The most important lesson? Adults are not that different from young children.
This realization came into bold relief when I started running events for an academic organization. I noticed that most of the tools I was using to set up successful event spaces and schedules were the same tools I used with 2nd and 3rd graders: bold signs, clear and concise messaging, well-delineated transitions, and organized materials.
As time went on, I started having trouble with memory and concentration, and my energy envelope was too small for me to truly gain momentum on household chores and work tasks. I got frustrated.
Every time I forgot something, it was a reminder that my brain wasn’t operating the way it should be. Every time I didn’t complete a task because I had to ration my trips up and down stairs, I got a little bit pissed off. I was pretty hard on myself.
After a while, I recognized that willing myself to do things the way I always had wasn’t going to work anymore. And maybe that was a good thing. On the outside, I seemed highly organized, but inside I had always felt a little scattered and stretched a little too thin.
It also seemed cruel to treat myself in a way that I would never treat a student or child.
If a child keeps forgetting to put their folders into their cubby, you don’t lash out at them and say, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you just do this the way you should be doing it?”
It’s more effective (and kinder) to create a system for them so they’ll remember to do it. Will-power alone doesn’t usually work. You have to create reminders that are external, and over time—as the task becomes a habit—you may even be able to take away the external reminder or system.
This is exactly what I did for myself.
How did I do it?
- Daily task list: My first step was to create a Bullet Journal to schedule daily tasks and keep track of projects and notes. It was just a plain old brown notebook, but the system worked well for me, and I was able to tweak it to my own needs. It’s been 10 months, and I’m still using my Bullet Journal.
- Morning routine: Another change was a regimented morning routine. I knew that yoga and meditation did good things for my brain and health, but they were easily pushed aside once I got into the flow of the day. So, I put them on my schedule in the morning so I could get them out of the way. This has created a time slot where I can insert new things I’m trying to turn into habits.
- Visual reminders and organizing systems: This just meant taking my brain and putting it on paper or in a physical space. Keep forgetting to bring things upstairs or downstairs? Put a basket at the top and bottom, or hang a little chalkboard on each end to remind you what you need to do. I’m still in the process of doing this, because it does take some physical organizing that I don’t always have the energy for. But it’s one of my most wildly successful strategies.
The funny thing is, these aren’t just useful tools for me when I’m having memory and concentration problems, or when I’m feeling exhausted. They’ll be useful for the rest of my life. Especially when I have kids.
So, treat yourself like a kid. Not in a scary-teacher way, but in the way you wish all teachers and parents would treat their children. Help yourself out.